MON AM News: Health officials identify omicron variant in Wisconsin; Dominant delta variant leading to more people hospitalized, on ventilators in Wisconsin

— Health officials have identified the first known case of the omicron variant of COVID-19 in Wisconsin. 

This strain of the virus was first identified last month in South Africa, and has since spread to dozens of countries. The CDC has classified it as a “variant of concern,” as it displays mutations associated with increased transmissibility and resistance to antibodies. 

Still, officials caution that it could take several weeks before scientists determine exactly how the omicron variant differs from other strains of COVID-19, including the severity of disease in those who are infected. 

“We’ve been prepared for this news and will continue trusting the science to help keep Wisconsinites and our communities healthy and safe,” Gov. Tony Evers said in a release. “Now is the time to double down on our efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19, including the Omicron variant. I urge all eligible Wisconsinites to get vaccinated and receive a booster dose as soon as possible and to follow the latest public health guidance.”

The omicron case was confirmed in an adult male resident of Milwaukee County who recently returned from travelling to South Africa. The Department of Health Services says he was fully vaccinated and has received a booster dose. As of Saturday, he had mild symptoms and had not been hospitalized. 

Meanwhile, DHS and the City of Milwaukee Health Department are investigating a COVID-19 outbreak associated with a wedding held Nov. 27 in Milwaukee. At least 12 positive cases of the virus have been found among California residents who attended the event, including five identified as the omicron variant according to findings from California health officials. 

Wisconsin health officials have been conducting outreach to those in Wisconsin who may have been exposed, and they say that isolation and quarantine protocols are being followed. The one confirmed case of the omicron variant in Wisconsin is not associated with this outbreak. 

“Although the news that this variant is continuing to spread throughout the country is concerning, it should not be a cause for panic,” DHS Secretary-designee Karen Timberlake said. “We know COVID-19 vaccines are effective at preventing serious illness and death.” 

See more from DHS on the omicron variant: 

— With the more infectious delta variant of COVID-19 leading to more severe disease, the state recently logged a record high number of patients on mechanical ventilators. 

Dr. Ashok Rai, president and CEO of Prevea Health, explained in a recent press briefing that putting a patient on a ventilator is typically the “last option” for care providers. It’s usually done after other approaches such providing therapeutics and having patients lay on their stomach prove insufficient, he said. 

Compared to the peak of the pandemic near the end of 2020, Rai said unvaccinated patients now have a “much higher likelihood” of going on a ventilator because the delta variant causes a more serious form of the disease. 

Health officials this week reported 688 patients in Wisconsin were on ventilators as of Nov. 30, exceeding the previous record of 638 patients set in November 2020. That’s about 26 percent of 2,538 available ventilators in the state, the Department of Health Services site shows. 

“Due to the delta variant, patients are typically a bit sicker as they are coming into the hospital,” DHS Secretary-designee Karen Timberlake said. “They are also younger than last year’s hospitalizations tended to be on average.” 

She attributes that trend in part to successful efforts to vaccinate older adults, who are at greater risk of hospitalization and death from the virus. But infections in children are also making up a larger proportion of new cases, Timberlake said. 

“From the end of August through now — so through the end of November, early December — young people under the age of 18 have gone from having the lowest number of cases, lowest rate of COVID infection, to actually having the largest number of cases,” she said. 

Kids aged 4-13 are showing “the most significant growth in cases,” she said, while those aged 0-3 and older teenagers eligible for vaccination “don’t have quite the same rate or number of new cases.” More than 87,000 children in Wisconsin aged 5-11 have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine since early November. 

After a minor dip around the Thanksgiving holiday, the state’s seven-day average for new COVID-19 cases has jumped to 3,548 cases per day as of Friday. 

See the latest case numbers here: 

— Groups representing farmers and dairy producers in the state are applauding Gov. Tony Evers for signing into law a bill that aims to expand exports of Wisconsin agriculture products. 

Under 2021 Wisconsin Act 92, the Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection will be working with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. to create a plan for boosting exports of dairy, meat, crops and other ag product exports by 25 percent over the next five years. 

“Exports are critically important to agriculture,” said Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation President Kevin Krentz. “By providing opportunities for product innovation and new market access, we also provide opportunities for new and existing market development for Wisconsin’s agricultural products.” 

The state Dairy Business Association notes half of the $5 million being allocated to DATCP’s Center for International Agribusiness Marketing is committed to dairy products. The other half will be split evenly between efforts to expand meat and crop exports. DBA President Amy Penterman says the state’s dairy industry depends “in large part” on international exports. 

“This investment will help us not only remain competitive in the global marketplace but be a leader,” she said in a statement. 

Meanwhile, Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association Executive Director John Umhoefer calls the new effort “a smart, necessary boost that will benefit not only our dairy industry, but the state’s entire economy.” 

