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Free COVID-19 tests available through the Wisconsin Department of Health

ICU beds are at 97% capacity statewide.
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Female doctor holds a face mask with "Omicron" variant text on it.

As of Tuesday, more than one in four Wisconsinites who were tested for the coronavirus — in results reported to the state — tested positive. Department of Health Services officials said there are even more cases that aren’t being tested or reported.

They’re urging people to follow guidelines of testing, vaccinating, masking and isolating. They said that will stem overcrowding in hospitals, and reduce stress on hospital staff.

Statewide, 2,002 people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. Four-hundred sixty-four of them are in the ICU. Ninety-seven percent of intensive care beds and 98% of immediate care beds are in use.

The 7-day average percent positive tests number is 25.9% and Dr. Ryan Westergaard calls the figure “astonishing.” He’s chief medical officer for the Department of Health Services Bureau of Communicable Diseases.

“As this first two months of the Omicron surge have gone on, I think it has surprised everyone how quickly it spreads and how widespread it is despite all what we've accomplished with vaccination and all we've learned,” said Westergaard. “That it's spreading this widely and our case numbers are this high, it’s a surprise to everyone.”

Officials said the rapid spread of the Omicron variant isn’t the only factor to blame for the numbers. Others are the holiday gatherings and the fact that people are spending more time indoors during the winter months.

Westergaard said some virus modeling he’s seen anticipates a peak in early to mid-January. But he said that’s speculation.

"How far are we from the peak? We don't really know. Some of the mock national models have said that January will be a bad month, all over," he said. "And it'll probably vary regionally where and when the peak is. I think for all of us, we'd love to see tomorrow be lower and for today to have been the peak and see less and less in the coming weeks. I don't think we're confident that that'll be the case. It won't shock us if we see higher case numbers this week and next week."

Westergaard said the message is "let's all do what we can." Traci DeSalvo, Director of the DHS Bureau of Communicable Diseases, agreed.

She said people who don’t have symptoms requiring immediate attention should not get tested at an urgent care facility or emergency room. They should contact their doctor, go to a community testing site, or use an at-home test.

“At home specimen collection kits are also available at no cost to Wisconsinites regardless of symptoms or exposure, and you can find more information about how to order those at home specimen collection kits on the DHS website,” DeSalvo said. “At home rapid tests are also available for purchase over the counter at pharmacies and online.”

People can visit the DHS website to find a community testing site. If they need help, they can call 211 for assistance.

Both DeSalvo and Westergaard describe at home tests as “useful tools” in diagnosing people and stopping the spread of COVID-19. But the at home tests, also called “antigen tests,” are not as sensitive as lab-based molecular PCR tests that look at generic material.

So, at home tests don’t detect as many cases. In fact, antigen tests only catch about 75% of the positive cases that PCR tests detect.

“That's important for people to know. If someone has a clinical illness that resembles COVID very strongly, or if they've been in contact with someone that has COVID and they get symptoms," Westergaard said. "Having a negative test doesn't necessarily mean that they don't have COVID. They should look at the whole picture, they should consider getting an additional test 24 hours later or following up with one of the highly sensitive molecular tests."

While people wait for their results, it is important that they isolate as recommended and wear a well-fitting mask around others.

Reports suggest that Omicron appears to be less severe than other variants. First-line healthcare providers say they're seeing many mild cases of illness in Wisconsin.

But the number of people requiring hospitalization is higher than it’s ever been.

"There's two sides of the coin. Many more people are getting infected...even if it is a little milder, there's going to be a subset who gets severely ill," Westergaard said. "And if we have massive increases in the numbers of people getting infected, it's still going to translate to a lot of people with severe disease in the hospital, particularly people who haven't been vaccinated. And that continues to be what we see in our hospitals."

A large majority of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Wisconsin are unvaccinated.

There’s also a smaller portion of vaccinated people in higher risk groups, such as the elderly and people with pre-existing conditions, like diabetes or heart disease or those who are immunocompromised.

To prevent hospitalization in those groups, officials are hoping to get more access to promising antiviral drugs: including Paxlovid and molnupiravir.

“Of the two, Paxlovid is the one that the studies show is more likely to be more effective,” Westergaard said. “It also happens to be the one that is in shorter supply. So, there's a lot of communication going out to health care professionals right now and pharmacists. We need to scale up the availability of these medications, but it'll take some time before they are widely distributed in the way that vaccines are today."

The antivirals may pose interaction risks with medications commonly taken by people at the greatest risk for severe COVID-19.

So while health care providers hope antivirals will be important tools for treating people who are high risk of severe disease, they urge people to get the preventative defense, which is the COVID-19 vaccine.

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