MILWAUKEE — The story looks familiar: Another fall turns into winter. Another pandemic holiday approaches. And, in Wisconsin, another spike in COVID-19 cases gets underway.
What You Need To Know
- COVID-19 infections are back on the rise in Wisconsin after an October lull, reaching their highest level since last winter's surge
- Hospitals are feeling the strain, with more than 90% of all hospital beds and 95% of ICU beds full
- Tens of thousands of kids 5 to 11 have gotten their first doses since COVID-19 vaccines opened up for them, and all U.S. adults have started to get their booster shots
- DHS officials recommend taking precautions during holiday gatherings, like rapid testing and ventilation, to prevent the spread amid the latest spike
“Of course, we can’t predict the future. But the trend we’re seeing, I would say from last week to this week, is very concerning,” state epidemiologist Dr. Ryan Westergaard said at a Department of Health Services briefing last week. “The slope of the curve looks similar to what we saw last fall.”
After the delta variant fueled a steep surge, Wisconsin had seen a lull in infections in October. Over the past couple weeks, though, that trend has turned right back around, raising concerns about another tough winter with the virus.
With better treatment and COVID-19 vaccines — now including booster shots and doses for younger kids — “We’d hope the peak isn’t nearly as high” as last year, Westergaard said. But the trends are concerning as we head into a season of holiday gatherings and big family meals.
Here, we break down the latest updates on the ongoing pandemic in the Badger State.
Infection rates jump once again
Wisconsin’s daily case average has shot back up even higher than when the delta variant first hit the state, according to DHS data. That puts us at the highest infection counts since last December.
Since Halloween, the daily average has increased almost 70%, per DHS data.
“We’re seeing daily numbers that we haven’t seen since the end of 2020,” Westergaard said.
Wisconsin isn’t alone in these concerning trends. Across the country, cases are ticking back up again — and our Midwest neighbors of Michigan and Minnesota have seen some of the sharpest rises, according to a New York Times tracker. Wisconsin is currently the sixth worst state in terms of new cases per capita, acording to the tracker.
Across the globe, even some highly vaccinated countries, like Germany, are seeing “skyrocketing” infections, said Dr. Ben Weston, chief health policy advisor for Milwaukee County, at a briefing last week.
Winter weather may play a role in helping the virus spread — especially as people turn to indoor activities that have a higher risk of transmission. And the current trends don’t bode well as we head into a season of holiday gatherings, Darren Rausch, director of the Greenfield Health Department, said at a briefing.
We’ll need to keep a close eye on our case counts to figure out what kind of winter is in store, officials said.
“Our trends have overall been quite poor," Weston said. "When it comes to COVID, we’re not even close to out of the woods. We are deep in the woods.”
Severe cases are stretching hospital capacity
With infections on the rise, Wisconsin’s health care system is feeling the strain. COVID-19 hospitalizations are up around 35% from the start of the month, according to data from the Wisconsin Hospital Association.
Around 92% of hospital beds and 95% of ICU beds across the state were full as of last week, per DHS reports. Almost half of all hospitals are operating at their peak capacity levels.
Another COVID-19 surge could be a huge burden on a health system that’s already under intense pressure, Westergaard said — including from health care workers leaving their jobs due to pandemic burnout and the flu making a comeback after all but disappearing last year.
“Our hospitals are doing amazing work,” Westergaard said. “But our capacity to do so is finite.”
He said the “biggest tragedy” to avoid is having capacity stretched so thin that “we can’t save lives that we normally would be able to save.” Some hospitals are already having trouble finding beds for patients: SSM Health’s hospital in Monroe put a pause on non-urgent procedures after seeing its highest-ever numbers of COVID-19 patients.
So far, deaths haven’t seen a huge spike, although their trends tend to follow a few weeks behind. As of Tuesday, Wisconsin was averaging 15 confirmed deaths each day, per DHS data — much higher than over the summer but much, much lower than last winter, when the average toll peaked at 57 deaths per day.
The death toll may be slower to rise because many Wisconsinites now have protection from the coronavirus vaccines. Fully vaccinated residents — who make up around 56% of the state these days — are much less likely to get sick or die from COVID-19.
In October, Wisconsinites who were not fully vaccinated were hospitalized at an 11 times higher rate and died at a 15 times higher rate compared to those who got all their shots, the DHS reports.
We're still a long way from 100% vaccine coverage for any age groups, though, officials pointed out — and those gaps are leaving us vulnerable.
“The bottom line is we do not have enough people vaccinated,” Weston said Tuesday.
Kids roll up their sleeves, and booster rollout gets bigger
It’s been three weeks since federal health officials gave the green light to vaccinate kids aged 5 to 11.
Since then, “tens of thousands” of young Wisconsinites in this age group have gotten their first doses, said Traci DeSalvo, DHS communicable diseases director, at a briefing last week.
It’s an important step as kids under 18 are still a leading age group for new COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin, per DHS data.
As of last week, the Milwaukee Health Department had given out more than 500 doses at school-based vaccine clinics, Mayor Tom Barrett said at a briefing. More kids rolled up their sleeves (and snapped pictures with the Bucks’ championship trophy) at Fiserv Forum's clinic.
And families enrolled in Milwaukee Public Schools are eligible for a $100 incentive if they get their kids in this age group vaccinated, the district decided Thursday.
Other Wisconsinites have been coming back for more: More than 900,000 residents have gotten a booster shot or additional vaccine dose in the state, the DHS reports.
Immunocompromised patients have been able to get their additional doses since the summer. And other higher-risk groups have gotten the green light for booster shots in recent months — including older adults, patients with underlying conditions, frontline workers and Johnson & Johnson recipients.
Last week, the booster rollout got a lot wider. The FDA gave the green light Friday for any U.S. adults to get a booster dose, and the CDC followed up with its own recommendation later that day. Data reviewed by both groups found that a third dose helped bring antibody levels up for a high level of protection.
People who got Pfizer or Moderna for their first shots should wait six months before getting a booster dose, according to the new CDC guidance.
"Booster shots have demonstrated the ability to safely increase people’s protection against infection and severe outcomes and are an important public health tool to strengthen our defenses against the virus as we enter the winter holidays," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a statement. "Based on the compelling evidence, all adults over 18 should now have equitable access to a COVID-19 booster dose.”
‘Tis the season — for pandemic precautions
With Thanksgiving next week and more holidays on the horizon, health officials have stressed the importance of keeping COVID-19 in mind, even in a festive time of year.
“Celebrating the holiday season and its traditions is important to Wisconsin families, and we can all celebrate safely this year if we remember to take a few simple steps,” DHS Secretary-designee Karen Timberlake said in a statement.
Keeping COVID-19 at bay this holiday season is about adding as many layers of protection as possible, Weston said at this week's briefing. Vaccines — including booster shots — are the most important layer, officials said: “Receive your booster and enjoy your holiday season knowing you have the highest level of protection against the virus,” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett recommended at a briefing.
But other choices can help make for safer celebrations, too. The DHS recommends that people who aren’t fully vaccinated should delay traveling for the holidays and wear masks indoors.
Even for those who are fully vaccinated, extra measures, like celebrating outdoors if possible, staying home if you’re sick and getting tested before showing up to a gathering can help protect your loved ones, the DHS guidance suggests. At-home rapid tests can be a good option to check for infections the day you're holding a gathering, Weston said.
After all, even though many of us want to get back to our regular holiday cheer, the pandemic hasn’t gone away, Weston said.
“Thanksgiving can be a wonderful celebration among family," he said. "But you don’t want it to be the reason that someone gets sick, or gets hospitalized, or can’t join you for the next gathering.”