By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — Almost 50 percent of Wisconsin residents have completed the vaccine series for SARS-CoV-2, but officials from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services say that’s not enough.
A vaccination rate of 80 percent is necessary to keep the virus that causes COVID-19 from circulating and mutating, said Julie Willems Van Dijk, DHS Deputy Secretary, during a media briefing July 22 live streamed over the Internet on YouTube.
One reporter from WBAY in Green Bay noted that the United States Surgeon General has issued a warning about misinformation concerning COVID-19 and the vaccines and asked what strategy DHS is using to provide accurate information.
DHS is using an evidence-informed campaign with the media and also has an evidence-informed campaign for local doctors. Patients tend to trust their doctors to give them accurate information, Van Dijk said.
“Let’s clarify what is true. The vaccines are safe. The vaccines are effective. Without a vaccine, you are a sitting duck for COVID-19,” she said.
Infection rates of COVID-19 are increasing in Wisconsin. The seven day average is now 242 cases. Two weeks ago, the seven day average was 85 cases, Van Dijk said.
In other states, 83 percent of the sequenced cases of COVID-19 are the Delta variant. The same trend is occurring in Wisconsin. The Delta variant is extremely infectious, and it spreads more quickly than any other form of COVID to date — and it is spreading to the unvaccinated, she said.
Two weeks ago, there were 74 people in Wisconsin hospitalized with COVID-19. The day before the media briefing, there were 143 people hospitalized, Van Dijk said.
When people are asked why they are not vaccinated, they cite misinformation that they have received from their family, friends and from social media, she said.
Van Dijk quoted a doctor in Alabama.
“I’m admitting young healthy people to the hospital with very serious COVID infections. One of the last things they do before they’re intubated is beg me for the vaccine. I hold their hand and tell them that I’m sorry, but it’s too late,” Dr. Brytney Cobia wrote in a Facebook post on Sunday, July 18.
Dr. Cobia goes on to write, “A few days later when I call time of death, I hug their family members and I tell them the best way to honor their loved one is to go get vaccinated and encourage everyone they know to do the same. They cry. And they tell me they didn’t know. They thought it was a hoax. They thought it was political. They thought because they had a certain blood type or a certain skin color they wouldn’t get as sick. They thought it was ‘just the flu’. But they were wrong. And they wish they could go back. But they can’t. So they thank me, and they go get the vaccine. And I go back to my office, write (the) death note, and say a small prayer that this loss will save more lives.”
The deaths of young, healthy people from COVID-19 can be stopped by getting vaccinated, Van Dijk said.
“Every COVID-19 death is now a preventable death,” she said.
One reporter asked about “hotspots” in the state for COVID-19.
Hospitalizations have greatly increased in Southeastern Wisconsin and in the Fox Valley, said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, Chief Medical Officer, DHS Bureau of Communicable Diseases.
But there are more cases of the disease all over the state, he said.
Another reporter from Fox 6 out of Milwaukee asked if there was concern about other variants of the virus.
COVID-19 requires on-going vigilance. The variants of concern create a high viral load and some are less well treated with the monoclonal antibodies, Dr. Westergaard said.
The Delta variant is of the biggest concern now because it became widespread so quickly, he said.
Variants of high consequence would be mutants of the virus that “escape” the vaccine — which would be a “survival of the fittest” virus, Dr. Westergaard said.
To avoid spreading the existing variants and creating more variants, transmission must be reduced, he said.
Another reporter asked about break-through cases, which are cases of COVID-19 in people who are fully vaccinated.
Fully vaccinated people can become infected with SARS-CoV-2, but their symptoms are milder, and vaccinated people almost never require hospitalization.
About 1.6 percent of the break-through cases develop severe disease and require hospitalization, Dr. Westergaard said.
The vaccine produces a 90 percent reduction in the risk of contracting COVID-19. No vaccine is 100 percent, he said.
Hospitalization and death can be avoided. If the virus goes unchecked, it will infect every person on earth, and that will mean millions more people are dead, Dr. Westergaard said.
How many cases of polio do you know of in your day-to-day life? What about measles? Or diphtheria? Van Dijk asked.