DATCP and WEDC are required to submit their plan for the program by the end of the year, and must submit a report to lawmakers on June 30, 2024 on the progress made toward the program’s goals. The Legislative Audit Bureau will also evaluate the program’s effectiveness by Dec. 31, 2026. 

At least 15 percent of the funds allocated to the program must be awarded in the form of grants to Wisconsin ag exporters by the end of 2022, according to the bill text. 

Evers had previously proposed a similar ag export plan in calling for a special session in 2020, and later included funding for the plan in his 2021-2023 budget proposal. Neither of those efforts came to fruition. Republican lawmakers introduced Assembly Bill 314 in May of this year. 

“We started this work to promote and increase Wisconsin’s product exports even before the pandemic to help support our farmers and our rural communities, and I’m proud this legislation has finally made it to my desk,” Evers said in a statement. 

AB 314 was authored by Sen. Joan Ballweg, R-Markesan, and Rep. Tony Kurtz, R-Wonewoc. The legislation establishing the program unanimously passed both the state Assembly and Senate in recent months. 

“Wisconsin is in the top ten states for agriculture production, yet ranks 13th for the export of our food, forestry and agricultural products,” Ballweg said in a release after Evers signed the legislation into law. “There is ample opportunity for Wisconsin to find new footholds in emerging markets.”

See the text of the law: 

— Evers has also signed into law a bill that reduces the frequency of chemical recovery boiler inspections for paper mills in the state. 

The Wisconsin Paper Council, which spearheaded lobbying efforts for the legislation, is touting the bill becoming law, saying it represents “a positive move” for the state’s paper, pulp, packaging and forestry industries.

Under 2021 Wisconsin Act 110, eligible paper mills are allowed a two-year inspection schedule for their chemical recovery boilers, which combust a fuel made from wood chips as part of the paper production process. Before the bill became law, these inspections were required every 12 months with the possibility of a six-month extension. 

The Paper Council says reducing the frequency of these inspections will help extend the life of the boilers while improving productivity and worker safety. 

“Our partners in the trades, labor organizations, economic development associations and industry supply chain leaders put an incredible amount of time, effort and energy into ensuring that policymakers understood the importance of this important change to state law,” Paper Council President Scott Suder said in a statement. 

Listen to a recent podcast with Suder: 

See an earlier story on the legislation: 

— A UW-Madison researcher who’s been nominated for the 2021 WARF Innovation Awards is developing a paneling system to reduce and control sounds within a variety of spaces. 

Chu Ma is an assistant professor in the university’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Her work is one of six projects nominated this year. Through the awards program held by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, the two winning projects will each receive $10,000 in funding. 

“We developed a new type of acoustic functional material that can be assembled into wall panels,” Ma said in a video released by WARF. “These wall panels will redirect the reflected acoustic wave into different regions of the room. As a result, the activities at different regions won’t interfere with each other.” 

By arranging two types of specially designed sound-reflecting cells in specific patterns along the walls of a space, the panels can achieve different functions like dampening or focusing sounds, as well as redirecting sound waves along the wall rather than outward. 

While sound-proofing panels exist in the market, most simply disrupt acoustic waves to reduce sounds or remove reverberation. By comparison, Ma says “our technology will bring unprecedented sound-shaping capabilities to the wall panels with minimum cost of fabrication, materials and assembly.” 

She explains the unit cells will be developed as “standard building bricks” that users can assemble into various patterns “to fulfill their unique sound-shaping requirements.” Along with the physical panels, Ma’s team is also creating a simulation tool to help with designing these patterns. 

Other nominees include researchers developing carbon dioxide capture technology, neural tissue models for drug development and disease modeling, a plasma generator for medical isotope generation and more. Winners will be announced later this month. 

See more on the other nominees here: 


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– New dairy business innovation group offering grants

– Class III milk price rises to $18.03 for November


– Residential development planned at Wilo plant site in Cedarburg


– Madison promoter FPC Live planning new venue near Summerfest grounds 

– The Buzz: Mile of Music opens downtown pop-up shop for holiday season


– Gypsy moth population continues to increase


– Carnevor owner exploring options for larger restaurant space, with The Couture as a possibility

– Radio Milwaukee’s new cafe to open next year as ‘Deadwax’


– Emergency need for blood donations across state

– Wisconsin health officials confirm first case of Omicron COVID-19 variant

– Wisconsin reports first case of omicron virus variant

– Weekend Roundup: Black infant mortality rates continue to get worse in Milwaukee


– Wisconsin caregiver spent 8 years, $250K in legal bills to exonerate herself from abuse charges


– East North Avenue’s business district hires new director


– Evers vetoes bill to provide tax break for apprenticeship tuition 


– Oconomowoc subdivision would add 303 homes aimed at first-time homebuyers, empty nesters

– Goodwill moving some departments to Summit Place in West Allis


– Minority-owned firms getting more attention


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