Wisconsin has had 605 COVID-19 cases among the 1.8 million residents who are fully vaccinated, state health officials said Tuesday after the Wisconsin State Journal reported that officials had repeatedly declined to release the data.
The “breakthrough” infections represent 0.03% of people who have had both doses of the Moderna or Pfizer injections or the single-dose Johnson & Johnson shot.
That’s a higher share than the 0.008% represented by 7,157 breakthrough cases among more than 87 million fully immunized Americans reported last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the CDC said the national tally is an undercount, and experts say some infections are expected among those fully vaccinated because no vaccine is 100% effective.
The 605 Wisconsin cases, found in people at least two weeks after they were fully immunized, are among 82,369 confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19 since Jan. 18, said Jennifer Miller, a spokesperson for the state Department of Health Services. That’s five weeks after coronavirus vaccines were first given in the state.
“With such a small percentage of breakthrough cases, but with COVID-19 still active in our state, we continue to encourage everyone to get vaccinated with one of the three highly effective COVID-19 vaccines available,” Miller said.
The vaccines prevent disease and reduce serious illness and death, she said. “Plus, much like the flu vaccine, people who do become sick after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine tend to have milder symptoms,” she said.
Dr. James Conway, a UW Health pediatrician and vaccine expert, called the very low rates of breakthrough cases “reassuring” and proof the vaccines are working as well or better than expected. But the cases also serve as a reminder that people should keep taking coronavirus precautions for now even if fully vaccinated, especially given that more contagious variants are circulating, health officials say.
In about half of Wisconsin’s breakthrough cases, those infected reported no symptoms, Miller said. Breakthrough cases have occurred with each of the three vaccines and in all Wisconsin counties, she said. About 66% are female, about 40% are ages 65 and older and 25% are ages 18 to 40.
When the State Journal first requested the data April 6, Miller declined to share it but said it would be released “soon.” A chief medical officer with the department last week confirmed the state was tracking the data. The newspaper asked for the information again Monday and Miller still declined to release it.
“We are committed to transparency,” she said Tuesday after providing the data. “Our team is always evaluating data and looking for ways to present important information for Wisconsinites.”
More to do
Meanwhile, as COVID-19 vaccinations continue in the state amid decreasing demand, experts said it could be increasingly difficult to encourage those who haven’t had a shot to roll up their sleeves.
“I think we have our toughest work before us,” Tim Size, executive director of the Rural Wisconsin Healthcare Cooperative, said at an online forum organized by Wisconsin Health News.
Uptake of the vaccine in rural and urban counties had been roughly equal until recent weeks, with the rural rate slipping to 88% of the urban rate, Size said.
In the city of Milwaukee, about 41% of people have received at least one dose, slightly lower than the state average, but the proportion varies among census tracts from 16% to nearly 90%, said Kirsten Johnson, health commissioner. “The key here now is to meet people where they are, make it as easy as possible for them to get the vaccine,” she said.
Talking it out
Dr. Tito Izard, CEO of Milwaukee Health Services, a community health clinic, said that with patients who are hesitant about the vaccine, he discusses their goals, their family’s goals and the consequences of getting the vaccine and of not getting it.
“The vast majority, after a conversation with a doctor, actually end up taking it,” he said. “In the end, I never told them to do it, but they come to the resolution themselves.”
Conway said one or more vaccines may be authorized for children ages 12 to 15 by midsummer and for younger children by early next year, which could prove key to fully ending the pandemic. Currently, no vaccine is available for those under 16, who make up about 20% of the state population.
“We’re going to need to have broad offering of vaccine in all age groups across the county to be able to get this shut down once and for all so that we can get back to whatever a new normal is going to look like,” Conway said.