MILWAUKEE — With extra-contagious versions of omicron spreading, Wisconsin has seen a sizable uptick in its COVID-19 numbers in recent weeks.
The current surge isn’t nearly as high as our omicron peaks. And from antiviral pills to COVID-19 vaccines — which may see even more updates in the coming months — we have more tools than ever to fight the pandemic.
But experts stressed that the climbing metrics should inspire some extra precautions — even though we might be exhausted after over two years of dealing with the pandemic.
“We shouldn’t care any less about the millionth person dying than we did about the first person dying,” state epidemiologist Ryan Westergaard said at a briefing last week. “We need to continue to work hard to make sure that every life that can be saved is saved.”
Here, we break down all the pandemic news you need to know in the Badger State right now.
Wisconsin is up on many pandemic metrics
Since the end of March, reported COVID-19 cases have climbed significantly in the Badger State.
“The risk of getting exposed to the virus is much higher than it was a couple of months ago,” Westergaard said.
As of Sunday, the average daily case count sat at 1,918, according to DHS data. That represents a 45% increase since the start of May, and more than a 400% increase since the start of April.
And with the widespread use of at-home tests, there’s “no doubt” that the true case numbers are even higher, Ben Weston, chief health policy adviser with Milwaukee County, said at a briefing earlier this month.
With other pandemic metrics, too, “we’re seeing very clear trends across the board,” Weston added.
Hospitalizations have seen an uptick since mid-April. As of Monday, there were 352 COVID-19 patients in hospitals across the state, according to the Wisconsin Hospital Association — more than twice as high as the month before.
The test positivity rate across Wisconsin was at 12.5% as of the latest DHS update — almost double the rate from a month ago, and nearly five times higher than two months ago.
And wastewater testing shows an increasing trend across much of the state. Almost half of the watersheds being monitored are seeing an uptick in virus in their sewage, according to a statewide dashboard.
The good news: COVID-19 deaths have turned back down after a brief increase. As of Sunday, an average of one Wisconsinite was dying from COVID-19 each day, according to DHS data.
How does this spike stack up?
When it comes to size, Wisconsin’s current uptick is still a long way away from the first omicron surge.
“The number of cases we’re experiencing right now pales in comparison to what we experienced this winter, in December and January,” Milwaukee Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson said at a briefing this month.
At its peak, the first omicron wave saw COVID-19 hospitalizations soar almost six times higher than they have in recent weeks. Westergaard described Wisconsin’s current situation as a “hopefully small to moderate-sized surge.”
So why are we seeing this uptick now? Much of it likely has to do with new and extra-contagious sub-variants of omicron that have taken a foothold in Wisconsin, Westergaard said.
Most recent cases in the state aren’t coming from the original version of omicron anymore, according to sequence data from the Wisconsin State Laboratory. Instead, sub-lineages like BA.2 and BA.2.12.1 — which spread even more easily than earlier forms of omicron — are leading the way.
Waning immunity is probably another factor in the uptick, Westergaard said. Protection from vaccines and past infections takes a dip after a few months, he pointed out — and we’re now a few months out from the first omicron surge, when many people built up immunity after catching COVID-19.
Compared to past surges, though, we now have even more tools to fight off the worst effects of the pandemic, experts stressed.
Supplies of vaccines and boosters (or even second boosters) are abundant. So are therapeutics to stop COVID-19 patients from getting very sick, like the antiviral pills that are widely available across Wisconsin, according to the DHS.
These days, the “new normal” should be that anyone who is high-risk and tests positive for COVID-19 should pick up an antiviral, Westergaard said. In fact, if we used all our pandemic tools on a much wider scale, “we could get really close to a world where no one has to die of COVID,” he said.
Community levels urge more caution
According to the CDC’s analysis, many Wisconsinites should take more precautions at this stage in the pandemic.
The CDC’s COVID-19 community levels — which consider case counts and hospital capacity — are meant to give a heads-up on when we need to work harder to prevent transmission, Westergaard said.
As of the latest update, 18 counties in Wisconsin had high community levels. That includes Milwaukee and its surrounding counties, as well as clusters in the central and northwestern parts of the state.
When counties are at a high community level, the CDC recommends residents should take some extra steps, including wearing masks when they’re in indoor public spaces.
On Friday, the City of Milwaukee issued a mask advisory in the wake of the new CDC ranking. The local health department encouraged people to wear masks when inside in public, even if they’re vaccinated.
Dane County officials suggested they might issue their own mask advisory if they reach a high community level — but for now, the county is still in the medium level, along with most of Wisconsin.
The DHS encouraged masking in any counties with high community levels, and also stressed that Wisconsinites should keep up with their COVID-19 vaccines, stay home if they’re sick and get tested after symptoms or exposure.
Across much of the country, COVID-19 community levels are on the rise. Earlier in the spring, most of the U.S. was in the low range — but now, more spots of high and medium levels are appearing, especially in the Midwest and Northeast.
As the nationwide trends turn upward, Wisconsin’s case rates are around the middle of the pack compared to other states, according to a New York Times tracker.
The vaccine outlook
The vaccination pace remains pretty slow in Wisconsin.
Around 61% of Wisconsinites have completed their initial vaccine series, per DHS data, a number that has barely budged in recent months.
And only around a third of residents have gotten an additional or booster dose, even though many are now eligible — including the 5-to-11 age group that just got the green light for another dose.
But the next few months will probably see some new developments in the vaccine rollout. Top of mind for many: The potential authorization of a shot for kids younger than 5.
This week, Pfizer released early data suggesting three kid-sized shots would offer strong protection for the youngest age groups. Moderna submitted its own results to the FDA last month, and federal officials have plans to meet in June to review both sets of data.
That means vaccines for the 18 million children in this age group could be on their way this summer. Even though young kids are at lower risk for severe disease, protecting them is still a priority, the FDA’s Peter Marks told the American Medical Association this month.
“Unfortunately, if you’re one of the several hundred parents who’s had children under the age of five die from COVID-19, that’s no consolation,” Marks said.
The FDA has two other meetings on its tentative schedule next month. One is to discuss an authorization request for the Novavax vaccine, which is based on a more traditional protein-based model and showed strong results in clinical trials.
Another meeting will discuss shots for a possible booster push later in the year. Marks told the AMA that a fall or winter booster campaign may be needed, and experts are working to figure out what types of shots would be the most effective.
Boosters could use the original vaccine formulas, ones designed to fight off variants or bivalent versions that combine both approaches.
“It’s a little bit of a challenge here because we don’t know how much further the virus will evolve over the next few months,” Marks said. “This is where we will have to use our best guesses.”