A common question we’ve received since releasing our new version of Forward Dane and Emergency Order #14 is why orders are loosening at this point in the pandemic.

Why orders are changing

We’re following the data. The number of cases per day has been stable or trending downward nearly every day since mid-January, almost two months ago. Our case counts are approaching numbers that we last saw in July and August. We’re doing more testing than we ever have before, with a percent positivity of less than 1%, so we are not likely to be missing cases. Most promisingly, we have vaccines now, which are a critical tool we didn’t have last July or August, and which have already given some form of immunity to more than 1 out of every 5 Dane County residents. To learn about all the other data we’re monitoring and how they inform orders, read our new Forward Dane plan.

There’s a reason we have prioritizations for vaccines. Health care workers were among the first people to be vaccinated, and nearly 3 out of every 4 Dane County residents age 65 and older have gotten vaccinated already (including people in long term care facilities). When thinking of important outcomes we want to achieve—protecting hospitals and preventing hospitalizations and deaths—we’ve already done a lot of work to achieve those outcomes through vaccines. Hospital staff are now much better able to avoid getting sick, as are people age 65 and older (who have accounted for 88% of all deaths in Dane County). People hospitalized with COVID and cases linked to long term care facilities are at the lowest levels we’ve seen in six months.

We’re doing better than a lot of the country. The number of cases per day in the United States was the highest ever in early January. In Wisconsin and in Dane County, the highest level of case activity occurred in mid-November and has been mostly declining since then. Dane County’s current 7-day average daily rate of cases/100,000 people is 12.1 (8.4 excluding UW students), while the U.S. as a whole is 17.4. Wisconsin’s is 10.5, which is the 7th lowest out of all 50 states. As we’ve learned throughout the past year, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to responding to the pandemic. We’re doing what makes epidemiological sense for our local situation. If our situation changes, we are watching closely to ensure health care capacity is maintained, and we are prepared to tighten restrictions if necessary.

​​​​​​​We’ve already made a lot of vaccination progress. For many people, it may feel like vaccination progress is barely creeping along. But the reality is we’ve given at least one dose of vaccine to nearly 75% of people age 65 and older in Dane County, and more than 20% of people overall. Think of it this way—we’re maybe a quarter of the way or more to herd immunity already. And with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine approval, we are going to be able to very quickly ramp up our vaccination rate, so we will see immunity accelerate.

But I’m still terrified!

It makes sense that loosening restrictions may feel anxiety-inducing to many. After all, since a year ago last March, we’ve been told that social contact is risky, and that we should stay home. For a year, we have associated gatherings and increasing capacity with more risk. With the introduction of vaccines, we know the things that have always kept us healthy (like masks and distancing) are still important, but we also may start introducing more activities as more people are vaccinated. The shifting of our comfort with risks, and the mental math we all do to decide that, can be an uncomfortable transition.  

What we do know is this:

The riskiness of activities is decreasing. The more vaccines are in arms, the more COVID-19 is prevented from spreading, and the less risky activities become.

We’re monitoring for variants and increasing community risk. Many people have additional concerns about COVID-19 variants. We are also concerned about variants and are monitoring closely for effects of variants on Dane County (such as increasing case counts). Even though variants have been identified in Dane County, vaccination rates are increasing, which helps negate the impact of variants, and so far we have not seen evidence of variants increasing case transmission. We are encouraged by the relatively low levels of COVID-19 in our community and the increasing rate of vaccination, and continue to watch the data closely for any signs of trouble.

We’re turning down the dial, not flipping a switch. Vaccines work, even when we aren’t at herd immunity. In fact, they can make a significant impact on how quickly cases can spread even when we are far below herd immunity. We looked at several models of vaccination in our new Forward Dane plan that all pointed to a very hopeful situation in spring and summer. There won’t be a single day where we all emerge from our homes to celebrate the end of COVID-19; instead, we’re going to be slowly ramping up our progress back to “normal” life as levels of immunity rise.

We still need to wear masks, socially distance, and limit gatherings. We know we still have a ways to go, which is why we still have orders asking everyone to wear a mask, socially distance, and limit the size of gatherings and activities. While we are in the transition period from pandemic to herd immunity, it’s still essential that we follow prevention methods to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Vaccines are our way out of this pandemic. We changed our entire way of thinking about responding to the pandemic once vaccines began to be administered to people. Masks, distancing, and gathering limits kept us safe and kept us going before we had a long-term solution. Now that we are starting to have long-term solutions through vaccines, we are starting to shift the balance between restrictions and the reality of immunity.

This content is free for use with credit to the City of Madison - Public Health Madison & Dane County and a link back to the original post.