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Revised DHS COVID-19 illness data offer unexpected results

But, health officials explain there is a reason for that.
A new update to the Dept. of Health Services website offered a glimpse of the benefits and limitations of the COVID-19 vaccines.
Updated: May. 26, 2022 at 10:15 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - A new update to the Dept. of Health Services website offered a glimpse of the benefits and limitations of the COVID-19 vaccines, particularly when someone returns for their booster dose. For the first time, the state agency divided its charts reflecting the infection, hospitalization and death rate of vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals between those who have received the extra shot and those who have only received their initial series.

Almost counter-intuitively, people in Wisconsin who did return months later for the additional dose recorded a notably higher infection rate – approx. 20% higher – than those who never were fully vaccinated. People who completed their initial series, however, the numbers quickly flipped the requisite two-week period afterward saw rates far lower than either group.

The numbers quickly flipped, however, when the DHS statistics turned toward the more severe consequences of the virus: hospitalizations and deaths. For the former, a person who received the booster was half as likely as an unvaccinated individual to end up in the hospital because of the virus or complications from it. Again, those who stopped after their first series slotted in much lower than both groups.

Experts at UW Health and SSM Health say it is likely unvaccinated people gained anti-bodies during the Omicron surge in December and January. Now, it is producing lopsided case numbers but at far more risk for the unvaccinated. Something DHS’ statement also outlines in a revised dashboard.

Its Bureau of Communicable Diseases Director Traci DeSalvo explained that the omicron-driven surge that sent cases to unprecedented heights in Wisconsin has actually resulted in depressed case counts for unvaccinated individuals relative to their counterparts. She explained that many people who never were vaccinated were infected over the winter bore the brunt of that two-month-long spike, which is offering them a short-term immunity that protects them now but is not expected to last long into the future.

“Those who go the immunity through natural infection, you take 100 of them, a number of those folks are going to die, they’re going to die from the infection, you take a 100 people who have been vaccinated and boosted, out of 100 people zero people die,” UW Health’s Chief Quality Officer Dr. Jeffrey Pothof said.

The gap explodes between the unvaccinated and the vaccinated groups as far as deaths. The number of deaths per 100,000 residents is seven times higher than each of the other two categories.

Health officials at all levels have echoed in recent months what the data show – that vaccines are most effective at preventing the most severe cases of COVID-19. DHS Chief Medical Officer Ryan Westergaard acknowledged that as the virus evolved and new variants emerged, the effectiveness against preventing infection has gone down, but pointed out its role in keeping hospitalizations and deaths down.

“The effectiveness for preventing death in severe disease has remained high, and this has been seen in studies all over the world,” he said during a DHS news conference on Thursday. Westergaard added that the new data is an example of the agency trying to be transparent but quickly added,” I wouldn’t derive any lessons from these data that make me recommend vaccinations and booster doses any less.”

But SSM Health’s Vice President of Pharmacy Services Mo Kharbat reminds people that a vaccine is not a guarantee of perfect health, but a tool equipping your body to fight a virus.

“Everyone needs to know if you get the vaccine, it does not mean you will never get infected with COVID,” Kharbat said.

Kharbat says while the case and probable case numbers show a lopsided trend in favor of going without the vaccine, a look at the entirety of the data shows a clearer picture. He says a look at hospitalizations and deaths bears out the work the vaccine is doing across the state.

“Getting infected with the Omicron variant provides a short-term but strong level of protection against reinfection,” DeSalvo said in the statement, adding, “Data are showing that individuals experience waning immunity three to six months after getting vaccinated or receiving a booster dose, yet the vaccines are still providing protection against severe illness and death.”

COVID-19 vaccines for Wisconsin residents, on May 26, 2022.
COVID-19 vaccines for Wisconsin residents, on May 26, 2022.(Dept. of Health Services)

The latest DHS update shows more than six in ten Wisconsin residents have completed their vaccination series, while over a third of all residents have also gone back for at least one more additional dose. Dane Co. continues to lead all counties in vaccination rates, with nearly eight in ten residents being fully vaccinated and almost half being boosted.

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