A mask mandate sign posted on the front door of a Madison restaurant. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)
A week into September and a new school year, the COVID-19 pandemic in Wisconsin is continuing to dig in.
Every indicator of the spread of the coronavirus, still driven by the more virulent delta variant, is up, according to state and local public health agencies, continuing a new surge of infections that began in July and gained steam in August.
Vaccinations have increased in recent weeks as well, accompanied by a temporary $100 gift card incentive program from the state. The number of shots in Wisconsin topped 69,000 the week of Aug. 22 and 70,000 the week of Aug. 29, a record that hasn’t been reached since June, according to the state Department of Health Services (DHS). Out of the total population, including children under 12, who aren’t yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, 52.1% of Wisconsin residents are now fully vaccinated.
State health officials, who previously had set a vaccination target of 80% of the population, have now recommended a higher threshold for so-called herd immunity, in part because of the delta variant’s more rapid spread.
In Washington, D.C., President Joe Biden announced new federal initiatives Thursday to gain control over the resurgent virus, including vaccine mandates for federal employees as well as for employers with more than 100 people.
Effective at 12:01 a.m. Friday morning, a health order takes effect in Dane County extending and slightly modifying the county’s mask mandate issued in August.
The county’s 70% vaccination rate leads the state, but its COVID-19 case rate is still climbing, according to Public Health Madison & Dane County. The seven-day average for new daily cases rose 382% between July 19 and Aug. 12, reaching almost 92 new cases on average per day. Although less dramatically, it continued to rise in the weeks that followed, climbing 13% from Aug. 12 to Sept. 4, when it stood at nearly 104 per day.
The new Dane County order, which runs until Oct. 8, adds a new series of exemptions in response to protests from performing arts organizations that the previous order made no allowances for actors, musicians or others making public presentations that might be impeded by masks.
Musicians playing wind instruments will need to put a fabric cover over the bell of the instrument under the new order, which also makes exceptions for presenters speaking or performing for “religious, political, media, educational, artistic, cultural, musical, or theatrical” events.
Statewide, DHS reported that on average over the last seven days, 7.9% of COVID-19 tests are positive. The average daily positive test rate has hovered around 8% since the start of September.
The seven-day average for newly diagnosed infections was 1,496 per day as of Wednesday, according to DHS.
COVID-19 deaths are also increasing, albeit at a much slower rate than in previous surges. On Wednesday, DHS reported that the seven-day average for COVID-19 deaths in the state reached 11 per day, a rate not seen since mid-February.
Hospitalizations in the state are climbing steadily, and intensive care unit beds are filling up.
The Wisconsin Hospital Association (WHA) reported Thursday that 1,071 people were being treated as inpatients for COVID-19. That is nearly halfway to the peak number of hospitalizations for COVID-19 — 2,277 patients — that Wisconsin reached in mid-November 2020.
This time, 317 people, nearly 30% of the current patients, are in intensive care, compared with 20% last November. According to the WHA, across the state 93% of all ICU beds are full (including with patients hospitalized for conditions other than COVID-19).
In La Crosse, Gundersen Clinic opened additional rooms for COVID-19 patients after its designated COVID-19 unit filled up, the La Crosse Tribune reported.
As in the fall of 2020, the pandemic’s new surge is again making it difficult to keep up for teams of health workers who follow up on people diagnosed with COVID-19.
An announcement from Marathon County’s health department Thursday said the county’s COVID-19 response workers “are critically over capacity and are looking to the community to follow the recommended guidance to stop the spread.”
Contact tracing includes connecting with people who have tested positive, counseling them to isolate for 10 days in order to avoid spreading the virus, and collecting the names of close contacts. Contact tracers advise close contacts of their possible exposure and urge them to seek a test and to quarantine for up to 14 days.
The Marathon County announcement said that while the health department would try to make those connections, county residents who test positive should not wait to hear from the agency. Instead, it urged people “to begin isolation if you have a positive test or begin quarantine if you know that you are a close contact of someone who has COVID-19.”
And in Wausau, the Marathon County seat, a group of local parents took out a newspaper advertisement calling on the city’s school district to communicate with the group and to institute a mask mandate.
Amid the continued spread, Thursday marked the first day in 18 months that the Wisconsin Supreme Court held in-person oral arguments in the state Capitol. The state’s highest court shifted to holding virtual arguments in March 2020 shortly after the pandemic was first declared.
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