COVID-19 numbers skyrocket, but ‘we’re likely near our peak’

Sharp spike in state numbers reflects backlogged reporting as well as omicron spread

By: - January 19, 2022 4:53 pm
Vaccine government site

COVID-19 Vaccination Site (U.S. Government Accountability Office)

After a series of record-breaking COVID-19 reports, Wisconsin’s case numbers have eased in recent days, although they remain well above the peak in the first year of the pandemic.

The recent spike in numbers was the result of the continuing spread of the omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. But it also reflected a change in how the state records and posts its COVID-19 data.

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) reported Wednesday that the state added 12,909 new cases to its database on Tuesday. That followed three days of five-digit new case counts: 14,953 on Monday, 38,050 on Sunday, and 12,770 on Saturday. Since the start of the pandemic, nearly 1.24 million Wisconsin residents have been infected with the virus.

The weekend spikes were partly because DHS has switched to automatically importing records of positive COVID-19 tests into its database. DHS announced last week that it had made the change so that local and tribal health departments could more easily report the sharp increase in positive tests for the virus.

In the process, a backlog of case reports were added to the database, making the data “temporarily elevated,” DHS said.

In response to the continued spread, the Milwaukee Common Council passed an ordinance Tuesday requiring people age 3 or older to wear masks in indoor public spaces, and Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson said that he expected to sign the measure.

Milwaukee-based business groups were critical of the ordinance, which passed the council on a 12-1 vote. Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce President Tim Sheehy warned of the risk that a business reported to be in violation could face a threat of losing its license, the Milwaukee Business Journal reported.

But Johnson told reporters Tuesday in a joint city-county briefing on COVID-19 Tuesday that if a mask ordinance was to replace the city’s existing health advisory which urges masking, he advocated for it “to be focused on education and not be punitive.” He noted approvingly that the ordinance expires March 1.

Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson of Milwaukee (City of Milwaukee website photo)

“We should be working to make sure that we’re educating folks on vaccines,” Johnson said. “We should be pushing people towards education, and vaccinations, vaccinations, vaccinations.” He said widespread vaccination would reduce symptoms of COVID-19 as well as the pressure on hospitals.

The city health department will rely on voluntary compliance with the ordinance. “We’re heavily focused on testing and vaccination efforts, and so at this time we do not have the capacity to enforce it,” said Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson, who noted that the ordinance does not impose fines for violations. The department will collect reports from callers, “but that is the most that we can do right now.”

Dr. Ben Weston, chief medical advisor for Milwaukee County, said at the same briefing that the rate of positive tests in the county — 28.3% as of Tuesday — has started to show a decline, although it still remains high. 

Hospitals remain “at critically high capacity, putting severe strain on our health systems,” Weston said, and deaths have been rising, he added.

Statewide, the Wisconsin Hospital Association reported Wednesday that 95% of intensive care unit beds in the state are full, with COVID-19 patients accounting for slightly over one-third of those.

Dr. Ben Weston
Dr. Ben Weston (Medical College of Wisconsin photo)

Weston said that based on what is happening in surrounding states, “we’re likely near our peak from this current surge,” although hospitalizations and deaths will take longer to decline. 

In the meantime, however, he urged continued caution to protect children under 5 who cannot yet be vaccinated, people with compromised immune systems and others particularly vulnerable to the virus from becoming infected.

“You have to be cautious,” Weston said, “to distance, to mask indoors with high-quality masks.” Public health officials recommend using N95 or KN95 masks and ensuring that they fit snugly and securely to be most effective. 

And when the current surge eases in the weeks ahead, “we need to regroup, reevaluate, to follow the data, and to learn from this variant and this last surge — increase our vaccination rate locally and globally,” Weston said. “That’s how we end the pandemic.”

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor 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.