Wisconsin’s daily average of new COVID-19 cases dropped below 1,000 Tuesday for the first time in five months, as the state confirmed a second case of a worrisome new variant of the coronavirus — a mixed picture for which health officials voiced encouragement and caution.
“We should be pleased with the progress we’ve made, but we should be vigilant and really take seriously the risk that a second, an additional, wave of infections could occur,” said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, a chief medical officer for the state Department of Health Services.
The state’s second case of the B117 strain of the coronavirus, first discovered late last year in England, was confirmed in Waukesha County. The first case was identified in Eau Claire County last month, when health officials said it was likely more would be found.
Thirty-three states have reported a total of 690 cases of the B117 variant, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which appears to spread more rapidly and may carry an increased risk of death compared to the original COVID-19 virus.
Three states have reported six cases of another concerning variant first found in South Africa, and two states have reported three cases of one first identified in Brazil. It’s not clear how well vaccines work against the new strains, but the shots approved in the U.S. still appear to be effective.
Wisconsin and most states do the whole genome sequencing required to identify the variants on less than 1% of samples, so it’s likely more cases of the B117 strain are already here, Westergaard said. The same measures that prevent spread of all COVID-19 — avoiding gatherings, physical distancing, wearing masks, washing hands — work against the variants and could help prevent the emergence of more of them, he said.
“We’re detecting the tip of the iceberg,” Westergaard said. “The only way we can stop (the variants) is to stop the virus from spreading altogether.”
About 5% of samples in Dane County are sequenced, as the UW–Madison’s AIDS Vaccine Research Laboratory is one of four labs in the state doing the testing, along with the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene also located on campus. Westergaard said more resources are being sought to ramp up sequencing statewide.
The state reported 681 new cases of COVID-19 Tuesday, for a daily average of 970 cases, the lowest daily average since Sept. 9. Just 4% of tests were positive for the coronavirus, on average, down from nearly 18% in mid-November, and 572 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19, down from 2,277 on Nov. 16.
“Things are certainly looking up,” Gov. Tony Evers said during a media briefing, adding, however, that case numbers are “still dangerously high.”
Westergaard attributed the state’s decline in coronavirus activity to multiple factors, including natural immunity among those already infected, increased vaccination, more mask wearing and a renewed ability by local health departments to perform contact tracing, which they struggled to do when cases soared late last year.
As of Tuesday, 793,474 doses of COVID-19 vaccine had been given in Wisconsin, including 174,215 booster shots to people fully immunized with two doses. SSM Health said it has administered more than 50,000 doses in Wisconsin, and UW Health said it has given more than 18,000 first doses and 10,000 second doses. The providers, along with UnityPoint Health-Meriter, are targeting people 65 and older, of whom more than a third of residents statewide have now received at least one dose.
The state’s weekly allocation of vaccine from the federal government is now about 89,000 first doses, up from about 70,000 before, said Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy secretary of the state health department. Starting next week, a new federal program should bring another 18,000 doses a week to Walgreens retail pharmacies around the state, she said. Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine candidate, submitted for federal approval last week, could yield doses by next month if approved, she said.
Teachers, grocery store workers and several other groups to be added to Wisconsin’s phase 1b of vaccination are still tentatively scheduled to become eligible March 1, Willems Van Dijk said.