Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer for the state of Wisconsin, 
said Tuesday during a press briefing that "we really need to take the risk seriously that this progress can be undone because of novel variants." He is pictured at a June White Coats for Black Lives rally in Madison. (Photo © Andy Manis)
Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer for the state of Wisconsin, said Tuesday during a press briefing that "we really need to take the risk seriously that this progress can be undone because of novel variants." He is pictured at a June White Coats for Black Lives rally in Madison. (Photo © Andy Manis)

State case numbers have retreated to levels from five months ago, but mutations and legal complications could undo progress.

As Wisconsin rounds the corner into the second year of life during a pandemic, state health officials Tuesday warned the declining average in new COVID-19 daily cases and the benefits of an ever-growing percentage of the population vaccinated could be undone by a second wave of cases sparked by virus variants.

“We should be pleased with the progress we’ve made but we should be vigilant and really take seriously the risk that a second, additional wave of infections could occur,” said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, the state’s chief medical officer during a press briefing Tuesday. “We are not out of the woods yet and novel variants are a big part of why we need to remain vigilant.”

Westergaard’s warning came as Wisconsin now leads the country in the number of daily vaccines given and officials report 10% of state residents have been vaccinated. But on Tuesday, the second case of the coronavirus variant originating in the United Kingdom was reported in Wisconsin. 

Officials declined to provide additional information on the patient Tuesday, other than to say the case is in Waukesha County. This follows the first reported case of the same variant in Eau Claire County in mid-January. 

“We are very vulnerable,” Westergaard said. “We really need to take the risk seriously that this progress can be undone because of novel variants.” 

He added that while the South African variant is proving resistance to the AstraZeneca vaccine from Oxford University—which has not yet been authorized for emergency use in the United States— there is not enough data yet surrounding how the two vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna that are now in use across the United Stateswould react to the South African variant. 

“Right now, I think people are cautiously optimistic that the level of antibodies generated by the first two vaccines that are in authorization in the US might be good enough to protect against all the known variants,” Westergaard said. “But we don’t have direct data. There are no clinical trials yet like with AstraZeneca.”

In the first eight days of February, more than 7,900 Wisconsinites tested positive for COVID, marking the first time the daily average number of new infections dropped below 1,000 new cases since September. 

Gov. Tony Evers said the numbers are in stark contrast to where the state was just a few months ago, but “they are still dangerously high.” 

“We can’t let our guard down or give up the strategies we know save lives,” Evers said. “Our fight against this virus isn’t over. It’s not going away, especially as we see mutations of this virus in our state and other states.”

Evers was referring, in part, to statewide face mask safeguards—something the Republican-led state Legislature tried to kill last week, only to have Evers put out a new order.

Several hours after the press briefing, Jere Fabick, a prominent Repubilcan donor, filed a new lawsuit against Evers, claiming the state was in a “constitutional crisis” and the balance of power needs to be restored between the legislative and executive branches. 

Fabick claims this balance is thrown out of whack each time the governor issues an emergency order without going through legislative channels, such as the rule-making process. This is the second time during this pandemic that Fabick has sued the administration over coronavirus safeguards issued in conjunction with public health emergency orders. His first lawsuit against face mask requirements was argued before the state Supreme Court in November, but the justices have yet to issue a ruling.

The Evers administration repeatedly argues the COVID-19 pandemic is an ongoing public health emergency and that it can continue to declare public health emergencies as conditions during the pandemic ebb and flow.

If the court sides with Fabick, the statewide mask order will be overturned and the state will be under a very sparse patchwork of local mask requirements which themselves have been the target of legal threats and have been publicly ignored by several law enforcement officers.

“It’s not vaccines or masks,” Evers said. “It’s vaccines and masks.”