Labs in state work to identify more coronavirus samples for variants

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    With growing evidence that variants of the novel coronavirus are spreading in the state, Wisconsin labs are increasing the number of test samples that they subject to genetic sequencing in order to look for those mutations, state health officials said Thursday.

    The percentage of test samples being subjected to that analysis wasn’t immediately available Thursday, but the task is getting more attention, according to Tracy DeSalvo, director of the Bureau of Communicable Diseases at the state Department of Health Services (DHS).

    “There’s a significant effort nationwide to really ramp up the sequencing of COVID-19 specimens,” DeSalvo said Thursday. “And we certainly have been doing that as well here in Wisconsin.”

    Wisconsin public health officials have been watching the emergence of coronavirus variants, such as one first identified in England, because they appear to spread more easily and may lead to more severe disease.

    The spread of mutant versions of the virus is one reason that DHS has been accelerating its vaccine program. Starting Monday, March 22, the department is adding to the list of eligible vaccine recipients people 16 and older with specific health conditions that have made them more vulnerable to the virus.

    The federal pharmacy-based vaccination program is also expanding to more outlets, DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk told reporters during a DHS briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic and the vaccine program. Walmart drugstore locations and drugstores affiliated with the Hometown Pharmacy network in Wisconsin will be joining Walgreens and Kroger/Roundy’s drugstores in offering vaccines.

    At the same time, DHS, local public health authorities and University of Wisconsin System campuses have been adding more community and mass vaccination sites, she said, and additional ones are planned around the state. DHS-affiliated sites, including locations set up in conjunction with the federal government, are listed on the DHS vaccine web page.

    Local consortia have also begun to set up mass vaccination clinics, such as one at Lambeau Field in Green Bay that the Brown County Health Department, the Green Bay Packers and Bellin Health Systems opened on Wednesday.

    DHS also reported Thursday that it has been updating its data reports on COVID-19 in the state, leading to a sharp increase in the number of deaths that were associated with long-term care facilities over the course of the pandemic.

    The state’s data is supplied by local and tribal health departments, Van Dijk said. Because a larger number of deaths were recorded in which the residence information of the individual was omitted, for 46% of COVID-19 deaths, the residence was listed as “unknown” until this week, she said.

    The DHS Division of Quality Assurance, which regulates long-term care facilities in the state, last week began began reviewing records in the disease surveillance database and was able to connect about half of those unknown deaths with long-term care facilities. As a result, the DHS updated the deaths in long-term care to 45% and reduced the percentage of deaths with an “unknown” residence to 26%.

    The change did not alter the state’s overall number of confirmed deaths from COVID-19, which on Thursday stood at 6,556.

    Erik Gunn
    Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with 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.