The number of new COVID-19 cases is starting to increase in Wisconsin again, creating concern among public health officials as the beginning of the school year quickly approaches.
The state Department of Health Services reported 342 new cases of the disease Thursday, bringing the average for the past seven days to 242 daily cases. That’s nearly three times higher than the average two weeks ago, according to DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk.
During a Thursday media briefing, Willems Van Dijk said getting eligible children vaccinated now is a priority so they can finish their vaccine series and be fully protected by the time school starts.
"Not only does the vaccine protect our students and make in-person activities safer, it also can make parents and guardians lives easier because vaccinated children don't have the quarantine after a close contact," Willems Van Dijk said.
Like the previous school year, Willems Van Dijk said it will be up to local school boards and superintendents to decide on mask requirements for their districts. But she said whether students or staff should wear a mask isn’t as simple as determining their vaccine status.
She pointed out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that elementary schools require masks for everyone because most students are too young to receive the vaccine.
"Likewise, CDC also is very clear that when disease rates are very high, everyone should wear a mask and get vaccinated so that disease rates will decrease," Willems Van Dijk said.
On Thursday, the Madison Metropolitan School District announced all students and staff will be required to wear masks while inside school buildings and traveling on buses in the fall.
In a letter to the district, Superintendent Carlton Jenkins said "now is not a time for complacency."
"The CDC, AAP, and local health experts continue to recommend masks as an effective tool for schools to keep COVID-19 metrics down; allow us to be physically together; and provide opportunities for safe, engaging and equitable in-person learning experiences for students," he wrote.
As of Thursday, 2,848,546 people in Wisconsin, or 48.9 percent of the population, have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
That includes almost 28 percent of the state’s 12- to 15-year-olds and 38 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds.
Just over 40 percent of Wisconsin residents age 18 to 24 are fully vaccinated.
Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer of the DHS Bureau of Communicable Diseases, said more college and university students in that age range need to get vaccinated in order to prevent increased transmission when they return to campus.
He pointed out that the beginning of the state’s fall surge started the week after many campuses opened to students, indicating that some transmission among students was a contributing factor to increased cases in the community.
"We know that this is how it works because we have the data. September of 2020 told that this is what happens when susceptible people come back from all over. We also know, based on vaccine efficacy, that it's completely preventable. So let’s prevent it," Westergaard said.
Willems Van Dijk said DHS is working with universities in the state to help make vaccines available on campus and communicate with students about their vaccine status.
The number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized has also been growing along with daily case numbers. As of Wednesday, 143 people were in the hospital with COVID-19, according to the Wisconsin Hospital Association. One week ago, there were 97 hospitalized patients.
Westergaard said southeastern Wisconsin and the Fox Valley are the two regions seeing the most concerning rise in hospitalizations.
"Cases are up all over the state, just as all over the country. But when we talk about the severe illness requiring hospitalizations, those are the two regions that seem to be leading the curve in terms of the increase in morbidity," Westergaard said.
Milwaukee saw huge crowds gather to watch the Milwaukee Bucks win the NBA Championship on Tuesday and celebrations continued in the city on Thursday. Willems Van Dijk congratulated the Bucks but warned the lack of masks at the large gatherings is concerning.
"That combination of likely unvaccinated people without masks in those close settings, the fact that people were really boisterous and yelling loud, which is a great way to spread infection, the presence of the Delta variant in our state — I anticipate we’ll see additional cases as a result," Willems Van Dijk said.
Willems Van Dijk said state officials are seeing the Delta variant represent an increasing proportion of sequenced COVID-19 cases in the state and warned that the variant will spread more quickly than previous versions of the virus, especially among unvaccinated individuals.