Pandemic remains active as the holidays begin
Too many still haven’t gotten a COVID-19 vaccine, public health officials warn
Marco Verch | Flickr CC BY 2.0
On the eve of Thanksgiving 2021, COVID-19 remains rampant in Wisconsin and most of the country.
It was supposed to be different, with not just one but three vaccines introduced early this year. But the slow movement of vaccine uptake, despite the expansion of groups eligible for the shot, made room for the much more virulent delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that first launched the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now the virus is surging once again as the holiday season that spans the final six weeks of the year begins Thursday with Thanksgiving. Public health officials are urging, once again, that anyone who has not been vaccinated yet take steps to start the process — and that those who have been vaccinated get a booster shot when they become eligible.
“We’re not even close to out of the woods — we are deep in the woods,” said Dr. Ben Weston of the Medical College of Wisconsin and chief health policy advisor for Milwaukee County, at the county’s weekly COVID-19 briefing on Tuesday.
When counting the rate of COVID-19 cases compared with the population, “Wisconsin is the sixth worst state in the country,” Weston said. “We have more cases per day than at any other point that we’ve seen in 2021.”
As of Monday, according to data reported by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS), the state logged 3,148 new cases a day on average over the previous seven days. The state’s last peak seven-day average for new cases was Jan. 8, 2021, at 2,973.
We’re not even close to out of the woods — we are deep in the woods.
– Dr. Ben Weston, Milwaukee County health advisor
“The bottom line is that we do not have enough people vaccinated,” Weston said.
Daily death rates from COVID-19 have been hovering around 15 per day on average, according to DHS.
“Any death from COVID at this point is very preventable because of the vaccines and other mitigation measures that we have in place or have available to us,” said Darren Rausch, health officer for the Milwaukee suburb of Greenfield.
Hospitalizations rise again
The Wisconsin Hospital Association reported Tuesday that there are currently 1,250 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 across the state — a number last seen in December 2020. Half of the state’s hospitals are at peak capacity, according to DHS.
“The hospital systems are facing another surge in many communities and the capacities are reaching their limits,” University of Wisconsin epidemiologist Ajay Sethi tells the Wisconsin Examiner. “And it’s not going to get better in the next couple of weeks.”
Across the state, 16 counties are now showing a “critically high” spread of the virus, according to data that DHS updated on Nov. 17. That’s double the number of counties where the spread was that high nearly two weeks ago. (The next update will be released Wednesday.)
Even Dane County, where the vaccination rate has been among the highest for counties in the nation at more than 72%, is now showing “very high” virus activity.
On Tuesday, Public Health Madison & Dane County (PHMDC) announced that when the current order requiring masks indoors outside of the home expires on Saturday, Nov. 27, a new one will take its place to run until Jan. 3.
The change reverses the plan that the county’s health director, Janel Heinrich, announced Nov. 1 when the current order was issued.
“We had hoped to not issue any more face-covering orders but in the last three weeks, our rate of disease in the community has nearly doubled, the rate among children is at an all-time high and in other parts of the state, cases are even higher,” Heinrich stated. “With the holiday travel season upon us, [the new order] provides more time for those who are newly eligible to get their first and second doses and for more adults to get booster doses.”
The new order adds an exception, allowing people gathered indoors to remove masks if everyone is fully vaccinated.
Unvaccinated people of any age are most at risk for the virus and for the most severe effects from COVID-19, including hospitalization and death. But with children ages 5 to 11 only recently becoming eligible, their rates of infection are exceeding older groups, according to DHS data.
In the first week of November, children ages 9-13 were diagnosed at a rate of 490 per 100,000 in that age group. For 4- to 8-year-olds, the rate of new cases in that week was 412 per 100,000. Case rates for older age groups were markedly lower.
If you're unvaccinated, you're really vulnerable to having a severe case of COVID.
– Ajay Sethi, UW-Madison
Now, as more children ages 5 to 11 get vaccinated, “I think we’ll see a further shift of the transmission to kids who are under 5, who are not even eligible for a vaccination,” Sethi says. “That’s why it’s important for the rest of us to keep those exceptionally vulnerable kids protected by getting vaccinated ourselves.”
Even when there are break-through cases of infections among vaccinated people, the COVID-19 vaccines have shown themselves to be very effective in reducing the risk of more serious disease.
“This is a vaccine that protects against hospitalization and death,” Sethi says. “And if you’re unvaccinated, you’re really vulnerable to having a severe case of COVID.”
In the Milwaukee County briefing, Weston offered advice to families preparing to gather for Thanksgiving and the holidays to follow.
- Vaccination: “If you’re not already vaccinated, get that first dose on board as soon as possible,” Weston said. Fully vaccinated people whose last shot was six months ago, for the Pfizer or Moderna two-shot series, or two months ago, for the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, are now eligible for a booster shot and should get one, he added. “The added protection from that booster is substantial, so get it today.”
- Testing: Weston recommended that people purchase the over-the-counter rapid COVID-19 tests that have become available. The morning of a gathering, every participant should take the test; people who test positive should stay home.
- Ventilation: Open a window, Weston said; people whose homes are equipped with ventilation systems that include HEPA filters should turn them on.
- Masking: In any group where not everyone is fully vaccinated, Weston said, masking can further reduce the risk of spreading the virus.
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