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WUWM’s Chuck Quirmbach reports on innovation in southeastern Wisconsin.

COVID-19 Vaccinations Increase In Wisconsin, As Researchers Try To Stay Ahead Of Variants

Chuck Quirmbach
At the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee, some people who receive the COVID-19 vaccine are still worried about variants of the coronavirus.

President Joe Biden is expected to talk about the COVID-19 pandemic, when he speaks during a national cable television town hall meeting in Milwaukee Tuesday night.

As more people are receiving the COVID vaccination, there's a growing focus on potential problems from variants, or mutated versions of the virus. Wisconsin researchers are trying to keep track of variants through studying genetic material in some human cells.

The state of Wisconsin reports about 12% of residents have been given at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. About four percent statewide have received the recommended two doses.  

Outside the Wisconsin Center vaccination site last week, a Milwaukee home health care worker, who gave her name as Sandy, said she had just gotten her booster shot. But she's still worried about news that variants of the coronavirus have been detected in Wisconsin and many other states.

"Just because the first one scared the crap out of you,” said Sandy. “Yeah, with a new variant, that's really scary. Especially for people who work in the public setting, yeah, I don't wanna take no chances."

Sandy knows too well the dangers of the coronavirus. She said her mother died of COVID-19 in December. 

Another woman who received her vaccine booster shot last week, Milwaukee Public Schools occupational therapist Melissa Piquette, said she accepts the advice of health officials that getting vaccinated is a good way to reduce the risk of virus variants.

"If we don't get vaccinated and we allow those variants to replicate, with more bodies, more people, it's going to be worse. If there are more people who are vaccinated that helps to decrease the amount of replications that happen,” said Piquette.

Credit University of Wisconsin-Madison
UW-Madison researchers David O'Connor (left) and Thomas Friedrich (right) are two of the scientists working on genome sequencing of coronavirus samples.

There are several labs in Wisconsin keeping watch for virus variants. One lab at the UW-Madison has studied the genetic makeup of the virus from more than 3,000 infections, including some from positive tests in Milwaukee County. UW School of Medicine and Public Health Professor David O'Connor says he and his colleagues are using what's called genome sequencing of cell DNA to try to keep ahead of variants that can spread more easily.

"So you then can prepare your systems for more cases. You can intensify your public health efforts. You can do all the things you do, if you knew your virus was about to undergo a surge, because a more transmissible virus was in the mix,” he says.

Credit Courtesy of Gage Moreno / UW-Madison
UW-Madison graduate student Katarina Braun processes samples from COVID-19 patients, while sequencing the genome of more than 200 variations on the SARS-CoV2 virus.

O'Connor says advice could also change for people who have had the so-called first version of the novel coronavirus. 

The debate is on nationally, and internationally, about needing to adjust the current vaccines to be more effective against variants. O'Connor says adjustments are likely to be made, because some of the changes in the variants are occurring in areas of the virus typically attacked by the human disease-fighting immune system.

"It also means we need to intensify our efforts to bring the virus under control not just here in the U.S., but globally,” says O’Connor.

Dr. Ryan Westergaard is Chief Medical Officer for Communicable Diseases at the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. He said he supports the virus genome sequencing at the state labs.

"We are trying to scale this up. We're actively seeking more funding, more supplies, more staff to do this, because it's going to inform how we understand transmission of the novel variants in the future. So it's a very important tool that I think will become more important as time goes on,” said Westergaard during a recent briefing.

Wisconsin U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin introduced a bill this month that would provide more federal dollars for genome sequencing. And, President Biden is expected to shed more light on his administration's plans for vaccines and variants Tuesday night in Milwaukee.  

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Chuck Quirmbach joined WUWM in August 2018. He focuses his longform stories on health, innovation, science, technology, transportation, utilities and business.
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