As COVID-19 restrictions ease, are we safe from another surge?

MADISON, Wis. – After nearly a year of not allowing visitors, Madison’s hospitals announced patients will each be allowed one guest beginning Monday.

The change is the latest in a series of COVID-19 policy shifts over the last several days, including both Dane and Rock County easing restrictions after a drop in new cases and hospitalizations.

We’ve kind of gone past that surge that we’ve seen, so we kind of feel that it’s safe to go back into that phase two,” said Jessica Turner of Rock County Public Health. 

Under the new policies, restaurants in both counties will allow for 50 percent dining capacity. It’s a step epidemiologists like Professor Ajay Sethi say are a calculated risk.

Hospitalizations are coming down, deaths are definitely coming down,” Sethi said. “With that sort of renewed confidence to get back, leave the house, go back into society, that’s an opportunity for decision makers to loosen restrictions because the demand now is there to go out and do things a little more like normal.”

The most recent change, allowing visitors into hospitals, is a welcomed one for those in charge.

The visitor restrictions have been one of the most difficult parts of this entire experience over the last year inside of healthcare,” said UW Hospital President Ric Ransom. 

Ransom said while he’s optimistic for the weeks to come, he’s cautious, too.

We as a community and as a country still have a lot of things to try and get behind us,” he said.  “I don’t think what normal looks like for us has been completely settled upon.”

In August, loosening restrictions led to an outbreak larger than the state had ever seen before. During it’s peak in November 2020, Wisconsin regularly added single day totals of 5000-6000 new cases a day. With a vaccine, Sethi is hopeful that won’t happen again.

The vaccines that are available are excellent in protecting people from severe disease due to COVID to require hospitalization,” he said. “The guidelines aren’t saying we’re going back to business as usual. It’s saying that there are risks, and to mitigate that, you need to wear a mask and keep your distance when indoors.”

Sethi said despite the vaccine’s progress, herd immunity won’t happen until nearly 80 percent of the population in Wisconsin has gotten the shot. As of Wednesday, just 16 percent had gotten one dose. He said until the numbers can rise, mitigation strategies like masks, distancing and routine handwashing are necessary.

There is going to be this balance moving forward,” he said.  “Things have loosened up, but we’re not at business as usual.