Health officials urge caution as COVID-19 cases increase and new variant is identified – Daily Cardinal

Health officials urged caution in Wisconsin as new COVID-19 cases increased slightly and a new strain was identified Thursday, as vaccinations pick up across the state.

On Sunday, the state’s seven-day average of new confirmed cases was 473 cases, an increase from early March. The seven-day percent positive rate also increased to 2.7 percent on Sunday, an increase from the low 2 percent range in early March. 

The case activity level remains high in most counties in Wisconsin, including Dane County. In fall, Department of Health Services (DHS) officials added a “critically high” category to reflect the severe spread of COVID-19 in Wisconsin. 

“I think in a way, we’ve been lulled into a sense of security here in Wisconsin because we had the [case activity level] so bad, but just having it bad doesn’t seem too awful to us,” DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said.

Cases are increasing nationwide, and health officials are warning that the country could face another surge. On Thursday, Van Dijk cautioned spring break travelers. 

“We don’t want to be bringing variants into Wisconsin that could spread to other folks when you come back who are still susceptible. We’re making great progress, I’m very proud of what’s happening across the state,” Van Dijk said. “We need to get these vaccine levels up a little higher before we risk bringing further disease into our state.” 

On Thursday, the state identified a third variant strain of the virus that causes COVID-19 called P.1. According to DHS, the P.1 variant has “unique mutations” that may affect the ability of antibodies generated through previous infection or vaccination to fight the virus. 

The state has identified one case of the P.1 variant, two cases of the B.1.351 variant and 78 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant. According to the CDC, the variants seem to spread more easily and quickly than other variants of the virus.

“Because these new variants of concern may spread more easily than the original strain of SARS-CoV-2, it is important to get vaccinated when you are able. Vaccines, along with our other public health practices, give the virus less of an opportunity to spread and mutate,” DHS Chief Medical Officer Ryan Westergaard said.

Republicans criticized Evers last week after the state linked nearly 1,000 COVID-19-related deaths to long-term care facilities, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The state listed some deaths under the “unknown” housing setting. 

The state is now reporting that 45 percent of confirmed COVID-19 deaths have occurred in long-term care facilities, up from previously reported data of between 26 and 30 percent. Nursing homes have dealt with some of the worst outbreaks during the pandemic.

Twenty-six percent of cases still have an unknown group housing setting, and health officials don’t expect that number to be further reduced, according to WisPolitics.com. Three percent of deaths have occurred in other group housing settings, including correctional facilities, where 25 inmates have died due to COVID-19, according to the Department of Corrections.

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The updates are part of an effort by DHS to improve the state’s COVID-19 data. DHS explained to the AP that previously reported COVID-19 numbers have changed due to data cleanup efforts. Van Dijk said at a media briefing Tuesday that COVID-19 data was pushed out as quickly as possible so Wisconsinites could react to the pandemic.

“We have been doing a number of activities to review our data and improve our data. This is a normal part of what epidemiologists do as they track diseases in our state,” Van Dijk said. “Now we’re going back and doing the reconciliation and cleaning that we normally would have done before you ever would have seen the data.”

Meanwhile, over 2.7 million vaccines have been administered in Wisconsin. Health officials expanded eligibility last week to people with certain medical conditions, which are listed on the DHS website

Van Dijk said health officials are “constantly evaluating” whether the May 1 general eligibility date could be moved up, which could depend on the state’s vaccine supply. Other neighboring states plan to open up vaccinations to the general public in late March or early April, according to NBC 15

Over 29 percent of Wisconsinites have received at least one dose and 17 percent have completed the full series of doses. Over half of residents over the age of 65 are fully vaccinated and nearly three-quarters have received at least one dose. 

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Hope Karnopp

state news writer

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