With COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations up slightly in Wisconsin this week after weeks of falling or steady levels, a state health official Thursday urged people to keep wearing masks and avoiding large gatherings while vaccinations continue to ramp up.
“We don’t want to take five steps back just when we’re at the cusp of things getting a lot better,” said Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy secretary of the state Department of Health Services. “If we can do them for a little bit longer, we’ll be in much better shape than if we let another surge emerge in our state.”
Wisconsin reported 537 new cases of COVID-19, for a daily average of 459 cases, up from a daily average of 386 cases last Friday. As of Thursday, 239 patients were hospitalized for COVID-19, 17 more than a week earlier.
The state said 69 cases of the more contagious B117 variant of COVID-19, first identified in England, have been detected in Wisconsin, up from 55 a week ago. It’s not clear how much the variant is contributing to the uptick in cases, but Willems Van Dijk noted that neighboring Michigan and Minnesota have found many more cases of the variant than Wisconsin.
Some states are opening up vaccination to the general public before Wisconsin’s plan of May 1, but Willems Van Dijk said it’s too early to say if the state will follow. More than 2 million residents with chronic disease were made eligible Monday.
The state will receive about 185,000 first doses of vaccine next week, the highest amount so far, she said. But demand from vaccinators exceeds 400,000 first doses.
“We’d like to see a little more than that before we’re ready to move to the general population,” Willems Van Dijk said.
Thinking of the vaccination effort as a nine-inning baseball game, she said, “we are only in probably the third inning.”
Meanwhile, UW-Madison experts disagreed during an online forum Wednesday about when the state might reach herd immunity, typically defined as a 60%-90% vaccination rate or combined rate of vaccination and natural immunity from recent infection. The state health department has been aiming for a 80% vaccination rate, saying it could be reached by June if enough people seek injections.
“The hope is and the projections are that by about mid-summer, July sometime, that we probably are going to hit that percentage point, which we call herd immunity,” said Dr. Jonathan Temte, associate dean of the UW School of Medicine and Public Health.
But Malia Jones, an infectious disease epidemiologist at UW-Madison, said she’s not as optimistic that herd immunity will be achieved his summer. No vaccine has been approved for children under 16, who make up about 20% of the state’s population, and 20%-25% of adults say they don’t want to be vaccinated, she said.
“I don’t really think we can get to herd immunity without one of those two groups getting into the pool,” Jones said. “It’s a long road to herd immunity. I actually think we’re going to be in some other in-between phase for a while.”
As of Thursday, 27.3% of Wisconsin residents and 33.5% of people in Dane County have had at least one shot. Among people 65 and older, who have been eligible for vaccine since late January, 73.7% statewide and 87.7% in the county have had at least one dose.
The state has a list and map of vaccinators available online at go.madison.com/vaccinators. A registry for appointments and a waiting list is at vaccinate.wi.gov. A hotline for questions about vaccines and assistance with registration is at 844-684-1064.
Willems Van Dijk urged people to continue to wear masks when outside their homes and avoid large gatherings of people they don’t live with. But such measures won’t be recommended forever.
“As more and more of us are vaccinated, we will start to be less cautious about these things,” she said.