Health department suggests COVID-19 caution heading into Memorial Day weekend

By: - May 27, 2022 6:25 am
FORT KNOX, KY: The masked faces of the Honor Guard can be seen as they stand in a row during a Memorial Day ceremony at the Fort Knox Main Post Cemetery on May 31, 2021 in Fort Knox, Kentucky. The cemetery is burial ground to 967 U.S. Military personnel, foreign personnel, civilian dependents, POWs, and Unknowns. The ceremony also commemorated the centennial of the first soldier buried in the cemetery in 1921. (Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

The masked faces of the Honor Guard can be seen as they stand in a row during a Memorial Day ceremony at the Fort Knox Main Post Cemetery on May 31, 2021 in Fort Knox, Kentucky. The cemetery is burial ground to 967 U.S. Military personnel, foreign personnel, civilian dependents, POWs, and Unknowns. (Jon Cherry | Getty Images)

With a three-day Memorial Day holiday weekend coming up, the state health department is warning Wisconsin residents to pay attention to COVID-19 risks where they live or where they will be visiting. 

Gather outdoors as much as possible and wear masks indoors in areas where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported a “high community level” for COVID-19, said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer for the communicable disease bureau at the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS).

The CDC’s community level map, updated late Thursday, showed that 10 counties in Wisconsin have a high community level of COVID-19. The rating combines county case rates for the virus along with hospital capacity. 

Individual county community levels for COVID-19 in Wisconsin. COVID-19 Community Levels were calculated 5/26/2022. New COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population (7-day total) are calculated 5/19/2022 to 5/25/2022. New COVID-19 hospital admissions per 100,000 population (7-day total) and Percent of inpatient beds occupied by COVID-19 patients (7-day average) are calculated using data from 5/18/2022 through 5/24/2022. (Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

The latest figures appear to be an improvement from a week ago, when 18 counties had a high community level. 

Under the community level assessment system, the CDC recommends that in counties with a high level, everyone should wear a mask when gathering indoors with others outside the person’s household.

“In a high transmission community, the more people who wear masks, the better,” Westergaard told reporters in an online briefing Thursday. 

The current trajectory of the virus isn’t clear, he said. Up to now, COVID-19 infections have been rising since mid-April, attributed largely to sub-variants of the variant referred to as omicron, which led to a steep spike in cases starting late last year and peaking in the first week of  January. 

The new variants are much more easily transmitted, Westergaard said. So far the recent upswing in cases is much less dramatic. Nevertheless, the current COVID-19 test data collected by DHS doesn’t include the results of home tests, he said, so it probably undercounts the real case level in the state.

Westergaard said public health providers hope that the current wave will be milder than past ones. “But at the same time, we want people to be cautious,” he said. 

Even where transmission is lower, masking can reduce the risk of getting COVID, influenza or other illnesses, he added. But with COVID activity still high heading into the weekend than it has been, he advised people to “pay more attention to it and consider wearing masks if you’re in one of those areas where there’s a lot going around.”

A person who feels symptoms of illness should stay home and take a home COVID-19 test, Westergaard said. People also should consider taking a home test before they go to a gathering, he added.

People who have risk factors for more severe disease and who test positive for COVID-19 also qualify for antiviral drugs that are now being used to combat the infection — drugs that were not available a year ago, Westergaard said.

Since the start of the pandemic more than two years ago, he said, holiday gatherings have heightened the risk of transmitting the virus. With nice weather that encourages people to spend more time outdoors, and with more people who have been vaccinated as well as some who have been infected and have a short-term immunity, Westergaard said people can safely meet for Memorial Day weekend events if they take precautions. 

DHS is advising people who haven’t gotten vaccinated for COVID-19 yet to begin the process. People who have been vaccinated but not received a booster should do so as soon as they are eligible, and if they’ve been boosted once and qualify for a second booster, should get that as well, according to the DHS recommendations.

DHS and the CDC have said that people age 50 or older qualify for a second booster five months after the first one, as do people 12 or older who have a compromised immune system.

The ability of vaccines to prevent an initial infection has diminished, according to DHS, but they still remain a key protection against serious disease and its effects, including hospitalization and death. New data from the department show that in April, unvaccinated Wisconsin residents with COVID-19 were twice as likely to go to the hospital and seven times as likely to die as COVID-19 patients who were vaccinated.

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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.