MILWAUKEE — As 2021 comes to a close, we’ll be ringing in another new year with the COVID-19 pandemic at our side.

This year may not have brought in the “new normal” that we hoped for. But we’ve still seen a lot of changes over the past 12 months.

We’ve tracked infections as they took a steep dive, then climbed right back up again. We’ve seen vaccines go from a precious, limited resource to an everyday staple. We’ve watched the novel coronavirus shapeshift into new, extra-contagious shapes. 

As we get ready to enter COVID-19’s “junior year,” let’s take a look back at the biggest pandemic milestones from the Badger State in 2021.


Vaccine hopes

JANUARY 12: Wisconsin gets its first brush with the new variants of concern as alpha is detected in the state. The strain, first identified in the United Kingdom, spread quickly across the globe — until even newer versions of the virus came along.

JANUARY 18: Police and firefighters are allowed to get their COVID-19 vaccines. When the year kicked off, only a few groups — frontline health care workers and long-term care facilities — were eligible for the shots, and supply was still limited. Adding police and fire marked the first step into Phase 1B of the vaccine rollout.

JANUARY 25: The state’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout gets a lot wider as adults 65 and older become eligible. The rollout opened up to around 700,000 older adults at the end of January. “Older adults have been hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, and prioritizing this population will help save lives,” Andrea Palm, then the DHS Secretary-designee, said in a statement.

MARCH 1: After much debate over who would get their shots next, the rest of Phase 1B opens up, adding more high-risk or high-priority Wisconsinites. This stage included some groups who were more likely to be exposed to COVID-19, like those in homeless shelters or prisons. It also focused on people who were important to keep things running in the state — including police officers, teachers and food workers.

MARCH 1: Wisconsin’s first shipment of Johnson & Johnson shots gives the vaccine supply a boost. The J&J vaccine was the third to get the FDA go-ahead, and quickly started rolling out across the country. Public health officials hoped it would make vaccine access easier, since it only requires one dose and doesn’t need to be stored at freezing temperatures like the mRNA shots.

MARCH 5: More than a million Wisconsinites have gotten a vaccine dose, Gov. Tony Evers announces. The state was running ahead of the national average — almost 18% of residents had gotten at least their first shot of a COVID-19 vaccine

MARCH 17: Milwaukee makes a push for vaccine equity by opening up shots to residents in certain ZIP codes with high social vulnerability. “We know that Black and brown and people of color have not been getting access to getting as many shots as our white counterparts, not just here in Milwaukee County but in this state and across this country,” Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley said while getting his shot at a local site.

MARCH 22: The vaccine rollout opens up its biggest phase yet, focusing on Wisconsinites with chronic health conditions. More than 2 million residents became eligible as the state added a wide range of underlying conditions to the vaccine list — including asthma, cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity. 

APRIL 5: Vaccines become available to the general public — and many rush out to get their shots. After months of limited lists, the vaccine pool got a lot simpler: Anyone over 16 could go get their shots. Hundreds of thousands of residents got a vaccine in the first week after the general rollout, per DHS data

APRIL 13: Health agencies pause the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine after concerns over rare blood clots. After a handful of severe complications showed up in J&J recipients, the FDA and CDC put the shots under review. The pause would be lifted soon after, but trust in the J&J shots was hard to win back.


The summer sweet spot

MAY 12: Younger Wisconsinites start rolling up their sleeves as Pfizer vaccines are authorized for the 12 to 15 age group. “We get our life back,” one mother told Spectrum News 1 after waiting anxiously to get her youngest daughter vaccinated.

MAY 14: Following CDC guidance, Wisconsin gives the green light for fully vaccinated people to get together without masks. “For vaccinated people, this means returning to the Wisconsin way of life we all enjoy,” DHS Secretary-designee Karen Timberlake said in a statement.

MAY 30: Demand for COVID-19 vaccines takes a steep dive after the initial rush for shots. By the end of May, the weekly vaccination pace had dropped almost 80% from its April highs. “It’s like an Easter egg hunt trying to find people,” pharmacist Randy Dawes said.

JUNE 16: The DHS starts tracking delta, the newest variant of concern. The new variant hadn’t taken off in Wisconsin yet — there were only 26 cases identified in the state — but it was making waves across the globe after driving devastating surges in India.

