Omicron sub-variant could test ‘return to normal’

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Meiman said the state’s efforts to support an exhausted health care workforce are proving successful. he said 154 Wisconsin National Guard members had been trained as certified nursing assistants through a partnership with state technical colleges, helping to open more than 200 skilled nursing beds statewide.

“It’s been a tremendous benefit not just for nursing facilities, but also for the hospitals that depend on them,” Meiman said.

While Meiman pointed to the dramatic improvement since January, he acknowledged that COVID-19 remains a public health threat in Wisconsin.

“It is possible that in the coming weeks or months we will have a high number of cases here,” Meiman said. “And that, of course, raises concerns about who is vulnerable to this disease.”

A permanent threat, especially for vulnerable populations

The threat of another wave of COVID-19 is crystallizing just weeks after the last local mask mandates expired in Wisconsin amid falling case numbers. The same time, analysis speak US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate “low” community risk in all but two Wisconsin counties as of March 18. The new CDC guidelines, which are based on case rates and local health care capacity, only recommend universal masking in indoor public spaces at “high” community risk.

New federal guidelines recommend that people who are immunocompromised or otherwise at high risk for severe cases of COVID-19, maintain heightened personal vigilance even in general low-risk communities.

This focus, which appears to shift the responsibility for mitigating the virus to individuals who are most susceptible to it, troubles Richard Keller, a medical historian and bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Combined with statements by Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, that some deaths from COVID-19 among high-risk people should be “tolerated” as the disease becomes endemic, Keller said the new guidelines promote the “return to normal” rather than a good valuation of the lives of vulnerable people.

“I’m as sick of COVID-19 as anyone,” Keller said. “I’m not saying we should hide forever, but I think we need good metrics to decide when to kind of reduce basic restrictions…and the metrics just aren’t there yet.”

Specifically, Keller pointed to the shift in emphasis toward a closer link between mitigation strategies and hospitalizations as a recipe for a slow response to new outbreaks, as some epidemiologists and health policy experts argued.

The state health department supports new CDC guidelines while promoting booster shots, testing, and masking depending on the situation.

Meiman pointed out that the risks of COVID-19 are different for everyone in the spring of 2022 than they were in previous parts of the pandemic, thanks to several highly effective vaccines in preventing serious illnesses, as well as to new life-saving therapies. Still, he acknowledged there were still not enough people vaccinated, including all children five and under.

About two-thirds of Wisconsin residents had received at least one dose of the vaccine by mid-March, although only about a quarter had received a booster shot. Meiman said the state health department will continue to focus on increasing vaccination rates and booster usage, while ensuring testing remains accessible to vulnerable populations.

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