MILWAUKEE — After many record-shattering weeks, the omicron surge in Wisconsin seems like it might finally be turning around.
The latest surge has shown that vaccines and boosters put up a fight against omicron’s worst effects. In Wisconsin, the burden of COVID-19 deaths is falling even more heavily on the unvaccinated.
It’s also raised concerns that even more variants could keep popping up, since local leaders say our current vaccination rate isn’t high enough — even as the pace of shots in arms is back on the decline.
Here, we break down the latest news to know about COVID-19 vaccines and boosters in Wisconsin.
Vaccine pace slows down again after booster bump
Wisconsin’s vaccine pace has seen plenty of ups and downs. After a slow summer for shots in arms, more doses started going out in the fall as new variants surged, the booster rollout opened up and younger Wisconsinites became eligible for their shots.
Since the start of the year, though, the Badger State has seen demand dip once again. The daily number of shots in arms have fallen in recent weeks, according to DHS data.
In early December, the state was averaging upwards of 30,000 vaccines per day, the DHS reports. This week, the average has dipped below 10,000 vaccines each day — a drop of more than 70% in a month and a half.
A big chunk of Wisconsin’s vaccines in recent months have gone toward additional doses (for people who are immunocompromised) and booster shots (which are open to everyone 12 and up). During the uptick in early December, additional doses and boosters were making up around two-thirds of all daily vaccines, per DHS data.
But those extra doses have declined since the holidays: As of Tuesday, the average daily count for additional or booster doses was at 5,225. That’s the lowest number since September, when only high-risk groups could roll up their sleeves for their boosters.
In Milwaukee County, around 54% of everyone who’s eligible for a booster has gotten one, according to a county data report. The county is taking some steps to get more of its employees boosted — including adding a booster mandate for those in high-risk settings like jails, and offering incentives for other workers who get their extra shots, County Executive David Crowley said at a briefing.
Health experts push for more — and more even — vaccine coverage
Overall, Wisconsin has seen almost 9 million shots in arms over the course of the vaccine rollout, the DHS reports. That includes more than 1.8 million boosters and additional doses — and the vast majority of those shots have been Pfizer or Moderna.
Around 63% of all Wisconsinites have gotten at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, and 59% are fully vaccinated, according to DHS data.
That puts the Badger State right around the middle of the pack in terms of U.S. trends. Wisconsin’s fully vaccinated population matches up with the national average, and sits around the halfway point of state-by-state rates, a New York Times tracker shows.
But that current level of coverage is still too low, Wisconsin officials stressed.
“This current wave of disease is finally declining, but the future of COVID remains unpredictable,” Ben Weston said at a briefing Tuesday. “The best way to keep yourself safe into the future, and to bring an end to the pandemic, is through vaccination.”
Dr. Smriti Khare, president of primary care at Children’s Wisconsin, said at a briefing that she was concerned about the low vaccine uptake among 5- to 11-year-olds.
This age group still has a much lower vaccination rate than other Wisconsinites: Only around 25% of kids 5 to 11 have gotten at least one shot, the DHS reports, compared to 59% of older adolescents aged 12 to 17. That number has been slow to budge, even as the omicron surge has led to high case rates in kids and a rise in pediatric hospitalizations.
“The more kids are vaccinated, the more our community is protected, the more they are protected,” Khare said.
As vaccine coverage has ticked up, many of the same trends have persisted in who’s getting their shots more often.
Older residents still tend to be vaccinated at higher rates: More than 85% of those 65 and older have gotten at least one dose, compared to 58% of young adults 18 to 24. And though racial gaps have narrowed since early in the vaccine rollout, Black and Native Wisconsinites are still seeing lower vaccination rates than other groups.
Booster coverage also remains uneven. According to Milwaukee County data, eligible residents in the suburbs are boosted at higher rates than those in the city of Milwaukee.
Getting better vaccine coverage across the board — including in other countries with lagging rates — is key, especially because new variants can pop up anywhere the virus is still spreading, experts stressed.
A lot of our future depends on whether variants show up that can avoid our immune defenses — which, in turn, depends on “how hard we work on getting the remaining unvaccinated people vaccinated around the world,” state epidemiologist Ryan Westergaard said at a briefing last week.
Real-world data show effects of vaccines vs. omicron
When omicron arrived on the scene, it started showing some signs that it could slip around the body’s immune defenses. That raised a big question for our pandemic progress: Would our COVID-19 vaccines even work against the new variant?
Since then, more and more data have shown that the vaccines are still holding their own against the virus’s worst effects — and the boosters are especially important in the age of omicron.
In December — the month when omicron first showed up in Wisconsin and promptly took over — fully vaccinated people were still much less likely to catch COVID-19 and especially to get really sick, DHS data shows.
Residents who were not fully vaccinated were three times more likely to test positive for COVID-19 in December, compared to those who had gotten their shots, the DHS reports.
The gap was even wider for severe cases: Wisconsinites who were not fully vaccinated saw COVID-19 hospitalization rates that were 10 times higher, and COVID-19 death rates that were 14 times higher, compared to the fully vaccinated.
Those ratios have changed in the months since new variants have taken over. We’ve seen rising rates of breakthrough cases among vaccinated people, per DHS data — but the gaps in death rates have actually gotten wider, with unvaccinated residents making up an even bigger share during the omicron surge.
Data across the U.S. have also shown that boosters have played a key role during the omicron surge.
The CDC published data last week showing that, among Americans 50 and up, the unvaccinated were around 44 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than those who were vaccinated and boosted.
Overall, a Pfizer or Moderna booster cut hospitalization risk by 90% during the omicron surge, the CDC found.
“The simple truth has been demonstrated by study after study after study,” Weston said this week. “The vaccine, especially when coupled with the booster, decreases your risk of infection, decreases your risk of severe disease, prevents hospitalization and certainly prevents death.”
More news to note:
Pfizer and Moderna are starting to test out versions of their vaccines that are tailored to fight off omicron. Researchers will see how protection from the original shots stacks up against variant-specific formulas.
The CDC made some changes to its booster guidance earlier this month. Those who got a Pfizer shot are recommended to get a booster sooner — after a five-month wait, instead of the original six. Kids 12 to 17 were also added to the booster list, along with immunocompromised children as young as 5.
Studies out of Israel and the U.K. added new evidence that vaccines slashed the chances of patients dealing with long-haul COVID-19 symptoms after an infection.