Those diseases are not present and killing us day-to-day because we have highly effective vaccines, she said.
When the vaccines were developed for those diseases, people became vaccinated and got their children vaccinated, because there was no misinformation circulated by social media, Van Dijk said.
Almost all of the cases of COVID-19 now are in unvaccinated people, she said.
Another reporter asked if an 80 percent vaccination rate was a realistic goal.
“Never say never,” Van Dijk replied.
In states where the hospitals are now over-flowing with COVID-19 patients, they are seeing an increase in the vaccination rate, she said.
When vaccinations started in Wisconsin, there were tens of thousands of people starting the vaccine series daily. The rate has slowed down to 5,000 or 6,000 people starting the vaccines every day, Van Dijk said.
The rate of vaccination in Wisconsin is slow, “but it will get us there,” she said.
To date, 5.7 million doses of SARS-CoV-2 vaccine have been administered in Wisconsin.
In Dunn County, not quite 40 percent of the people are fully vaccinated.
Children ages 12 to 17 are eligible to receive the Pfizer vaccine, and Van Dijk recommended that parents arrange for their children to be vaccinated now so they can get the second dose in two weeks and be fully vaccinated by the time school starts.
Vaccinated children — and adults — will make life easier. The children and the adults in the family will not have to quarantine if they are vaccinated and are then exposed to the virus, she said.
A reporter from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel asked about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for wearing masks in school.
In elementary school, the students are too young to be vaccinated right now. Everyone should wear masks, even the vaccinated teachers and staff, Van Dijk said.
The teachers and staff can be good role models for the students, and it may be too confusing for the unvaccinated elementary students if they have to wear a mask but their teacher does not, she said.
School boards and superintendents will have to make local decisions about the best way to protect students and staff, Van Dijk said.
A reporter from the Wisconsin State Journal asked if colleges and universities should be requiring proof of vaccination for the fall semester.
It will be important for colleges and universities to make the vaccines readily available for students who are returning for the fall semester, Van Dijk said.
The key is accessibility and to provide factual information. Making easy access to the vaccines will help control the spread of COVID-19, she said.
A reporter from Wisconsin Public Radio noted that last fall, some college towns in Wisconsin saw an increase in the infection rate when the students came back to school and asked if that was a concern now.
“Yes, it is a concern,” Dr. Westergaard said.
Last year, the fall surge in coronavirus cases started after the students came back. The students were not the only reason for the surge, but the return to college campuses contributed to the surge, he said.
A fall surge of cases will be preventable if people get vaccinated, Dr. Westergaard said.
A reporter from the Eau Claire Leader Telegram noted that last spring, DHS officials had said the actual infection rate of COVID-19 was ten times what was indicated by positive test results and asked if that was true of the Delta variant as well.
The Delta variant can spread quickly and easily without symptoms, Dr. Westergaard said.
When people are testing positive, that’s “the tip of the iceberg,” and it has been a challenge to quantify, he said.
“We know we are missing many cases,” Dr. Westergaard said.
A cold virus is now also spreading, and it is very important for people who have symptoms to be tested for COVID-19, he said.
Everyone with symptoms and everyone who is exposed to COVID should be tested, Dr. Westergaard said.
The Milwaukee Bucks just won their first National Basketball Association (NBA) championship in 50 years.
A reporter for the Associated Press noted there were tens of thousands of people who gathered in person for the championship basketball game and that tens of thousands of more people would be in the streets of Milwaukee that day for a parade for the Bucks.
Are those huge gatherings a concern? he asked.
“Go Bucks!” Van Dijk replied, adding, “Yes, we are concerned.”
Only half of the people in Wisconsin are fully vaccinated, “but I did not see half of the people at the game wearing a mask,” she said.
The recommendation in mass gatherings is that people who are not vaccinated should wear masks.
The basketball game created a boisterous atmosphere with people yelling — and people yelling sets up the perfect opportunity to spread the COVID infection, Van Dijk said.
“I anticipate seeing additional cases from the Bucks’ events,” she said.
The recommendation is if you are unvaccinated, you should wear a mask, but in the case of something like a championship basketball game where there are so many people, it would make sense for everyone to wear a mask, Van Dijk said.