‘Like a weight off my shoulders’: Low COVID case numbers bring optimism, change

MADISON, Wis. – Low COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations have Rock County Epidemiologist Nick Zupan’s spirits high.

“It feels like a weight off my shoulders when I see numbers in single digits, in terms of number of new cases,” Zupan said.

Rock County Public Health Department officials say that a “significant decrease in local COVID-19 activity in recent months” is part of the reason it retired its reopening guidance, which meant businesses could open to full capacity starting Tuesday.

Recent data show the county is averaging three new cases per day. In November, that number approached 170.

“I was very, very nervous,” said Oguz Alagoz, a UW-Madison professor who does infectious disease modeling.

Alagoz recalls when Dane County was averaging nearly 500 new cases per day. Now, that number is less than 10.

He estimates the county has gone from thousands of active, often asymptomatic COVID carriers to only about 20 to 30.

“What that means is my chance of running into one of those folks is much smaller,” Alagoz said. “Whereas in October, November, December, that was 1,500, 2,000, 3,000 asymptomatic carriers hanging around.”

That’s shown through a risk assessment tool that News 3 Now first reported on in November. It’s a collaborative project between professors at the Georgia Tech and researchers at Stanford University that estimates the percentage of risk that at least one COVID-19 positive person is at a certain sized gathering in each county in the country.

In November, the risk of encountering someone with COVID-19 at a 10-person gathering in Dane County was estimated at 34%. That’s now 1%. In Dodge County, that risk was 71% in November, but has fallen to 2%.

For 100-person gatherings in most southern Wisconsin counties in November, the risk that someone had COVID was estimated at more than 99%. Now, depending on the county, that’s as high as 15% or as low as >1%, according to the tool.

Rather than focusing too much on figures themselves, Alagoz is looking at the relationship between the November percentages and the percentages now, which represents a big drop.

“The numbers are striking,” Alagoz said. “Compared to October, of course, it’s a much better time to lift some of the restrictions. The risk of getting exposed to COVID is so low.”

“When you’re in the community interacting with others, there’s a much lower chance you’re going to encounter someone who has COVID,” Zupan said.

Still, Zupan will keep following the numbers, hoping to see them reach zero.

“The numbers are low, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t see an increase because we still have a pretty large number of people who are unvaccinated,” he said, adding that more than 50% of people in Rock County haven’t gotten a shot yet. “It’s never too late to get your vaccine.”

Zupan said that patients who are still being hospitalized did not get vaccinated, while those who have gotten the vaccine have been protected from severe illness.

There are plenty of opportunities to get vaccinated in Rock County. Those interested can learn more here.