COVID-19 cases on the rise again amid concerns about vaccine misinformation

By: - July 21, 2021 10:09 pm
A Department of Health and Human Services employee holds a COVID-19 vaccine record card. (DoD photo by EJ Hersom)

A Department of Health and Human Services employee holds a COVID-19 vaccine record card. (E.J. Harsom | U.S. Dept. of Defense)

Positive tests for COVID-19 are continuing to increase, according to the latest data from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS). And while vaccinations are increasing, too, they are doing so at a much slower rate.

Nationally, cases have been increasing as well, while vaccination rates have also been lagging, according to public health reports.

In a nationwide call Wednesday sponsored by the organization Protect Our Care, speakers warned that misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine’s effectiveness and safety was stalling progress in getting more people vaccinated and contributing to a new increase in infections.

“The people that are getting sick and going to the hospital and dying in 2021 is almost entirely preventable,” said former White House COVID-19 policy advisor Andy Slavitt, one of the speakers on the call.

“We are in a very, very worrisome phase right now,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, a public health researcher at Johns Hopkins University. After having made “important strides” in helping people get vaccinated, “our rollout of the vaccine is meeting a tremendous amount of resistance,” Nuzzo said, made worse by the spread of the Delta variant, which is much more easily transmitted.

“Even high vaccination states have counties that have low vaccination coverage,” Nuzzo said, where outbreaks are likely, and that could lead to more serious illness and deaths.

"Ron Johnson" by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
“Ron Johnson” by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 CC BY-SA 2.0

Nuzzo, Slavitt and others on the news conference call said they were not criticizing people who were genuinely uncertain or reluctant to get a vaccine, but rather political and media figures who were spreading false information for their own purposes.

Also on the call was Jeff Huebner, a Madison family practitioner, who has treated patients with COVID-19 and also heard from patients who were uncertain about the vaccine. Huebner said he has had fruitful conversations with some patients and helped them work through concerns.

But, he said, he is concerned about the reach of false messages about the vaccine.

“Patients are sometimes experiencing and reading misinformation that’s being amplified, very irresponsibly, in the social media ecosphere, but also by some politicians, including Sen. [Ron] Johnson here in Wisconsin,” Huebner said.

In Wisconsin, as of Tuesday, an average of 2.8% of COVID-19 tests a day over the last seven days was positive, DHS reported Wednesday. The seven-day average positive test rate has doubled over the previous 11 days, from 1.4% positive on July 9.

Public health practitioners calculate a seven-day average to smooth out day-to-day fluctuations and more clearly see the trend and trajectory of the disease.

Disease activity across the state is increasing as well, according to DHS data that is updated weekly. Activity combines the case burden — how many cases there are per 100,000 residents — and trajectory — whether the number of cases is growing, shrinking, or staying the same.

In the two weeks from June 23 to July 6, DHS rated the disease activity “high” in just two Wisconsin counties, “low” in 18 counties and “medium” in the remaining 52 counties. For the two-week period from July 7 to July 20, activity was high in 29 counties, low in just five counties and medium in 38 counties.

According to DHS, 48.9% of Wisconsin residents are now fully vaccinated, while 51.2% have had at least one dose of a vaccine.

Hospitalization rates are also increasing in parts of the state. In the Fox Valley, COVID hospitalizations have risen 500% between July 7 and July 20, DHS reported, while in southeastern Wisconsin, hospitalizations are up 36% in the same period.

Deaths from COVID-19 have not increased, however. DHS reported that daily deaths have been fluctuating in the low single digits, with seven-day averages moving between zero and two per day.


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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.