Damakant Jayshi

Even as the World Health Organization mulls ending the emergency phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, Marathon County continues to be in the ‘critically high’ category with cases this month far exceeding the highest levels in two years.

The surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths are driven largely by those who are not fully-vaccinated, health officials say. Of the 51 Marathon County COVID-19 deaths in December last year, 42 were not fully vaccinated, Marathon County Spokesperson Aaron Ruff said. As of Tuesday, Jan. 25, there have been 7,064 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Marathon County residents in 2022, an average of 282 new confirmed COVID-19 cases each day. 

“The disease activity levels we have experienced so far in 2022 have far exceeded the highest levels we had in 2021 or 2020,” Ruff told Wausau Pilot & Review. “COVID-19 continues to impact individuals who are not fully vaccinated at much higher levels.”

Ruff defined ‘fully vaccinated’ as having either two doses of an mRNA vaccine (Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech) or one dose of Johnson & Johnson.

The surge has had a significant impact on patients seeking care at area hospitals with Aspirus Health warning last month that inpatent hospital beds may be delayed or inaccessible in Wausau due to the COVID-19 surge.

The December data compiled by local health officials show deaths of unvaccinated people at a rate 15 times higher than fully vaccinated. Hospitalizations are 12 times higher for unvaccinated people and cases are three times higher, officials said.

Of the 3,768 total confirmed and probable cases in the county in December, 28% were fully vaccinated compared to 72% for those not fully vaccinated, health officials said.

The COVID situation elsewhere in North Central Wisconsin is similar, according to figures shared by Aspirus Health. Officials there say they currently have 145 COVID-19 patients and 94 of those are unvaccinated. Among the COVID patients, 32 are in the ICU and 23 are on ventilators.

Vaccination rates in Marathon County continue to lag behind both state and national numbers. While 58.2% of Marathon County residents have received one dose, 63.1% have done so in Wisconsin. The nationwide figure is 80.4%.

“We have plenty of vaccines available in the community and people can still seek out vaccines near them by visiting www.vaccines.gov,” Ruff said. To date, just under 55% of Marathon County residents have received a second dose of the vaccine and about 51% have received a booster.

WHO could end COVID emergency phase in 2022 

The World Health Organization could declare the emergency phase of the COVID-19 pandemic over this year if 70% of the population in every country is vaccinated, the organization’s top official said this week. 

“It is dangerous to assume that omicron will be the last variant, or that we are in the endgame,” said WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, during an executive board meeting on Monday. “On the contrary, globally the conditions are ideal for more variants to emerge.” 

Despite those warnings, the hope of some kind of end to the pandemic’s restrictions were echoed elsewhere too.

“This pandemic, like all other pandemics before it, will end, but it is far too early to relax,” Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, said in a statement. “With the millions of infections occurring in the world in recent and coming weeks, coupled with waning immunity and winter seasonality, it is almost a given that new COVID-19 variants will emerge and return.”

With high monitoring of new variants, increased global vaccination, affordable equitable access to antivirals, targeted testing, and shielding high-risk groups with high-quality masks and physical distancing, “a new wave could no longer require the return to pandemic-era, population-wide lockdowns or similar measures,” he said.

The coronavirus pandemic has killed 5.6 million people globally, including 864,203 in the United States, according to Johns Hopkins University of Medicine’s Coronavirus Resource Center. In Wisconsin, the number of confirmed deaths is 12,010.

Meanwhile, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll revealed that the latest variant of the coronavirus, Omicron, is nudging vaccine-hesitant people to take the vaccine.

“Just over half of vaccinated adults who have not received a COVID-19 booster shot say they are more likely to get an additional dose because of the new variant, our quick response survey reveals,” the KFF noted on its website. “A small portion of the unvaccinated say they are now more likely to get an initial shot.”


Damakant Jayshi is a reporter for Wausau Pilot & Review. He is also a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of GroundTruth Project that places journalists into local newsrooms. Reach him at damakant@wausaupilotandreview.com.