Worst-case scenario, but safeguards prevented many more deaths

Dr. Ryan Westergaard reflects on how some people’s pandemic politics have made it impossible to save lives.

Two years ago this week, the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread like wildfire in Wisconsin.

At the time, the state’s death toll was four. More than 12,000 other people in Wisconsin couldn’t have known they wouldn’t live to see the end of the virus’s reign, and many of the nearly 1.4 million more infected with the virus probably thought they didn’t. wouldn’t have to fight the disease. Today, nearly one million Americans have died from the virus and more than 6 million people have died worldwide.

And it wasn’t just the general public who took notice of the speed of disease and death.

“It’s worse than our worst-case scenario when we were planning at the time — which happened,” said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) in an interview with UpNorthNews. “It was really tragic and traumatic years in that regard, because we always thought we had the tools to slow it down and stop it, but in the end, we didn’t succeed.”

As Wisconsin’s top infectious disease expert, Westergaard had watched COVID-19 as it spread through China long before it reached Badger State, and he felt ready once it did. It finally happened on February 6, 2020, when the first case was identified in Dane. County.

But with the growing realization that COVID-19 could not be stopped outright, and with the constant political wrangling ranging from tougher measures like closing most businesses to simply wearing a mask, people’s worst fears health experts realized themselves.

Amid a nationwide pushback, mostly by Republicans, against COVID-19 safety orders, conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court justices stripped Gov. Tony Evers’ administration of its ability to pass broad safeguards statewide in May 2020, leaving a patchwork of local rules across the state.

Republican lawmakers and conservative courts have continued to erode the power of state and local health officials to control outbreaks — decisions that will impact any future pandemics.

“The fact that political discourse has become so amplified and so heated really, I think, has diminished the ability of public health to have those kinds of thoughtful conversations with people in the communities that we would like,” Westergaard said. “It became a lot of arguing and shouting, unfortunately.”

COVID vaccines miraculously arrived in December 2020, faster than expected. As of April 2021, hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin residents were receiving doses of the vaccine every week.

Soon new cases fell. In short, Wisconsin averaged zero deaths per day from the virus during the summer. It looked like COVID-19 had been defeated.

But the Delta variant emerged, causing breakthrough infections in vaccinated people. The virus mutated again, producing the hyper-contagious Omicron variant that reached Wisconsin in December. At the end of January, more than 18,000 people on average were testing positive for the virus every day.

Omicron’s surge has subsided and the number of new cases is down to levels not seen since last summer. According to DHS data, approximately 60% of Wisconsin residents are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and unvaccinated people who have been infected have some level of protection against reinfection (although not as strong than a vaccinated person).

The direction of the pandemic is unclear. The few remaining COVID precautions are starting to ease or lift, even federal guidelines like mask recommendations.

Westergaard said the chances “are very, very low” that other variants won’t show up on the line, and that it’s likely that COVID-19 will either become a flu-like seasonal phenomenon or something that arises seemingly at random.

“Time will tell, but I think the safe thing to say is that we’re still going to be dealing with COVID for some time to come,” Westergaard said.

He takes solace in the knowledge that early attention emphasizing prevention kept Wisconsin hospitals from being strained even more by illness and death, as seen in hospitals on the east and west coasts. during the first weeks of the pandemic.

“We clearly saved a lot of lives,” Westergaard said. “And I would say that vaccination is our most powerful tool, but prevention, I believe in that – I continue to believe that our local prevention efforts around wearing masks and contact tracing and quarantining have saved many, many lives.”