The race to vaccinate Wisconsin has gained urgency as fast-moving COVID-19 variants become the dominant strains and infections in children too young for vaccines drive a surge of new cases, doubling that statistic in recent weeks.
“We are in a new phase of the epidemic that is clearly worse than we were before,” said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, the state’s top communicable disease official. “And it's transmission among young people who are driving the change in the curve.”
With 1,046 new cases reported on Thursday, the first time since Feb. 11 that the daily count topped 1,000, the seven-day average for new infections has risen to 733. The daily average on March 23 was 387.
“There are still a lot of vulnerable people at high risk,” Westergaard said.
Adding to the risk, he said, are children who this week have the highest numbers of infection as in-person school resumes and extra-curricular activities activities ramp up.
“We can’t think that we’re done with this," Westergaard said. "We have to be vigilant, we have to wear masks, we have to gather outdoors, we have to encourage vaccination for everyone that is eligible.”
New data posted by the state show that a variant from California, which was previously unrecorded, has become the most common variant, though it's likely not as contagious as the B117, or UK variant, which Westergaard said is likely to soon become the dominant strain in the state. On Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that it has emerged as the dominant strain in the U.S
But a California variant — actually two variants called B.1.427/B.1.429 because they share key mutations — appears to have overtaken the UK variant. While 148 cases of the UK variant have been detected, 216 cases of the California variant have been found. Fifteen infections of a South African variant and four infections of a Brazilian variant have also been detected.
All five variants, designated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “variants of concern,” are known to be more easily transmissible and may be more likely to cause severe symptoms and death.
Statewide, only about 5% to 10% of new infections are being sequenced to determine the genetic makeup, so the actual number of infections from variants could be considerably higher.
Collectively, the variants make up more than half of recent cases, Westergaard said.
There were 14 COVID-19-related deaths in the state reported Thursday, but the daily average remained relatively low at six, and hospitalizations have yet to see a sharp rise. That could reflect the fact young people, who account for an increasing proportion of infections, are less prone to serious illness from the COVID-19 virus.
On Monday, every Wisconsinite over 16 became eligible for a vaccine, and the state is stressing to the more than 2,000 vaccinators in the state that when people make appointments, they can’t be turned away, regardless of insurance status or whether they have an ID.
“Let me be very clear,” Deputy Health Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said on Thursday, “if you are uninsured, you can get vaccinated. If you are undocumented, you can get vaccinated. If you are 16 or older, you can get vaccinated. And please, please, please do so.”
As of Thursday, the state has administered more than 3 million doses of vaccine to more than 2 million people, and at least a third of state residents have received at least one dose. Over 77% of people 65 and older have received at least one dose of two vaccines that require two shots, or got a dose of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. More than 65% of those 65 and older are fully vaccinated.
Overall, 35% of the state has received at least one shot and 22% are fully vaccinated.
The newest surge comes a week after the conservative-dominated state Supreme Court struck down the state’s mask mandate, the last statewide regulation in place to stem the spread of the virus, and as states and cities across the U.S. loosen restrictions.
Willems Van Dijk said people in the state need to act as if the mandate were still in place.
“There may not be a statewide mask mandate anymore, but that doesn’t decrease one iota the need for everybody to behave as if there is a state mask mandate," she said. "The worst thing in the world we can do right now is say, ‘No mandate, no mask.’”
Westergaard said he was troubled by the loosening of restrictions and called deemphasizing mask wearing a “grave mistake.”
“I’m very uncomfortable of the idea of loosening anything, with the exception of the guidance we’ve received from CDC about limited indoor gatherings among fully vaccinated people in households," he said. "I don’t think we should be changing anything.”
The state is continually ramping up efforts to get vaccine into arms, opening community clinics throughout the state, some with support from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
But that effort continues to be held up by supply. While the state’s allocation from the federal government of two-shot vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are holding steady, there has been a hiccup in the supply of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The state received 85,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine last week, but this week’s allocation was only 10,000 doses.
“Wisconsin is in the same boat as every state in the nation in terms of this allocation change,” Willems Van Dijk said.
She said some of the problems with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the latest one to win FDA approval, are the result of ironing out early-stage production issues, similar to those experienced by Moderna in Pfizer shortly after those vaccines were approved.
She said the situation is expected to improve in coming weeks, and Johnson & Johnson is on track to deliver a promised 100 million doses nationally by the end of May.
"What I anticipate is we’ll have a few weeks of famine, and then we’ll have a feast of Johnson & Johnson vaccine as we head into the month of May,” she said.