Health officials underscore need for masks, other measures as COVID-19 surges

In-person school is one reason, but not the only one. ‘Transmission is everywhere’

By: - September 23, 2021 10:55 am
Hospital statistics on theater marquee

The marquee outside the Riverside Theatre in Milwaukee on Sept. 20, 2021. The Pabst Theatre Group tweeted the image with the plea, “Please Get Vaccinated” and a link to the a Milwaukee web page for vaccination locations. (Photo courtesy of Pabst Theatre Group)

The latest COVID-19 surge hasn’t peaked, and increased vaccination, masks, physical distancing and avoiding crowds remain essential if Wisconsin is to reduce the spread sooner rather than later, health officials said Wednesday.

Karen Timberlake will take over as interim secretary at the state Department of Health Services.
Karen Timberlake, DHS secretary designee

The burgeoning caseload and the strain that comes with it “are all due to the highly contagious delta variant [of the coronavirus] that we’ve been talking about and combating for weeks now,” said Karen Timberlake, secretary-designee of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS), at an agency briefing Wednesday. “And that’s why it’s really important that we increase the urgency of our focus on what we know works to protect all of us against the delta variant.”

Almost 3.1 million Wisconsin residents are completely vaccinated, about 53% of the population, said Timberlake. Still the spread of the virus that began in early summer is continuing. 

There are now more than 707,000 people in the state who have been infected with the virus since the start of the pandemic. By Wednesday, the state had recorded an average of 2,857 new cases a day for the last seven days — nearly twice the seven-day average logged two weeks previously, and a 123% increase from a month ago. The number of confirmed deaths from COVID-19 has now reached 7,854.

Dr. Ryan Westergaard, Chief Medical Officer with the Dept. of Health Services and UW Associate Professor in the Department of Medicine. (Photo: UW-Madison faculty)
Dr. Ryan Westergaard

The death rate is likely to rise as the number of cases increase, said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer in the DHS bureau of communicable diseases. While vaccination makes the risk of death lower, the increased transmission of the delta variant will produce more cases, and more hospitalizations and deaths, “until we get cases as low as we can.” 

About 5% of the state’s hospital beds and 5% of intensive care unit beds are available, Timberlake said, and hospitals as well as long-term care providers are reporting that staff are in short supply.

Wednesday’s DHS COVID-19 briefing was the agency’s first since the start of the school year Sept. 1. As school has resumed in person this fall, children have been an increasing share of those who have tested positive for the coronavirus. Those ages 11 and younger are not yet eligible for the vaccine. 

That underscores the importance of taking steps in schools and elsewhere to curb the spread, Timberlake said.

“What we need to remember is that kids live in families and families live in communities,” she said. Whether or not they show severe symptoms, children who are infected can spread it to family members and friends who might not be vaccinated. And some children can develop a rare but serious subsequent condition, multisystem inflammatory syndrome, she added.

To keep children safe in school and to ensure that teachers, staff, family members and community residents also stay safe from the pandemic, “we have to use all of the tools in our toolbox to combat COVID-19,” Timberlake said — including vaccinations for children 12 or older, and vaccinations “for everyone who is working with kids, especially younger kids who are not eligible to be vaccinated.”

Students, teachers, childcare workers, school staff and visitors — vaccinated or not — need to wear masks consistently, she added. She called masking “actually the only thing that can be done universally to protect kids of all ages from contracting COVID-19 and potentially spreading it to the vulnerable people in their lives.”

In response to a question, Timberlake acknowledged that state Supreme Court decisions over the course of the pandemic had led to “some restrictions on state authority” to mandate measures such as masking that DHS, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have been recommending, particularly for schools, since earlier in the summer. But she emphasized the role local officials have played in trying to carry out those recommendations.

“What’s also true is that we have a lot of really hard work being done across our state — with local school officials, with local public health leaders, with groups of parents and other community leaders who understand what it takes to operate schools safely,” Timberlake said. While the agency offers guidance and help where needed, she continued, “we are really relying on those local decision makers to make sure that they are adopting strategies that are going to work to keep kids and vulnerable adults in the community safe. We know what works, the tools are available. And we really do need people to pick up the tools in the toolbox and use them.”

In-person school, extracurricular activities, sports and other school-related gatherings help explain the rise in school-related outbreaks compared with a year ago. But Westergaard stressed that wasn’t the only source of the new surge.

“It’s not solely the issue of schools that’s driving transmission,” he said. “We really have a generalized epidemic. Transmission is currently everywhere. Everywhere that people gather, we can lower the risk by doing these layered prevention strategies — and the message is that we can and should.”

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.

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