THU AM News: Health officials concerned about trend in COVID-19 cases; Seven-day average for new COVID-19 cases approaching record high for 2021

— Health officials are expressing concern about the current upward trend of COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin, as hospitals in the state are near capacity and this year’s flu season is just getting started. 

“Of course we can’t predict the future, but the trend we’re seeing, I’d say from last week to this week, is very concerning and it’s something we need to watch very closely,” said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, state epidemiologist for communicable diseases. 

During a briefing with reporters yesterday, he noted the “slope of the curve looks similar to what we saw last fall,” when the seven-day average of new cases skyrocketed to reach 6,500 cases per day in November 2020. 

But now that more than half of the state is fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and the state has relatively high rates of vaccination among the elderly and medically vulnerable, Westergaard noted “we’re in a very different place.” The current seven-day average is less than half what it was at this point last year, and Westergaard said “we’ve been hopeful over the summer and the fall that we’ll be protected from the magnitude of the surge we had last fall.” 

Last year’s flu season was nearly nonexistent as measures to fight the COVID-19 pandemic helped curb the spread of the flu, and Westergaard said that could change this year. 

“We don’t know yet whether it’s going to be a high-activity influenza season or not, but that’s a risk that we’re very concerned about,” he said. 

Westergaard noted 96 percent of ICU beds and 99 percent of intermediate care beds in Wisconsin are currently being used, meaning many hospitals are operating at full capacity or will be in the near future. Because health care usage typically increases at this time of year due to respiratory viruses as well as holiday-related injuries and accidents, he said already overburdened health care workers and facilities may find it more difficult to provide treatment. 

“With a high level of disease transmission in Wisconsin, we need everyone who’s not vaccinated to get the COVID-19 vaccine,” he said. 

— Booster shots for all could be coming soon.

In response to higher levels of disease activity, some other states have authorized COVID-19 booster shots for all adults, which federal health agencies have yet to endorse. The FDA and CDC will be meeting in the next several days to review new data on boosters for adults, Westergaard said. 

“The FDA and CDC may move in that same direction, we’ll know that in a few days,” he said. “We’re not considering making any announcements in advance of that.” 

— The seven-day average for new COVID-19 cases in the state has increased to 2,963, approaching a record high for the year. 

The Department of Health Services site shows the seven-day average has now surpassed the recent peak of 2,943 cases per day seen on Sept. 20. It’s now the highest that number has been since Jan. 8, when the seven-day average reached 2,973 cases per day. 

Wisconsin’s seven-day average for new deaths has been between 10 and 14 deaths per day in November as the surge in cases continues. A total of 8,812 people in the state have died due to the virus. 

Meanwhile, the number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 is once again on the rise. That number had been decreasing for much of October, but has largely been increasing so far in November. The Wisconsin Hospital Association reports 1,180 people are currently hospitalized with the virus, including 328 ICU patients. 

The DHS hospitals dashboard shows the trajectory of COVID-19 patient hospitalizations has been increasing in recent weeks in the state’s northwest, north central and southeast regions, while no significant change was seen in the rest of the state. 

See the latest case numbers from DHS here: 

See the WHA dashboard: 

— A representative for American Transmission Company says a proposed line connecting two substations near Barneveld and Mount Horeb likely won’t happen unless the controversial Cardinal-Hickory Creek line project goes through. 

Construction on the nearly $500 million Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line was paused by a Dane County judge in October while legal challenges to the project are being considered. The project is an effort by ATC, Dairyland Power Cooperative and ITC Midwest, and environmental groups have filed multiple suits against it. 

In a public hearing this week, ATC Senior Project Manager Jacob Valentine explained the company is planning to use facilities for the Barneveld project that would be shared with the Cardinal-Hickory Creek project. Both of the projects have targeted in-service dates in December 2023, he said. 

“The construction of the Cardinal-Hickory Creek project in the area where the Barneveld project is, that work is planned,” he said. “The advantage is that we can use the same crews to perform many of the work scopes that would be needed for the Barneveld project in the same location. So you’re limiting the impact to the land to basically one mobilization.” 

Legal challenges to the transmission line have focused on the potential environmental damage that constructing it would cause. 

Administrative Law Judge Michael Newmark asked Valentine about the company’s plans for if the Barneveld project is approved and moves forward before the Cardinal-Hickory Creek line does. Valentine said “I’m not sure it could,” unless the Cardinal-Hickory Creek project is completely canceled, because the Barneveld project is “quite a bit further behind” in the regulatory process. 

“It would either be coincidental with Cardinal-Hickory Creek or slightly behind,” Valentine said. “In my view, I don’t see a situation where Barneveld would be its own standalone project.” 

ATC Senior Transmission Planning Engineer James Zweig says if the Barneveld project can’t be completed by the target activation date, distribution customers Wisconsin Power and Light Company and Mount Horeb Utilities would be impacted. 

“They need this project in order to better serve their distribution customers,” he argued. “If Barneveld was delayed, then they would just need to continue whatever measures they’re basically in right now … Mount Horeb has difficulties in the long term serving load in the way the system is configured right now, and Wisconsin Power and Light the same way.” 

Wisconsin Power and Light Company, a subsidiary of Alliant Energy, is working to add more capacity to its system in the area, and Zweig said the Barneveld project would “help support that load addition.” 

See more on the project here: 

— Dem lawmakers have introduced the Healthy Herd, Healthy Hunt legislation package aimed at reducing and preventing the spread of chronic wasting disease ahead of the gun deer season opening this weekend.

Rep. Katrina Shankland, of Stevens Point, in a virtual press conference yesterday said the package would provide funding for CWD research, management, carcass disposal and testing sites. She added funding provisions in the package would help take some of the burden of CWD testing and sampling off of hunters and conservation groups and increase the state’s role in combating the spread of the fatal disease.

“In addition to precautions that each hunter can take individually, meaningful state action is needed to preserve the deer herd that our state’s proud sporting heritage and our billion-dollar hunting industry rely on,” Shankland said.

Sen. Jeff Smith, D-Brunswick, stressed the importance of protecting the “legendary” whitetail deer in Wisconsin through CWD testing.

“We as a state hold deer hunting on the level of the Green Bay Packers,” he said. “This is so important to the state of Wisconsin as far as our heritage; it’s something I grew up with, it’s something that most of us grew up with; that this is just something that we hold near and dear.”

The package would spend:

*$2 million on carcass disposal dumpsters;

*$1 million on CWD research and management;

*$200,000 on CWD testing kiosks; and

*$100,000 on CWD education materials.

See the release:

— Wisconsin’s nine-day gun deer season kicks off Saturday, and the DNR notes that deer herd numbers have been “trending upward” in the state. 

In its forecast for this fall’s hunt, DNR notes this year has been “relatively dry” and crop harvesting is proceeding on or ahead of schedule, so fields are expected to be largely clear and free of water. The forecast also shows the past winter was “very mild,” which typically leads to higher numbers of fawns and better antler growth. 

Wisconsin boasts over 7 million acres of land available for public hunting, and DNR Wildlife Management Bureau Director Eric Lobner notes the hunting season “provides an economic boost” to many parts of the state. 

“Not only is the season a great time to get together with family and friends to enjoy time outdoors, it is also a time when many people put a low-fat protein source in their freezer that feeds their family throughout the year,” Lobner said in a release. 

See the release: 

See this year’s hunting forecast: 


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