MILWAUKEE — The pandemic seems to be at a turning point in Wisconsin.
More than half of residents have now gotten at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. For the rest, there’s plenty of supply — but demand has slowed to a trickle.
With cases back on the rise and the delta variant taking over, it’s clear that we haven’t beaten COVID-19 just yet, even as many lives are getting back to some type of new normal.
Here, we break down the latest vaccine updates to know in the Badger State.
Pace of vaccinations still slow
Wisconsin has finally teetered over the halfway mark: 51.3% of all residents have gotten at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, the Department of Health Services reports. Around 2.8 million Wisconsinites have completed their vaccine series for full protection.
In the week of July 11, vaccinators gave out 38,057 doses in the state, according to DHS data.
That’s the lowest total since December, when the very first shots arrived. And it’s more than a 90% drop from the state’s peak number of weekly doses from early April.
Now that “all the very, very eager people” have gotten their shots, the pace has slowed, DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said at a media briefing.
According to Google Trends, searches for “vaccine appointment” in Wisconsin peaked the week of March 14, as the state was gearing up to add millions of high-risk residents to the vaccine list. Searches shot up again when the rollout opened to the general public in April — but since then, interest has taken a steep turn.
Still, “I don’t think that everyone who’s willing has been vaccinated,” said state epidemiologist Ryan Westergaard.
Some people might need more information or encouragement to get their shots, Willems Van Dijk said. Others have said they plan to wait for the vaccines to get full FDA approval.
In the meantime, officials said, Wisconsin is still getting thousands of shots in arms every day — just not as many thousands as before.
Disparities in the vaccine rollout have proven hard to beat, too.
Black Wisconsinites still have the lowest vaccination rate, with around 28% first-dose coverage, the DHS reports. Around 48% of white residents have gotten at least one shot — although Asian residents now have the highest vaccination rate, with 51% reporting at least one dose.
Even in the areas with the most coverage, "no part of our state is adequately vaccinated," Willems Van Dijk said this week.
Trust + access = more shots in arms?
One key piece of the vaccination puzzle right now: Trust.
The threat of misinformation has been coming to light even more, Willems Van Dijk said, as unvaccinated people keep getting very sick from COVID-19 even as the shots are widely available.
"Nearly all of these patients could have avoided this fate if they had been vaccinated," Willems Van Dijk said. But many of them had received incorrect information and didn't trust the vaccines or didn't think they were necessary, she said.
To build vaccine trust, officials emphasized that people should have “honest, open and non-judgmental conversations” with their loved ones about getting vaccinated.
The next frontier to close the vaccination gap should also bring primary care providers to the forefront, Westergaard said earlier this month. Patients may feel more comfortable getting vaccines — or information about the vaccines — from a doctor they already know and trust, he said.
The DHS last week launched its “Our Doctors” campaign, featuring health care providers across the state sharing their confidence in the vaccine.
And, like they’ve been doing for months, vaccinators are still working to make it as easy as possible to access the shots.
Milwaukee launched a door-to-door vaccination effort in July, bringing information and shots right to people’s homes with a focus on underserved communities.
“We have to have individuals from our community who understand our community, who are trusted in our community to deliver the message,” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said of the campaign.
And, of course, the vaccine incentives are still rolling in. Milwaukee raffled off Bucks finals tickets at its Fiserv Forum clinics, and has discussed handing out cold, hard cash to those who get their shots.
COVID-19 cases headed back up
While the pace of vaccination has gone down, another set of numbers is heading in the opposite direction: Wisconsin’s COVID-19 rates have started to climb again.
The seven-day average for confirmed cases has almost tripled in the past two weeks, according to DHS data. Hospitalizations are seeing an uptick, too: The number of COVID-19 patients has almost doubled in the past two weeks.
Most counties have a “medium” level of case activity, the DHS reports, but 29 are back up to a “high” case activity level.
Hospitalizations are rising most quickly in the Southeast and Fox Valley regions, Westergaard said — but cases are increasing across the whole state.
Across the country, coronavirus metrics are spiking. Cases in the U.S. are up almost 200% in the past two weeks, according to a New York Times tracker. The biggest surges are showing up in places with low vaccination rates — including states like Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Missouri and Nevada — Axios reports.
“This is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said last week.
In Wisconsin, the rate of deaths from COVID-19 remains pretty low, averaging in the single digits since the start of the month. The vast majority of recent coronavirus deaths have come from unvaccinated Wisconsinites.
Since January, only around 1.6% of confirmed and probable cases have come from "breakthrough cases" of fully vaccinated people, Westergaard said.
With the available vaccines, which slash the risk of severe COVID-19 outcomes to very low levels, new deaths from the virus are avoidable, DHS officials stressed.
"Every COVID-19 death is now a preventable death," Willems Van Dijk said. "Without a vaccine, you are a sitting duck for COVID-19."
Delta on the rise
In Wisconsin and beyond, one factor is having a big impact on the turnaround in infection rates: The arrival of the delta variant.
“This virus is clearly different than the viruses and the variants that we’ve had experience with before,” infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci told CNBC. “It has an extraordinary capability of transmitting from person to person.”
The delta variant, which was first identified in India, is much more contagious than other versions of the virus. It’s quickly toppled other variants to become the most prominent across multiple countries, including the U.S.
Around 83% of new cases nationwide are linked to the variant, Walensky said this week.
Westergaard said “the trajectory is pretty clear” that delta is growing to make up a bigger share of the state’s cases, and there’s good evidence that the variant is contributing to the growing spread.
And the longer COVID-19 cases keep cropping up, the more chances there are for even more dangerous variants to emerge as the virus keeps evolving through "survival of the fittest," Westergaard said.
While our current vaccines — especially the mRNA-based shots — seem to hold their own against the delta variant, future mutations could let the virus get around the vaccines’ protection, officials said.
For Willems Van Dijk, the rise of new variants is “the one place where there is some cause for anxiety” when it comes to the vaccines’ effectiveness.
“If we do not get enough people vaccinated that we can really squash the spread of COVID,” Willems Van Dijk said, “we could have a variant emerge that isn’t as sensitive to the vaccines that we have.”