COVID-19 continues gradual decline, but the pandemic remains active in Wisconsin

As COVID-19 cases continue to gradually decline in number, the state health department is encouraging residents to stock up on free tests for the viral illness and bracing for the federal state of emergency sparked by the pandemic to end in May. 

The pandemic isn’t over yet, says Ajay Sethi, an epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. 

“I don’t know what non-pandemic necessarily looks like, because we just haven’t seen a pattern yet that we can feel is predictable,” Sethi said in an interview Friday.  

Ajay Sethi, UW-Madison

There is not enough information to say that COVID-19 is a seasonal illness, he said, such as influenza, which recurs annually on a predictable cycle. 

“Socially, and of course, politically, the pandemic is feeling like it’s over. But not for everybody — there’s the immunocompromised and the elderly, in whom the deaths and morbidity are concentrated,” Sethi said. “We still have to be concerned for them.” 

On Friday, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) extended a program for state residents to order 10 COVID-19 tests to be sent to their homes each month.  

The “Say Yes! Covid Test” program is a joint project of state and local health departments. It delivers two test kits, each containing five rapid antigen tests that people administer at home.  

With the end of the public health emergency in May, insurance coverage for the cost of a test is not guaranteed. Epidemiologists Katelyn Jetelina and Caitlin Rivers, who write a Substack column on public health, suggest planning to stock up on free tests when the deadline gets closer.

“It’s important that we continue to provide equitable access to COVID-19 testing to stop the spread of this disease,” DHS Deputy Secretary Deb Standridge said in the department’s announcement. “Ordering test kits though the website is quick, easy, and free for any Wisconsin household, and you do not need health insurance to place an order.” 

The test kits can be ordered monthly from the program’s website at SayYesCovidHomeTest.org. People without internet access can get help by calling 211 or 877-947-2211.  

More than 1.6 million orders have been placed in Wisconsin for the test kits since the program started in September 2022, according to DHS.  

Wisconsin is recording on average 510 new cases of COVID-19 per day, the health department reports, the lowest number since early April 2022. Those numbers are unlikely to include people who test positive from a home test and don’t consult a doctor or other health providers, however.  

Broader immunity has been keeping people out of the hospital, Sethi said. More reliance on home testing — or on not bothering to test at all — makes it more difficult to gauge the accuracy of the official case numbers.  

CDC Wisconsin COVID-19 Community Levels, 2/9/2023 No Wisconsin counties have high COVID community levels (orange) as of this week. COVID community levels are medium (yellow) in 14 counties and low (green) in the rest of the state. Community levels were updated Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023. They reflect new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population over seven days through Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023; new COVID-19 hospital admissions per 100,000 population over seven days; and percentage of inpatient beds occupied by COVID-19 patients (seven-day average) through Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023. (Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) (Click on the image to open it in a larger window.)

Over the last nine months, the average number of deaths per day from COVID-19 has ranged from 1 or 2 per day to up to 9 per day. Over the last seven days, the average number of people in the hospital with the illness on any given day was about 380. 

Testing is important, Sethi said, although he believes there may be fewer people who bother to take home tests, even with symptoms.  

With the spread of other upper respiratory illnesses like influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), “it can also be very challenging to know what you actually have,” he said. “For all of them, as long as you’re not too severe in your symptoms, the recommendations are the same: over-the-counter medications, rest and hydration.” 

The people who are most likely to still be taking COVID-19 tests “are going to be the ones who have personal vulnerability for severe disease or are going to be around people who are vulnerable to severe disease,” Sethi added. 

Since a huge spike in cases more than a year ago from the omicron variant of the novel coronavirus responsible for COVID-19, new variants have come along about every six weeks, replacing the variants that preceded them, he said. Yet none have caused a similar spike. 

At this point there’s “a theoretical chance” for a new surge, but Sethi said it appears less likely based on recent patterns.

COVID 19 community transmission as of Feb. 9, 2023 Community transmission for COVID-19 is high (red) in 29 Wisconsin counties, substantial (orange) in 23, moderate (yellow) in 17 and low (blue) in 2 counties. The ratings combine a county’s rate of new cases over seven days through Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023, and the percentage of positive tests in the county over seven days through Monday, Feb. 6, 2023. (Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) (Click on the image to open it in a larger window.)

According to the weekly Centers for Disease Control map that factors in reported infection rates as well as hospitalization for COVID-19, all but 14 Wisconsin counties have a “low” community level currently. The CDC updates those assessments every Thursday. 

Counties with a “medium” community level are primarily in the southeast and portions of the Fox Valley. The CDC recommends that where the community level is medium, people who may be more vulnerable to the virus consult with health providers about whether they should wear a mask. 

Meanwhile, community spread of COVID-19 around the state is still going strong. A second CDC map shows community transmission is high in 29 counties, substantial in 23 and moderate in 17. It’s low in two counties: Florence, in the far northeast, and Richland in the southwest. 

Almost 62% of Wisconsin residents have received the original COVID-19 vaccine, according to DHS. But fewer than 20% have received the most recent version — called the bivalent vaccine because it targets more recent generations of the virus as well as earlier versions. 

The newer vaccine’s uptake “has the pattern we would want, which is older people are more likely to get it,” Sethi said. “But even for people age 60 and over, it’s too low.” About 45% of Wisconsin residents 65 and older have received the bivalent vaccine, according to DHS, while 29% of people ages 55-64 have received it. 

The CDC is expected to decide in June which COVID-19 vaccines will be recommended for the fall, he said. Already, however, COVID-19 vaccines have been added to the list of recommended vaccines for school children in the coming school year.  




originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2023%2F02%2F13%2Fcovid-19-continues-gradual-decline-but-the-pandemic-remains-active-in-wisconsin%2F by Erik Gunn

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