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Health officials urge masks, vaccines as COVID average soars

By TODD RICHMOND
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Health officials are warning Wisconsin residents to get vaccinated, wear masks and avoid indoor gatherings over the Labor Day weekend as the delta variant drives the state’s COVID-19 case average to levels not seen in months.

Wisconsin’s seven-day case average stood at 1,699 as of Wednesday, the highest average since Jan. 15, when it stood at 1,990 cases, the state Department of Health Services reported. COVID-19 hospitalizations have spiked since early July as well. The Wisconsin Hospital Association reported 934 inpatients on Tuesday, the most since February.

“We’re in the beginning or somewhere in the middle of the second great surge of COVID cases in Wisconsin,” state epidemiologist Ryan Westergaard told reporters during a conference call Wednesday afternoon. “It might approach last fall. The slope is still going up. Right now is really the time to refocus on this. Let’s use all the tools we can to make our activities, our gatherings, as safe as we possibly can.”

Most patients are not vaccinated. The DHS estimates that the case rate stands at about 370 among every 100,000 people who aren’t fully vaccinated compared to 125 cases among every 100,000 people who are.

Wisconsin, like most of the rest of the country, saw a dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases and deaths last fall before vaccines were introduced. The numbers dropped substantially earlier this summer as more people got shots. The tables turned again in July, though, when the more contagious delta variant of the coronavirus, began to spread across the state.

The hospital association’s executive director, Eric Borgerding, said COVID-19 treatments have improved since last fall and fewer people are dying. The seven-day average of deaths stood at six on Tuesday, according to state data. The seven-day average of deaths hovered around 25 in January.

But Borgerding said hospital workers who struggled through last November’s surge have burned out and are leaving their jobs rather than face another flood of patients. Almost every hospital that belongs to the association has turned to employment agencies to supply them with temporary workers, he said.

“(The worker shortage) is an in-your-face issue,” Borgerding said. “It was bad in the fall. It’s worse today. The fall really tested the resiliency of our workforce and here we are again. We have a fantastic health care system in Wisconsin but the resilience is not infinite.

That’s a factor in all of this that people need to understand.”

State health officials admonished people to get vaccinated, wear masks indoors everywhere and celebrate Labor Day with outdoor activities. A little more than 51% of the state’s eligible population had completed their shots as of Tuesday.

“Truly,” Westergaard said, “vaccination is the number one most potent tool we have.”

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