Vaccines and therapeutics are widely used. COVID-19 cases are increasing. As have more recent hospital admissions and deaths.
As we enter the third year of tackling the COVID-19 pandemic and the nation reaching a milestone of 1 million deaths, we can rest assured that nothing is certain.
But with the right preparation and the right precautions, healthcare professionals are cautiously optimistic that the country can prevent future surges in COVID-19 case numbers from translating into equally large increases in hospital admissions and deaths.
It comes down to some of the same advice health experts have been giving for years: make informed, data-backed personal decisions, get vaccinated and, when cases arise, mask and social distance.
The end of the Omicron surge gave us another tool to add to the toolbox: antiviral pills and other therapeutics that can help those most vulnerable to the disease get out of the hospital.
But there is still work to be done before the nation and state will be ready to handle the next COVID surge, which the White House warned earlier this month could infect as many as 100 million people this fall.
Here’s what you need to know.
What therapeutics are there for COVID-19?
Having tools and treatments in widespread use will be a key to determining whether an increase in cases will lead to a corresponding increase in hospital admissions and deaths.
Topping the list are vaccines and boosters, which have proven to be highly effective in preventing serious illness and death.
Fully vaccinated people were hospitalized at a rate of 5.4 per 100,000 fully vaccinated people, according to state DHS data updated April 14. Two out of 100,000 died. For those who were not fully vaccinated, the rate was 13.1 hospitalizations and 6.4 deaths per 100,000 people.
In addition to vaccination, advances in therapy have the potential to make COVID-19 less severe for people who may be immunocompromised or otherwise at higher risk.
One antiviral pill, Paxlovid, has been shown to be 90% effective in preventing serious illness from COVID-19. Another, molnupiravir (also known by the brand name Lagevrio), appears to be less effective; There is a 30% chance that a hospitalization due to COVID-19 will be avoided.
Another treatment is Evushield, an injection that can help prevent vulnerable patients from contracting COVID-19 at first.
Are antiviral COVID drugs and other treatments still in short supply?
no The state Department of Health Services told doctors earlier this month that the antiviral pills are now available at more than 480 dispensaries across the state.
The same goes for other treatments, including Evushield.
Why aren’t more people taking antiviral pills?
The use of antiviral COVID-19 drugs has not increased with the supply.
A total of 12,740 patient courses of Paxlovid and 2,888 courses of molnupiravir have been distributed to healthcare facilities in Wisconsin since January, according to a press release from the state DHS. However, as of April 27, only 23% of Paxlovid and 6% of molnupiravir courses had been distributed to patients.
Barriers to wider adoption include: timing, education, and dissemination.
Paxlovid must be taken within five days of a patient’s symptoms appearing, said DHS chief medical officer Jonathan Meiman, emphasizing that patients are tested and prescribed as early as possible.
The pill can interact adversely with other medications, adding another layer of complexity as it takes time and education to design them in a way that medical providers can reach the point where they fully adopt their use in their practice.
The third problem is distribution. Expanding test-to-treat clinics is critical, said Ajay Sethi, associate professor of population health sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
These nationally designated one-stop shops are important in solving the problem of timing and distributing pills, as patients can be tested and have a prescription issued locally if the treatment is right for them.
Wisconsin had 16 test-to-treat locations as of early May, though state health officials are hoping more will follow. Current locations are listed on the DHS website.
What data is there on booster vaccinations?
While vaccines offer strong protection against severe COVID-19 infection, the immunity they confer wanes over time. That’s why it’s important to get booster shots, health experts say.
As of May 10, 61.1% of Wisconsin residents were fully vaccinated against COVID-19, but only 34.3% had received a booster shot.
What else could change?
Public health officials are confident that with the right precautions, fewer people will die from COVID-19 even as the disease continues to spread.
But the potential for new variants, as well as the need for continued improvements in the distribution of therapeutics and communities where vaccination rates are lagging.
However, they have warned that the disease is not “endemic” just yet. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines “endemic” as “the continuing presence and/or usual prevalence of a disease or infectious agent in a population within a geographic area.”
COVID-19 is here to stay, but that’s only half of what it would classify as endemic. The second is predictability, said Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer of the state Department of Health Service’s Office of Communicable Diseases.
“I think it’s too early to say it will follow a predictable pattern. For example, influenza and other seasonal viruses peak and disappear quite predictably in the winter,” he said.
There are also lingering concerns about the emergence of a new variant, even one that could evade the protection of COVID-19 vaccines. It’s a possibility that vaccine manufacturers have been preparing for.
The Omicron winter surge has taught public health officials important strategies that could help combat future waves of COVID-19, said Ben Weston, Milwaukee County’s chief health policy advisor. These include the ability to get vaccinated and the potential of test-to-treat clinics.
Even then, the basic precautions of masking and social distancing will still play a role to keep those most vulnerable safe as cases rise.
“As much as we’d all like it — and it’s not the news that any of us want to hear — we’re not done with the pandemic,” he said.
About this feature
This is a weekly feature for online and Sunday print readers, tackling a topic in the news and explaining the actions of policymakers. Email suggestions for future topics to [email protected]