MILWAUKEE — Wisconsin’s COVID-19 numbers have been in rough shape since the new year kicked off and the omicron variant took over.
Cases have soared to new heights. Hospitals have been stretched thin. And the youngest Wisconsinites have been hit hard with infections — sometimes getting really sick.
“We’re all tired. We’re all frustrated. We’re all ready for this to be done,” Ben Weston, chief health policy advisor for Milwaukee County, said at a briefing Tuesday. “But the virus, unfortunately, is not done with us. So we have to keep fighting.”
Still, there’s hope on the horizon that this latest surge could be coming to a close — and experts say that taking precautions can help us get to the decline faster. Here, we break down the latest news you need to know about COVID-19 in the Badger State right now.
Case numbers have climbed to record highs…
Wisconsin's cases were already high heading into the holidays. But since the end of December, those rates have seen their steepest climb yet.
Wisconsin launched a new data system for COVID-19 cases last week, which the DHS said would lead to higher numbers for a few days as backlogged cases got added.
Even before that update, though, the Badger State had seen its numbers soar. The state has smashed its daily record multiple times since omicron started surging, and every county in Wisconsin has made it into the highest DHS category of “critically high” disease activity.
As of Jan. 13 — right before the new data system took effect — the seven-day average for cases sat at 11,541. That’s a 103% increase from two weeks before, and a 220% jump from just one month before.
“Clearly we face unprecedented challenges,” Weston said this month. “The omicron variant continues to break record after record.”
Those caseloads make Wisconsin one of the highest hotspots in the U.S. right now: Only Rhode Island had a higher per capita disease burden as of Thursday, according to a New York Times tracker.
The omicron variant — which spreads much more easily than earlier variants, including delta — has been a clear driver in this surge. While omicron made up around 38% of Wisconsin samples in December, it’s quickly grown to represent 95% of all new samples, according to tracking data from the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene.
The latest surge has spurred more precautions in some spots, including Dane County, which extended its mask mandate through February, and the city of Milwaukee, which approved a new mask ordinance to run through March.
And severe outcomes have followed — to a point
This latest surge has looked different from the one we faced last winter. As case counts have skyrocketed, hospitalizations and deaths have gone up, too — but the climb for these severe outcomes hasn’t been as steep.
Vaccines have changed the shape of the pandemic: With more than half of the state fully vaccinated, there’s a lot more protection against getting really sick. Research has also suggested that, on average, the omicron variant is less likely to cause severe disease than earlier versions of the virus.
With the huge numbers of cases we’ve seen recently, though, the level of severe illness has still been enough to fill up hospitals and take the lives of many Wisconsinites.
COVID-19 hospitalizations are still at some of their highest levels ever, according to data from the Wisconsin Hospital Association, even after we’ve seen a slight dip in the past week.
As of Wednesday, there were 2,163 coronavirus patients in hospitals across the state, the WHA reports. That’s a 40% increase from where things stood on Christmas Eve.
Trends in the intensive care unit have been similar: There were 459 coronavirus patients in the ICU on Wednesday, which is 17% higher than on Christmas Eve. Hospital capacity remains tight, with around 92% of all beds and 94% of ICU beds in use, according to the DHS.
Almost 300 Wisconsinites have died since the year kicked off, the DHS reports.
As omicron has spread, we’ve seen “breakthrough” COVID-19 cases in vaccinated people become more common.
But the most severe cases are still mostly showing up in unvaccinated Wisconsinites. In fact, the unvaccinated are making up an even bigger share of hospitalizations and deaths during the latest surge, compared to earlier months, per DHS data.
In December, those who were not fully vaccinated were three times more likely to catch COVID-19 — but 10 times more likely to be hospitalized and 14 times more likely to die, according to DHS data.
Kids have faced heavy burdens from omicron
As the omicron surge has swept across the state, the youngest Wisconsinites have been hit hard.
Since the end of August, children have made up more than one in five new COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin, Jasmine Zapata, DHS chief medical officer for community health, said at a briefing. And over the course of the whole pandemic, kids under 18 have seen the highest cumulative infections, according to DHS data.
The pandemic has continued to disrupt the school year, too: Milwaukee Public Schools moved to virtual learning for two weeks after the holidays due to high case rates in MPS staff. The first week of January saw high infection numbers in the district, with 741 staff and 360 students testing positive, according to MPS data.
Young people don’t tend to get as sick from a COVID-19 infection, but kids are still vulnerable to severe illness — which has shown in the latest surge.
“Like other states, Wisconsin has seen an increase in the number of pediatric hospitalizations associated with COVID-19,” DHS Secretary-designee Karen Timberlake said at a briefing Thursday.
According to data from Children’s Wisconsin, the Milwaukee hospital has seen its numbers of COVID-19 patients climb in recent weeks. On average, 26 children are admitted to the hospital each day who have tested positive for COVID-19 — a number that’s more than doubled since the middle of December.
The youngest Wisconsinites still have the lowest-vaccination rates, though older teens are more on track with other age groups. Only around 24% of 5- to 11-year-olds in the state have gotten a dose, compared to around 63% of residents overall, the DHS reports.
DHS officials stressed that getting more kids vaccinated would be key to keeping kids safe and keeping them in school.
“The bottom line is that risking our children getting COVID-19, it is not worth the risk,” Zapata said.
Have we peaked yet?
Wisconsin’s experts this week said the state probably hasn’t reached its omicron peak just yet — but were hopeful the surge could turn around soon.
“Looking at states around us, we’re likely near our peak from this current surge from omicron,” Weston said this week. “But as with every other surge, it’ll take longer to see those hospitalizations and those deaths start to meaningfully decline.”
In South Africa, where the omicron variant was first discovered, cases have taken a steep downturn after their steep highs. Some spots in the U.S. seem to be following a similar pattern, with places, like New York and Boston, watching their cases drop.
State epidemiologist Ryan Westergaard said at a briefing that he’s hopeful Wisconsin will also turn the corner toward lower case numbers in the coming weeks.
So what’s next for the pandemic after this surge comes to a close?
The encouraging news is that people who have recovered from COVID-19 get strong immune protection — and that group will include a lot of people after this latest wave, Westergaard pointed out. But of course, there is always the “question mark” of whether even newer variants will show up that can get around those immune defenses, he added.
“The next variant may not care about your past immunity,” Weston explained at a briefing.
Weston said he hoped for the chance to “regroup” and learn from the omicron surge to move forward in the pandemic. For Westergaard, a key part of that effort will revolve around getting vaccines to the people who still haven’t gotten their shots — including people all across the globe, since new variants can come from anywhere if people are still vulnerable to COVID-19.
“That’s really what the future depends on,” Westergaard said. “Some of it is just going to be luck in terms of the evolution of the virus. And some of it’s going to be how hard we work.”