MILWAUKEE — More than a year since the novel coronavirus infected its first humans, the COVID-19 pandemic is still in full swing.

In Wisconsin, though, the new year has brought some promising trends. Infections are on the decline from their crisis-level peaks in late 2020, and vaccines offer a glimmer of hope for defeating the virus. 

The work is far from done, though, as Department of Health Services officials have stressed.

“Even though we have encouraging news — that rates of disease appear to be declining — we are still at very, very high rates of disease in this state,” DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said at a media briefing. “We’re starting to see some control of it around the edges, but it’s still a big old forest fire burning.”

Here, we take a look at the recent trends in Wisconsin’s fight against COVID-19.

Cases and hospitalizations trend down

As of Wednesday, the seven-day case average sat at 1,545, according to DHS data. That’s the lowest rate we’ve seen since mid-September, when Wisconsin was just starting the steep climb into its fall peak.

At its highest point in the middle of November, this average case rate sat at 6,563 — more than four times the current number.

Positivity rates, both per person and per test, are on the decline as well. 

Hospitalizations have also dipped, a good indication that the decline isn’t a product of less testing. As of Tuesday, 746 Wisconsinites were hospitalized with COVID-19 — the lowest number since early October. 

The state’s hospital capacity is at around 78% capacity overall, with the Southeast and North Central regions seeing the highest proportion of full beds at 83%. 

All of this is in line with national trends, which seem to be moving in the right direction as the year kicks off. According to The Atlantic’s COVID Tracking Project, nearly all U.S. states are currently seeing declines in their case numbers, and most are seeing their hospitalizations decrease or at least stabilize.

But, as The Atlantic also points out, the overall level of COVID-19 spread across the country remains too high for comfort. Though infections are declining from major surges — most recently in California and Arizona — the still-high amount of community transmission leaves room for new outbreaks to crop up.

In Wisconsin, the DHS rates most counties as having “very high” or “high” levels of disease activity in the past two weeks. 

That’s a promising shift from months ago, when almost all counties were at the most drastic “critically high” ranking. But it still means the Badger State is not in the clear.

“We are clearly in a less dire situation than we were in November,” DHS Chief Medical Officer Ryan Westergaard said at a briefing. “The curve has improved since then. But I think the appropriate perspective to take is that we have unacceptably high levels of disease in all areas of the state.”

Deaths still at concerning levels

Despite the promising turnarounds in cases and hospitalizations, Wisconsinites are still dying from COVID-19 at fairly high rates.

So far this year, 894 coronavirus patients have died in Wisconsin. Jan. 16 saw the state’s highest-ever daily toll, with 128 reported deaths.

That means more than 15% of total coronavirus deaths have occurred since the start of this year — in under a month’s time.

Deaths tend to be a lagging indicator for coronavirus spread, following the ups and downs of case rates but with a few weeks of delay. Since the state’s cases are on the decline, we would expect to see deaths trend down in the near future as well.

While deaths in Wisconsin have fluctuated in recent weeks, they do appear to be starting that downward turn.

Again, this is in line with the national outlook: The COVID Tracking Project reports that even as nearly all states have declining case numbers, most have yet to see their death rates turn the corner. 

A post-holiday spike?

Officials in Wisconsin and beyond were sounding alarm bells before the holidays, concerned that potential gatherings could lead to surges that would overwhelm an already-strained health care system.

So how did the state fare after the festive season? Wisconsin does appear to have seen a spike in cases following the holidays, but on a smaller scale than in the fall. 

The seven-day case average was on the decline leading into the end of December. Following the holidays, though, cases began to move upward again, reaching a small peak just about two weeks after Christmas. 

Willems Van Dijk characterized it as “a little bit of an uptick” rather than a major surge.

Compared to the earlier fall surge, this increase didn’t last nearly as long or climb nearly as high. Infection rates swiftly turned back around in early January and have continued their downward trend since. 

Westergaard pointed out that the COVID-19 curve is not a “one-hump camel.” Ups and downs are possible, and trends can turn around quickly — especially if we don’t remain vigilant with precautions.

“States or regions that were previously the worst could be in the middle of the pack or fare better as time goes on, but that’s no guarantee that the fire will not burn hotter in the future,” he said.

Vaccines vs. variants

As 2021 rolls along, two contradicting forces are affecting the virus’s spread.

The first is promising: Life-saving COVID-19 vaccines are continuing to roll out across Wisconsin. As of Tuesday, the state had administered 362,505 doses of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, including 69,077 second shots for full protection, according to DHS data

The pace of vaccination has ramped up since the start of the year, DHS officials said, although they’ll need more shots from the federal government to meet demand. This week, the state opened up shots to all Wisconsinites 65 and older​, who are at higher risk of severe COVID-19 disease. 

But another new factor could make the pandemic harder to control: Mutated variants of the virus, which appear to be more easily transmitted from person to person.

Three main variants — originating from the U.K., South Africa, and Brazil — have raised concerns. Only the strain discovered in the U.K. has been identified in Wisconsin so far, in one Eau Claire resident, and the variant discovered in Brazil was found in nearby Minnesota this week.

These variants have experts worried because they could accelerate the spread of the virus, just as vaccines are giving a path toward ending the pandemic. 

Although Pfizer and Moderna have said their shots should still be effective on the mutated viruses, higher transmission rates are their own concern. With higher levels of virus circulating, we’ll need higher levels of vaccinated people to reach a herd immunity level.

DHS officials stressed that the mutated strains are even more reason to keep up with the same preventive measures — wearing masks, social distancing, staying home — even as vaccines protect more and more Wisconsinites.

“The key issue with the variants is they are far more infectious and will spread far more quickly than the original version of COVID-19,” Willems Van Dijk said at a Tuesday briefing. “We sure don’t want to see that in our state and experience what we experienced this fall.”