What to know about COVID-19 in Wisconsin this week

MILWAUKEE — “We do not have good news to report this week.” 

That’s how Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett described the current COVID-19 trends at a Tuesday briefing. After months of promising decline, coronavirus numbers in Milwaukee — and across the entire state of Wisconsin — have headed back in the wrong direction in the past few weeks. 

What You Need To Know

  • COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are back on the rise in Wisconsin and across the country
  • The delta variant is dominating: It made up around 90% of sequenced cases in Wisconsin in July
  • Average case numbers have reached their highest levels in six months
  • Vaccinated people are still protected from the delta variant, but should wear masks indoors in most Wisconsin counties, according to CDC guidance

The current surge, fueled by the extra-contagious delta variant, has proven that the pandemic isn’t over yet, and the situation in the Badger State is constantly evolving. 

Here, we break down some of the latest trends to be aware of in Wisconsin.


How fast is COVID-19 spreading in the state?

According to DHS data, Wisconsin is currently averaging more than 1,100 confirmed cases per day. That case average is more than 15 times as high as it was at the start of July.

We haven’t seen numbers this high since February, when the state was coming off its massive fall-to-winter surge. 

The sharp turnaround in COVID-19 trends is putting a damper on a summer that sometimes felt like a “new normal.” 

After massive crowds gathered in Milwaukee to cheer on the Bucks’ championship run, Milwaukee health officials report that almost 500 coronavirus cases have been potentially linked to the Deer District celebrations. And with the school year just around the corner, more kids are testing positive for the virus, according to DHS data.

As infections have gone up, severe outcomes are following in their wake.

COVID-19 hospitalizations as of Tuesday are more than five times as high as they were a month ago, according to Wisconsin Hospital Association data. While deaths are still fairly low, officials said they think we could see that trend change in the coming weeks.

“This surge is not just causing mild symptoms,” Ben Weston, director of medical services at the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management, said at a briefing last week. “It’s putting people in the hospital, and will soon cause a rise in deaths as well.”

Most cases are still among unvaccinated people: According to the DHS, “breakthrough” infections made up fewer than 2% of cases from January 1 through July 22.


What’s the status of the delta variant in Wisconsin?

CDC data shows that delta has quickly climbed to become the dominant strain of the coronavirus across the U.S. — including in Wisconsin.

In July, delta cases made up almost 90% of sequenced samples in Wisconsin, according to a statewide dashboard

That’s a sharp rise from previous months: In June, the variant only made up around 33% of sequenced samples, according to the dashboard. In May, delta sat at just around 2% of samples, still dwarfed by the spread of the alpha variant.

Out of all the variants we’ve seen so far, delta poses the biggest threat, DHS officials said. 

The delta variant spreads much more easily than the original form of the virus. It could be about as contagious as chickenpox, according to a CDC report. 


What about national trends?

Wisconsinites aren’t the only ones seeing COVID-19 cases on the rise. In fact, every state has seen its average daily cases go up in the past two weeks, according to a New York Times tracker.

Compared to other states, Wisconsin has seen the fourth-worst trends in the past two weeks for both cases and hospitalizations, Weston said Tuesday.

The south is also being hit especially hard by the current surge. Louisiana has more new cases now than at any other point in the pandemic; Florida’s hospitals are quickly filling up with COVID-19 patients.

Experts are split on how long the current U.S. surge will sustain itself. The United Kingdom, which saw a similar delta-fueled surge this summer, has started to see its cases fall again, which could be a sign of what’s to come.

But some models predict that we’ll be stuck in the current climb for at least a few more weeks — especially if Americans don’t change their behavior to stop the spread.

“Given the rate is going up, it’s either going to peak earlier than we anticipated or peak much, much higher than we anticipated,” University of North Carolina epidemiologist Justin Lessler told The Hill. “I think probably both are going to be true.”


How is Wisconsin’s vaccine progress going?

Over 3 million Wisconsin residents — or slightly more than half of everyone in the state — has gotten at least one vaccine dose, the DHS reports.

Weekly doses have gone up slightly in recent weeks, after facing a steep dropoff from their spring peak, according to DHS data. 

Vaccinators in the state gave out 54,308 shots in the first week of August, compared to 37,427 doses in early July. That’s still much lower than the rates we saw earlier in the rollout, but the weekly totals have increased every week for the past four weeks.

The same trend is repeating itself across the country, with vaccination rates picking back up after a midsummer lull. 

Still, millions of Wisconsinites (and more than 100 million Americans) remain unvaccinated and vulnerable to COVID-19 — including the kids under 12 who are still not eligible for their shots.

Amid the rise in cases and the delta variant’s threat, some groups are taking extra steps to encourage vaccinations.

Colleges including Marquette University and Lawrence University are requiring students to get their shots. Ascension Wisconsin, SSM Health and Mayo Clinic have all recently announced vaccine mandates for their workers as well.

And as music lovers are gearing up for the return of Summerfest next month, the music festival announced that audience members will have to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to attend.


Should I be masking up?

Almost all of Wisconsin’s counties are facing either “substantial” or “high” community transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That means most Wisconsinites should be wearing masks indoors, even if they’re vaccinated, per the CDC’s latest guidance.

Getting vaccinated is still the best way to prevent a COVID-19 infection, including from the delta variant, officials emphasized. 

But our vaccines aren’t perfect. Breakthrough infections can happen — and they are happening, even if they’re still rare and tend to be mild.

New research suggests that fully vaccinated people who do get infected with the delta variant still carry a lot of virus and can probably infect others — which didn’t seem to be the case with other versions of the virus. 

That’s a big reason why the CDC changed its mask guidance for vaccinated people: To make sure they don’t unknowingly spread the virus to others.

“Our vaccines are working exceptionally well,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told CNN. “They continue to work well for delta, with regard to severe illness and death – they prevent it. But what they can’t do anymore is prevent transmission.”

Or, as Weston put it, “vaccines are very effective at protecting you” — but adding on other measures, like wearing a mask, can help protect others, too.

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