MILWAUKEE — One year ago, the very first Wisconsinites started rolling up their sleeves for the brand-new COVID-19 vaccines.
Since then, more than 3.4 million residents have gotten a shot — and many are now adding on booster doses for extra protection. But a second pandemic winter is already bringing new challenges, as the extra-contagious omicron variant has appeared while Wisconsin is still fighting off its delta surge.
“We’re at a dangerous point for hospitalizations in the state. We’re at a dangerous point for COVID in the state,” Ben Weston, chief health policy advisor for Milwaukee County, said at a Tuesday briefing. “That’s due to delta, and we have the unknown of omicron on the horizon. So it’s time to buckle down.”
Here, we break down the latest news to know about COVID-19 vaccines in the Badger State.
DHS: More vaccines needed as surge continues
Heading into winter, most people in the Badger State are fully vaccinated: More than 56% of residents in the state have completed their vaccine series, according to DHS data.
But our current level of coverage isn’t enough, health experts said, which has become clear as the state has seen COVID-19 numbers spike yet again.
“The proof that no communities in our area, in our country, in our continent are near herd immunity (is) that cases are still tremendously high and increasing in many areas,” state epidemiologist Ryan Westergaard said at a briefing Wednesday.
We don’t know the exact vaccination rate we need to stop community transmission, but in any case, “we’re far from it,” Westergaard said.
Wisconsin is still in the midst of a COVID-19 surge that has brought with it the highest case rates we’ve seen this year. The state’s case average is up more than 40% from two months ago, according to DHS data. And the state’s health care system is nearing its limits, with more than 93% of all hospital beds in use as of Wednesday.
State officials said with the high levels of disease in the state, and the holiday season fast approaching, getting vaccinated, or boosted, is critical for Wisconsinites.
“We just can’t let our hospitals go into crisis mode here,” Gov. Tony Evers said at a briefing.
Boosters give vaccination pace a boost
In Milwaukee County, “we’re very happy to see doses go into arms,” Darren Rausch, director of the Greenfield Health Department, said at a briefing.
Compared to the spring’s huge peaks of primary vaccine doses — as in, the one or two shots needed for initial protection — the overall pace of shots in arms is still much lower. But as the booster rollout has kept getting wider, it’s pushed our vaccine numbers up from their summer lull.
“Unfortunately, we’re seeing a decrease in the primary series uptake for vaccination, but we’re seeing a lot of boosters,” Rausch said.
Across the state, more than 1.2 million people have gotten an additional or booster dose, according to DHS data. As of Wednesday, the state was averaging more than 20,000 of these extra shots per day, the DHS reports.
Wisconsin, like the rest of the country, saw a big dip in reported doses over the Thanksgiving holiday. But since the start of December, the seven-day average for overall vaccine doses has hovered at a level around three times higher than in September, according to CDC data.
And health officials’ calls for more boosters have only gotten stronger in recent weeks.
As the omicron variant started spreading across the globe, the CDC started advising that all adults should get a booster dose. On Thursday, federal health officials also expanded Pfizer’s booster authorization to older teens who are 16 or 17 — and Wisconsin experts recommended that teens get the shots.
“The COVID-19 booster doses are important tools as we work to slow the spread of COVID-19 and its variants,” DHS Secretary-designee Karen Timberlake said in a statement Friday. “Being fully vaccinated and getting a booster dose is the best protection for preventing the worst outcomes from COVID-19.”
Kids 5 to 11 making progress in vaccine coverage
Since younger kids 5 to 11 got the green light for Pfizer vaccines in November, more of Wisconsin’s youngest residents have continued to roll up their sleeves.
As of Wednesday, almost 100,000 kids in this age group had gotten at least one vaccine dose, Timberlake said at a briefing. That means around 20% of the age group has gotten a shot in the first month they were eligible.
Of course, that’s still a lower rate than in other age groups. Generally in Wisconsin, the older you are, the more likely you are to be vaccinated, according to DHS data: More than 84% of those 65 and up are fully vaccinated, compared to around 47% of adolescents aged 12 to 15.
But getting shots in younger arms is key, as the latest surge has continued to have a big impact on kids, Timberlake said.
Preliminary DHS data show that kids under 18 were still the leading age group for new cases through the end of November. Since the fall surge got underway, the under-18 group has climbed to have the highest total cases over the course of the pandemic, per DHS reports.
Vaccines and variants
As the new omicron variant has started to spread in dozens of countries, scientists across the globe are working to figure out just how it stacks up to other variants.
Early evidence suggests that omicron may be even more contagious than delta, Weston said at a briefing — and delta was already much more contagious than earlier versions of the virus. A key question now is whether omicron, with its high number of mutations, will be able to sneak around our immune defenses.
“There is preliminary evidence, but it’s pretty compelling evidence, that past infection may not be as protective with omicron as with other variants,” he said.
So what about vaccines?
After pitting the variant against antibodies from vaccinated people in a lab-based study, Pfizer said this week that its boosters still offered strong protection against omicron — though the initial two doses “may not be sufficient” to stop an infection. Another study out of Germany suggested that Moderna’s shots would have a similar effect.
Vaccine makers have already started working on boosters that will target the omicron variant specifically. Our current vaccines are still likely to protect against severe disease from omicron, though, early studies have indicated — and infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci has said we may not need different shots to fight the new variant.
The general consensus is that there’s still a lot to learn about omicron. But Wisconsin officials stressed that getting vaccinated, and getting boosted, is crucial in the meantime — especially since fighting off delta is still “the name of the game” for now, Timberlake said.
“Little to none” of our current surge comes from the brand-new variant, she said. Only a handful of omicron cases have been identified in the state so far, Westergaard added, and more than 99% of the virus that’s circulating now is from delta.
“We know a lot about the delta variant,” Weston said. “We know it’s extremely contagious. We know it can cause severe disease. And we know that the vaccine is highly effective against it.”