‘Extreme loosening or dissolving’ of pandemic restrictions possible by summer as vaccines guide reopening decisions in Dane County

Vaccine metrics inform new PHMDC Forward Dane plan

MADISON, Wis. – As more people are vaccinated, Dane County public health officials say we’re entering “a new era of hope and possibility,” and that means focusing on new metrics when it comes to issuing public health orders focused on reopening.

“We have been data-driven since the beginning,” said Janel Heinrich, director of Public Health Madison & Dane County, which has been releasing data snapshots each week since last spring. “There were different models about what to look like and what data points might serve us well to help inform, probably more of the closing than the opening.”

Last May, PHMDC put out its Forward Dane plan with metrics that would need to be met for the county to reopen in phases. In its most recent data snapshot, public health officials looked at the year in review and announced that new data measures would be the focus moving forward.

“The important piece is we now have what we know is our path forward,” Heinrich said. “That’s the vaccine.”

The new Forward Dane plan updates the metrics public health officials will focus on in light of vaccination progress. Certain measures used since spring are being dropped, such as community spread since there’s been little variation.

“As we have learned over the past year, some of these metrics just haven’t been quite as informative as we thought they might be,” Heinrich said.

The new focus is on core vaccine measures, which public health called “our main pathway to reopening” in the new plan. Measures such as the total percent of Dane County that’s fully vaccinated show how close we are to herd immunity, which will be reached when about 60 to 90% of people are vaccinated.

“That’s where the models are showing, probably more towards the higher amount of that given the variants and what that may look like with regard to transmission,” Heinrich said.

A few new epidemiology measures will also guide the county’s decision-making, including deaths, hospitalizations and transmission rates.

Unlike in the previous plan, there are no thresholds to meet in order to move to the next phase of reopening.

“(They) have been replaced with a more flexible data framework that allows Public Health to adapt measures to the pandemic more rapidly,” PHMDC said in a blog post. “These new measures will be used as a guide as future decisions are made about public health orders.”

According to the new Forward Dane plan, current models project a return to a “new normal” in the summer.

“The gradual lifting of restrictions may take bigger steps—such as larger gathering limits (ultimately resulting in no limits). Family gatherings, weddings, concerts, travel, and so many of the activities we have missed may be back on the table,” the online document says. “We could see extreme loosening or dissolving of many pandemic restrictions sometime in summer 2021.”

Emergency Order #14, which eases restrictions on bars and restaurants as well as gatherings, goes into effect Wednesday.