By Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner

With a three-day Memorial Day holiday weekend upon us, the state health department is warning Wisconsin residents to pay attention to COVID-19 risks where they live or where they will be visiting.

Gather outdoors as much as possible and wear masks indoors in areas where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported a “high community level” for COVID-19, said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer for the communicable disease bureau at the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS).

The CDC’s community level map, updated late Thursday, showed that 10 counties in Wisconsin have a high community level of COVID-19. The rating combines county case rates for the virus along with hospital capacity.

The latest figures appear to be an improvement from a week ago, when 18 counties had a high community level.

Under the community level assessment system, the CDC recommends that in counties with a high level, everyone should wear a mask when gathering indoors with others outside the person’s household.

“In a high transmission community, the more people who wear masks, the better,” Westergaard told reporters in an online briefing Thursday.

The current trajectory of the virus isn’t clear, he said. Up to now, COVID-19 infections have been rising since mid-April, attributed largely to sub-variants of the variant referred to as omicron, which led to a steep spike in cases starting late last year and peaking in the first week of January.

The new variants are much more easily transmitted, Westergaard said. So far the recent upswing in cases is much less dramatic. Nevertheless, the current COVID-19 test data collected by DHS doesn’t include the results of home tests, he said, so it probably undercounts the real case level in the state.

Westergaard said public health providers hope that the current wave will be milder than past ones. “But at the same time, we want people to be cautious,” he said.

Even where transmission is lower, masking can reduce the risk of getting COVID, influenza or other illnesses, he added. But with COVID activity still high heading into the weekend than it has been, he advised people to “pay more attention to it and consider wearing masks if you’re in one of those areas where there’s a lot going around.”

A person who feels symptoms of illness should stay home and take a home COVID-19 test, Westergaard said. People also should consider taking a home test before they go to a gathering, he added.

People who have risk factors for more severe disease and who test positive for COVID-19 also qualify for antiviral drugs that are now being used to combat the infection — drugs that were not available a year ago, Westergaard said.

Since the start of the pandemic more than two years ago, he said, holiday gatherings have heightened the risk of transmitting the virus. With nice weather that encourages people to spend more time outdoors, and with more people who have been vaccinated as well as some who have been infected and have a short-term immunity, Westergaard said people can safely meet for Memorial Day weekend events if they take precautions.

DHS is advising people who haven’t gotten vaccinated for COVID-19 yet to begin the process. People who have been vaccinated but not received a booster should do so as soon as they are eligible, and if they’ve been boosted once and qualify for a second booster, should get that as well, according to the DHS recommendations.

DHS and the CDC have said that people age 50 or older qualify for a second booster five months after the first one, as do people 12 or older who have a compromised immune system.

The ability of vaccines to prevent an initial infection has diminished, according to DHS, but they still remain a key protection against serious disease and its effects, including hospitalization and death. New data from the department show that in April, unvaccinated Wisconsin residents with COVID-19 were twice as likely to go to the hospital and seven times as likely to die as COVID-19 patients who were vaccinated.

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This story first appeared in the Wisconsin Examiner and is being republished with permission through a Creative Commons License. See the original story, here.