Health department renews vaccine call with COVID-19 uptick, looming flu season

By: - August 23, 2023 5:45 pm
A Covid-19 vaccine vial and a syringe (Getty Images)

A Covid-19 vaccine vial and a syringe (Getty Images)

As summer vacation nears its end and students start back to school, health care providers are bracing for a return of respiratory viruses — especially the flu and COVID-19.

After a largely quiescent summer COVID-19 is beginning to rise again, nationally and in Wisconsin, according to the state health department. 

Ryan Westergaard, M.D.
Ryan Westergaard, M.D., Wisconsin Dept. of Health Services

“COVID has never stopped continuing to spread,” Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer for the Bureau of Communicable Diseases at the state Department of Health Services (DHS), said in a media briefing Wednesday. Just as influenza and colds increase in the fall and winter when people are more likely to gather indoors, COVID-19 infections are likely to grow more common in the coming weeks, he said.

In anticipation, public health providers are urging people to ramp up vaccines both for the flu and COVID-19, as well as RSV — respiratory syncytial virus, an illness that can be especially harmful to infants. One RSV vaccine in development is intended for expectant mothers late in pregnancy to help protect them and their newborns. 

The number of Wisconsin residents getting a flu vaccine has been falling, Westergaard said, with less than 40% of the population eligible getting the shot last year. “That leaves over 60% of people not as well protected from a potentially severe infection [as] they could be,” he said.

For COVID-19, a new shot formulated to target the currently circulating varieties of SARS-cov-2, the virus responsible for the illness, is tentatively planned for release about Oct. 1. 

Three and a half years after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, “I think life has returned to normal,” Westergaard said. “But there’s still a viral threat of respiratory disease that we didn’t have five years ago. And so the new normal is to treat this as one of the things that can make us sick and to use the tools that are available to prevent disease.” 

Vaccines are “the most important” of those tools, he said, but they also include thinking about how to guard against the spread of virus in other ways.

Westergaard said widespread masking is not necessary for most people under current conditions. But people 60 or older as well as people with chronic heart and lung illness or weakened immunity, such as cancer patients and organ transplant recipients, are all particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. They can reduce their risk by wearing a mask in an indoor crowd, particularly if illness is spreading in their community, he said. And he recommended that ill people stay home instead of going to work or school. 

“COVID is here. It’s here to stay,” Westergaard said. “And if people know … the things that they can do to prevent themselves from getting very, very sick, they should do that.”

Hospitalizations and emergency room visits by patients with COVID-19 have increased significantly in five of Wisconsin’s seven public health regions over the last couple of weeks, Westergaard said. Wastewater surveillance also shows a mild to moderate increase in the spread of the virus. Both measures remain below the levels Wisconsin saw in 2022, however.

Hospitalization data and wastewater surveillance are becoming the primary tools to measure COVID-19 in the community. In September DHS will stop posting individual case counts as the department changes how it tracks COVID-19.

Because most people with COVID-19 either take a test at home or don’t take one at all, “those daily case counts don’t give a very accurate indication of how much COVID disease is spreading in the community,” Westergaard said.

Wastewater sampling for virus genetic material was pioneered during the COVID-19 pandemic. “It reflects a broad sample of the community that doesn’t rely on people going in for tests,” Westergaard said, and public health agencies hope to expand the use of the technology to monitor other communicable diseases.


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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.