JULY 5: Wisconsin’s case average hits its lowest point since the start of the pandemic. The seven-day average sat at 61 cases — a 90% drop from the start of May. With vaccination rates climbing and infections dropping, the state seemed to be heading in the right direction.

JULY 22: Milwaukee celebrates “Bucks in Six” amid the summer COVID-19 lull. The new normal seemed to be in full swing as fans crowded the Deer District for the Bucks’ historic playoff run and flooded the streets for the victory parade. “To be here to witness this with all these thousands of fans for miles, I couldn’t ask for a better experience,” one fan said after the final game.

AUGUST 26: Pfizer’s vaccine becomes the first to get full FDA approval. All the vaccines had already gone through an extensive scientific review to get emergency authorization. But the full approval was another vote of confidence from health officials — and opened up the door for more vaccine mandates.  

SEPTEMBER 2: Summerfest makes its return in Milwaukee, after the music festival was shuttered in 2020 due to the pandemic. Music lovers flocked back to the Big Gig to see headliners like Luke Bryan, Chance the Rapper, the Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus. “The goosebumps come back, the smells, the atmosphere,” one attendee said. “Every part from waiting in line, to driving here, to getting lost, to finding your way. Every part is something that you miss.” 


Variants change the game

SEPTEMBER 20: The delta surge sends case averages to their highest levels since January. After a slow summer, cases started to climb again heading into the fall, fueled by the extra-contagious delta variant. In September, Wisconsin saw disease levels on par with the end of its previous winter surge.

SEPTEMBER 27: Wisconsin starts offering Pfizer booster doses for certain groups to reinforce protection against COVID-19. With the threat of delta and rising cases, health officials urged a third Pfizer shot for certain high-risk groups — including older adults, patients with underlying conditions and those with more chance of exposure based on where they work or live.

OCTOBER 22: Moderna and Johnson & Johnson boosters also get added to the mix. High-risk Moderna recipients were encouraged to get another dose after six months. And anyone who got the J&J shot — which offered a lower level of protection to start with — became eligible for a boost.

NOVEMBER 3: Even younger Wisconsinites start getting their shots, as Pfizer’s vaccine gets the go-ahead for 5- to 11-year-olds. The fall COVID-19 surge had been hitting kids hard and creating another chaotic start to the school year. “People are so, so happy to be able to get kids vaccinated and keep them in school," a school official in Madison said.

NOVEMBER 19: Booster doses of COVID-19 vaccines open up to all adults. Federal health officials decided that an extra dose would be useful to recharge immune defenses. The CDC guidance also allowed people to mix and match vaccine brands for their boosters.

DECEMBER 4: Wisconsin reports its first case of the new omicron variant. The DHS identified the variant in a Wisconsin man who had recently traveled to South Africa — and was fully vaccinated and boosted. Before that case, an omicron outbreak among California residents had been traced back to a wedding that took place in Wisconsin. 

DECEMBER 13: Wisconsin’s COVID-19 hospitalizations climb to their highest point of the year. The state’s health system was stretched thin once again, with more than 96% of ICU beds in use.  “Without a doubt our hospitals are filling up,” Ben Weston, chief health policy advisor for Milwaukee County, said at a briefing. “Our hospitals are full.”

DECEMBER 22: The U.S. authorizes the first antiviral pill to treat COVID-19. Pfizer’s pill — which cut hospitalizations and deaths by almost 90% in high-risk patients during trials — got the green light for treating coronavirus patients at home. Merck’s version was authorized for use the next day.

DECEMBER 25: Weeks after arriving in the U.S., omicron takes over as the dominant variant. The CDC estimates that omicron fueled around 59% of cases during the week of Christmas, toppling delta as the most widespread version of the virus. Studies have estimated that omicron is at least twice as contagious as delta, which already spread much more easily than the original virus. 

DECEMBER 29: Across the U.S., the average number of daily cases soars to a new record high. Omicron’s arrival sent infections skyrocketing across the country, reaching an average of more than 265,000 new cases each day — a high that’s higher than any other point in the pandemic.

DECEMBER 30: Wisconsin crosses another grim milestone, reporting more than 10,000 coronavirus deaths in the state. As the year came to a close, the pandemic’s toll continued — and the state’s coronavirus trends were still heading in the wrong direction.