In this image from WisconsinEye, Gov. Tony Evers announces that all Wisconsinites age 16 and old will be eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine starting April 5.
Gov. Tony Evers speaks during a briefing on COVID-19. (Screenshot via WisEye)

Evers, state health officials, urge vaccinations and masks to stave off the Delta variant.

With COVID-19’s Delta variant spreading rampantly across Wisconsin after a period of declining infection numbers, Gov. Tony Evers on Thursday returned for his first public pandemic briefing with the Department of Health Services (DHS) since May to urge people to get vaccinated against the virus. 

Evers said he hoped he wouldn’t have to return for another coronavirus briefing, but the state’s alarming virus spike called for him to step in. The seven-day daily average of new COVID-19 cases has doubled in the last two weeks, and the rate is 11 times higher than a month ago. All 72 counties in the state are reporting high or very high disease activity. 

“Vaccines can and will save lives,” Evers said.

To date, almost 635,000 Wisconsinites have tested positive for COVID-19 and almost 7,500 have died. Just 21 out of 2.9 million fully vaccinated people have died of the virus in Wisconsin. 

DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk echoed the governor’s sentiments, relaying why vaccination is so important now that cases are surging again. 

“The Delta variant is a whole new game because it is highly contagious, much more contagious than the original strain of COVID-19,” Willems Van Dijk said. She explained that the Delta variant can spread to five times as many people as the normal coronavirus strain. “If you are unvaccinated and exposed, it’s not a matter of if you’ll get it,” she said. 

The health officials also spoke on mask-wearing becoming more important again with the highly contagious variant. 

RELATED: The Delta Variant is Spreading Rapidly. Wisconsin Health Officials Are Recommending Masks Again.

Van Dijk compared the practice of mask-wearing to wearing seatbelts on airplanes: Passengers wear their seatbelts when the plane is taking off and landing, but when the plane is coasting through the air, the pilot allows passengers to unbuckle, similar to how vaccinated people unmasked as cases were trending down. However, the Delta variant is causing some turbulence, and people need to return to wearing masks regardless of vaccination status, just as the flight crew asks people to return to their seats and buckle up during a patch of rough air. 

Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer of the DHS Bureau of Communicable Diseases, is urging school districts to adopt DHS recommendations of requiring masks for students and staff rather than mask-optional policies. 

“One of the biggest differences we can make in the coming month is to make sure that when we go back to school, we make those environments as safe as possible, and that includes everyone wearing masks, not just an individual choice, which protects the wearer, but everyone who might be infected without symptoms and to spread it to others,” Westergaard said. “So masks are tools that work best when everyone in the environment wears them.”

Evers also expressed his support for school board members who are taking precautions to keep their districts safe from COVID-19, trying to both balance an obligation to their constituents and the scientific guidance simultaneously. 

“It has never been more difficult to be a school board member in the state of Wisconsin,” Evers said. 

Evers said he will make a decision on whether to require vaccines for state employees in the next week or so. He also supports health care institutions making this same decision, as many of them already require vaccine records for the flu, chicken pox, measles, mumps, and other diseases. However, it is unlikely that he would issue a mandate to vaccinate school staff similar to the action of California Gov. Gavin Newsom, as Evers is severely limited by the state Supreme Court and Republican state lawmakers. 

The White House has stated that COVID-19 vaccine boosters may soon be available to the immunocompromised, but Westergaard said as of right now, it is not necessary for Wisconsinites to get a third dose, especially if they have a strong immune system.