It’s a race between vials and viruses as highly contagious strains infect young adults and more clinics are being opened.
Coronavirus cases in Wisconsin continue their surge of recent weeks, with new daily cases topping 1,000 Thursday even as the number of state residents receiving at least one vaccination against the virus topped 2 million.
Cases of COVID-19 have risen since mid-March and have grown more substantially during the past week, according to state Department of Health Services (DHS) figures. On Thursday DHS reported 1,046 new cases, a figure last reached more than two months ago.
That total comes one day after the state reported 886 new cases, a trend that worries public health officials across the state. The seven-day average of new cases statewide topped 700 Thursday, nearly double the 380 average reported on March 10.
“We are in a new phase of the epidemic that is clearly worse than we were before, and it’s transmission among young people who are driving the change in the curve,” Dr. Ryan Westergaard, DHS’ top infectious disease expert, said in a Thursday call with reporters.
Westergaard said right now marks the first time during the pandemic in which people under age 18 are the largest source of transmission.
The looming surge comes as Wisconsin is left with no statewide COVID-19 safeguards after the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Gov. Tony Evers’ mask mandate. The Republican-led Legislature has repeatedly refused to issue statewide restrictions.
“The worst thing in the world we can do right now is say, ‘No mandate, no mask,’” Deputy DHS Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said.
Those troubling figures come as health departments, hospitals, pharmacies and other groups in Wisconsin continue to vaccinate as many people as possible against the virus, and are further evidence of the need to do so rapidly, health officials said.
Wisconsin is now in a race between vaccinations and the more-contagious COVID-19 variants that Westergaard said are quickly overtaking the original strain. The state has made good progress on vaccinations; DHS reported Thursday more than 2 million residents, or 35% of the population, have received at least one dose of vaccine, and almost 1.3 million, or 22% of residents have completed their vaccine series.
“This [surge] is not an indicator the vaccine isn’t working,” Willems Van Dijk said. “It’s an indicator we have to keep patience while we continue to build those vaccine levels.”
County health officers across Wisconsin said they are partnering with hospitals, pharmacies, and other providers to coordinate vaccinations of as many people as possible. While the state’s vaccination rollout is among the best in the nation, local health officers said the amount of vaccine requested lags demand in many areas.
“We are not going to get to 100% vaccine coverage probably this year, and there’s a danger of the epidemic getting out of control and having unnecessary severe illnesses and deaths,” Westergaard said.
In Eau Claire, 700 people were scheduled to be vaccinated against the virus Thursday, the opening day of a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) vaccination site at UW-Eau Claire’s Zorn Arena. The site is scheduled to provide 3,500 vaccinations weekly for the next three weeks, then expand that figure to 7,000 beginning April 29.
Other FEMA COVID-19 vaccination sites are located in Milwaukee and Madison.
In recent weeks between 4,000 and 6,000 COVID-19 vaccinations have occurred in Eau Claire County. The new FEMA site there will greatly add to the region’s ability to vaccinate against the virus, Eau Claire City-County Health Department Director Lieske Giese said.
The new site “is an enormous increase in capacity,” Giese said during a media event at the new site. “We need as many vaccinations and as many options for people as we can get.”
Kelli Engen, health officer in St. Croix County, said more vaccination sites are needed. Driven by its proximity to Minnesota, where cases are surging, and people vacationing during the recent spring break, the county is averaging 31.8 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents during the past seven days, the highest figure in Wisconsin, according to DHS data.
“We are seeing a ton of disease activity in St. Croix County for a variety of reasons,” Engen said. “The virus is not gone, and we need people to continue to wear masks, stay home when they’re sick, and maintain physical distancing.”
Many counties, including Dane and Milwaukee counties, have reported significantly more positive COVID-19 cases in recent days. Bayfield County has experienced a recent spike in cases and trails only St. Croix County in a seven-day average of new positive cases, at 31.4 per 100,000 residents.
Efforts like the FEMA vaccination site in Eau Claire are needed with the continued rise in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, said Elizabeth Klasen, emergency preparedness program specialist in the St. Croix County Health Department. That site will serve people in surrounding counties who may not be able to access vaccinations where they live, she said.
Engen agreed, noting vaccine supply in her area has been inconsistent and lags demand. Giese said she has been assured the FEMA site will receive enough vaccine from the federal government to keep pace with vaccination capacity, but acknowledged supply has lagged the amount of vaccine requested.
“Vaccine availability has been our biggest challenge in Eau Claire,” she said, noting that the FEMA site is intended to serve as a regional vaccination hub. “There are many, many people in this region who still need to get vaccinated.”
On Thursday, Gov. Tony Evers’ office announced that a community-based vaccination clinic will open in Douglas County next week at UW-Superior’s Wessman Arena with plans to administer at least 200 doses per day, dependent on vaccine supply. Appointments can be made on the Wisconsin COVID-19 Vaccine Registry.