COVID-19 In Wisconsin: New Strains Could Upend Downward Trend In Cases, Deaths

Feb 23, 2021

A few months ago, Wisconsin had one of the highest per capita rates of COVID-19 in the country. Health officials were pleading with people to wear masks, socially distance and practice good hand hygiene. On Monday, the state reported zero COVID deaths and the lowest number of new cases since June.

Milwaukee County Emergency Medical Services Director Dr. Ben Weston says the first thing this means is that the community is doing a good job.

“The people who are wearing their masks, the people who are physically distancing, the people who are avoiding group settings and certainly those who, when their time comes, are getting vaccinated are doing an outstanding job of driving down our cases, our hospitalizations,” he says.

Weston says a big part of it is that people are doing these advised precautions, but nobody can give great answers as to why we see these uptrends and downtrends of COVID and this regionality where certain parts of the country are hit harder than others.

But he says he thinks what we have seen is a bit of a cycle.

“And so when the numbers get really bad, like they were back in November, people respond to that. We hear about it more in the news, we hear about it more in our hospitals, and people start buckling down and institutions start buckling down and governments start buckling down. And you see more orders and more people being more vigilant,” Weston explains.

Weston adds the flip side also occurs where when the numbers start going down and start looking good, like they are right now, people start loosening up a little bit and some mayors and some governors starting to pull back on orders.

“And then, you know, inevitably,” he says, “what we see then is an uptick in cases.”

Weston says what we can make of the downtrend in cases and deaths leads to cautious optimism, but it has to be very cautious. And he says the reasons for this are twofold.

The first reason is the pulling back on precautions when numbers get lower, as he mentioned before.

“Now at the same time, we have a number of new strains but in particular, the UK strain of the B-117 strain, a strain that is far more contagious and appears to be significantly more deadly as well. And so I see it a little bit right now as a race against time," he says.

Weston says what we’ve seen from the UK strain in different European countries is that when that strain comes, it takes hold very quickly and goes from being just a handful of cases to 70, 80, 90% of cases very quickly.

“And that can create a new spike. And I think left alone that would create a new spike that could quite possibly given that increased transmission and the increased severity be far higher than any spike we've seen,” he says.

Weston says we can temper that in two ways. “One is through those individual precautions and institutional precautions," he says. "And the other way absolutely is vaccine. And so the faster we can get vaccine into arms, and the better we can be about those individual precautions, I think the more we can blunt that coming spike.”