Over one million Wisconsin residents have received at least one vaccine dose, nearly double the number of cumulative total confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state since the beginning of the pandemic.
As of Wednesday, 19 percent of Wisconsinites have received at least one dose and 10.8 percent have completed the vaccine series. One third of residents over the age of 65 have been fully vaccinated and nearly two thirds have received at least one dose, according to state Department of Health Services (DHS) data.
Significant racial disparities are still present in vaccinations, with 18.1 percent of white Wisconsinites receiving at least one dose compared to 6.4 percent of Black Wisconsinites.
Wisconsin’s vaccine rollout continues to be ranked highly compared to other states. On Wednesday, Wisconsin ranked fourth in distributing the doses it was allocated at 84.8 percent, according to CDC data.
Health officials are expected to announce a new round of eligible groups by the end of the week, which will include about 2 million residents with pre-existing health conditions. DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said last week that “eligibility for everybody in May is a very realistic goal.”
“It will depend on how many people we already have vaccinated in May, whether we’ll be able to finish eligibility for everybody who wants in May,” Van Dijk said. “I think it’s likely to go into June, and maybe even early July. Because it just depends on how many people are going to raise their hand and want to be in line, because we are not going to have unlimited vaccine supply.”
The seven-day average of newly confirmed cases has steadily declined since the beginning of 2021. On Tuesday, the average number of cases confirmed over the past week was 391. In comparison, Wisconsin’s seven-day average peaked in mid-November at 6,563 cases.
The seven-day percent positive rate has also decreased since the beginning of the year, with the state reporting 2.1 percent and Dane County reporting a 0.8 percent positive rate over the past week.
UW-Madison Associate Professor of Population Health Sciences and infectious disease expert Ajay Sethi said that vaccinations are not directly tied to the drop in cases across the state, rather “what’s really happening is that people’s behavior has changed.”
Looking back and looking forward
Friday will mark one year since Gov. Tony Evers first declared a public health emergency in Wisconsin in response to COVID-19. An emergency declaration and mask mandate are still in place, although Republicans continue to challenge the governor’s emergency powers.
On March 24, Evers declared his “safer-at-home” order, which permitted residents to leave their homes only for essential activities and closed schools and non-essential businesses. The Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down the order in May, and a case regarding Evers’ ability to declare multiple emergency declarations is still pending before the state’s high court.
This week, Republican lawmakers introduced bills that would require legislative leaders to approve emergency declarations and prohibit the governor from issuing consecutive declarations on closely related issues.
Gridlock between the Democratic governor and Republican-controlled legislature has continued throughout the pandemic. Evers vetoed a COVID-19 relief package in early February after it had bounced between chambers.
Meanwhile, new CDC guidance is offering hope to people who have been fully vaccinated, including older Americans who have not seen their grandchildren for months.
On Monday, the CDC announced it is safe for fully vaccinated people to gather indoors without masks with others who are fully vaccinated or unvaccinated people from another household unless anyone has an increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19. Still, the CDC said fully vaccinated people should still follow social distancing and mask wearing when in public.
Sethi said that the new CDC guidelines take into account a growing body of evidence that suggests the vaccines can reduce the risk of transmission.
“The key thing is if someone is vaccinated, they can still get infected. But infected doesn’t mean you’re infectious,” Sethi explained. “There are some studies to show that people who have tested PCR positive despite vaccination have lower viral loads, indicating that the virus may not be replicating enough to be passed on.”
The CDC’s background information for the new guidelines states that “taking steps toward relaxing certain measures for vaccinated persons may help improve COVID-19 vaccine acceptance and uptake.”
Recent polling from the Pew Research Center shows 69 percent of the public intends to get vaccinated or already has — up from 60 percent in November.
Sethi said that he’s hesitant to “give people an impression that we are on some path to herd immunity.” He said the range for people who should be vaccinated to reach a return to normal is about 70 to 80 percent.
“That assumes absolutely everybody who is offered that vaccine accepts it, and that’s not going to happen,” he said. “Right now, we have been on a path to managing the spread of COVID because of mitigation, and that is much more desirable than sort of a path to herd immunity, which means people in the community will have immunity from the vaccine and also from past infection.”
Hope Karnopp is the news manager and dabbles in music reviews at The Daily Cardinal. She previously hosted the Cardinal Call for WORT-FM and edited state news.