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RACINE COUNTY — The number of residents infected with COVID-19 in the greater Racine area with COVID-19 is rising, according to wastewater testing, even as hospitalizations remain relatively low.

According to statistics updated by the Wisconsin Department of Human Services (DHS), wastewater from Racine-area households shows a significant increase in the presence of the coronavirus over the last six months.

Wastewater is more accurate

DHS is using wastewater testing to track the prevalence of COVID-19 cases across the state as the most accurate way to measure rates of infection now that more people use at-home test kits and don’t report results to local health departments or don’t test at all.

“COVID numbers are increasing more than people realize because so many test at home now and don’t report their positive tests,” said Dr. Michael Frank, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Medical College of Wisconsin, said. “The data from wastewater testing is important because it’s a much more reliable way to track infection rates in communities.”

Specifically, testing for the N1 gene, the genetic marker of the coronavirus, indicates rates within the Racine Wastewater Utility’s service area have risen by over 100% between Aug. 1 and Sept. 8.

COVID-19 Rates up, hospitalizations low

Despite the numbers from DHS, hospitalizations for COVID-19 in Racine County overall remain stable. Frank said the reasons for the stability include greater access to vaccines and corresponding higher immunity levels as well as better treatment options.

Numbers from COVID Act Now, an independent nonprofit founded in 2020, indicate the overall COVID-19 risk in Racine is low based on how many patients are being admitted to or currently in the hospital for treatment of the coronavirus. Numbers recorded as of Friday, Sept. 8, 2023, list 1.1 hospitalizations in Racine County per 100,000 residents.

Vaccines available this fall

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced on Monday, Sept. 11, 2023, that new vaccines from both Moderna and Pfizer will be available this fall for people age 12 and older. According to a story from National Public Radio (NPR), the vaccine targets the omicron subvariant, and even though that strain is no longer the most common form of coronavirus infection, the shots do protect against emerging variants.

“The data so far suggest that the new COVID vaccines should be really quite effective against even the new emerging variants that we have seen come up in the last weeks,” Dr. Ashish Jha told NPR.

Jha is the dean of the Brown School of Public Health who served as the White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator.

Last month, officials from the Biden Administration told reporters they expect a full-court press this cold and flu season to help Americans guard against COVID-19, the flu and RSV.

No respect for seasonality

While anyone can catch a cold or come down with the flu throughout the year, autumn and winter are typically when rates of both rise in large part because people spend more time inside without the natural ventilation of being outdoors. COVID-19, though, doesn’t respect seasonality.

“The coronavirus is much more virulent than most strains of the common cold and flu viruses we typically see when Wisconsin residents spend more time indoors,” Frank said. “But people are also really tired of hearing about COVID and don’t seem to care as much, which we can see by how people have mostly returned to pre-COVID behavior.”

Frank said individuals at higher risk, such as the elderly or those with other health concerns, should return to masking in public. Everyone should continue practicing good hygiene; thorough hand-washing and staying home and getting tested if they feel sick beyond normal cold symptoms.

“I urge people to get tested so if they do have COVID, they can begin treatment right away and decrease both their chances of it getting worse and the number of days they’re actually sick,” Frank added.

Racine County Eye sent an inquiry to Ascension All Saints about local hospitalization rates, and we will update this story when we hear from them.

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