Dr Adel Zurob

Zurob

EAU CLAIRE — COVID-19 cases across Wisconsin have fallen this spring, but Mayo Clinic in Eau Claire is seeing a slight uptick in COVID-19 patients in its intensive care unit — and those patients tend to not be vaccinated, a Mayo Clinic doctor said this week.

“Over the last three to four weeks we’ve had a little uptick in patients who are COVID positive, requiring ICU admission,” and those patients tend not to be vaccinated, said Dr. Adel Zurob, medical director of critical care at Mayo Clinic in Eau Claire.

During the height of the pandemic in Eau Claire, Mayo Clinic was treating roughly 10 COVID-19 patients on ventilators at a time, Zurob said. This spring that number is much lower, he cautioned, and the clinic isn’t close to being overwhelmed like it was in October and November. But county residents are still falling ill and being admitted to the ICU.

“At a community level, at a country level, our numbers are coming down,” Zurob said. “But if you drill down and look at unvaccinated patients, their rates of infection are still what they were at the height of the pandemic. Their chances of getting sick and (staying) in the ICU are still the same.”

Hospitals around the country are reporting the same. The roughly 500 people still hospitalized with COVID-19 in Colorado are nearly all unvaccinated, Colorado Public Radio reported on Tuesday. Cleveland Clinic officials say 99% of hospitalized patients with COVID between January and April haven’t been vaccinated as well.

Mayo Clinic may not be the only Eau Claire hospital seeing a small rise in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. The number of county residents hospitalized and in the ICU has increased slightly for the last two weeks, according to an Eau Claire City-County Health Department report from May 28.

The Health Department believes that right now, one of the county’s highest-risk factors is “close contact activities between unvaccinated people and groups,” according to the report.

Falling cases in Eau Claire County are partly due to vaccine protection, but the chances of falling seriously ill, being hospitalized or dying from COVID-19 are much lower for people who are fully vaccinated, said Audrey Boerner, public information officer for the Health Department’s pandemic response.

“We expect that when serious illness or hospitalizations do occur due to COVID, more of them will be among unvaccinated people,” Boerner said in an email to the Leader-Telegram.

Roughly half of the county has gotten the shot. As of Thursday, nearly 50% of county residents have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine, and 45% are fully vaccinated.

Nailing down precisely how many new COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin are among unvaccinated people is difficult — though only a sparse number of “breakthrough cases” in vaccinated people have been recorded in Wisconsin and nationwide.

Currently Wisconsin doesn’t publicly break down new COVID-19 cases by vaccination status. An official with the state health department’s Bureau of Communicable Disease said last month that the agency doesn’t have immediate plans to do so.

Peak has passed, but hospitals still admitting

New cases of COVID-19 in Eau Claire County dropped quickly when vaccines became widely available this spring. Since March, the county has averaged 10 or fewer new cases per day.

Hospitalizations have also dipped since November, when between 20 and 30 county residents were being hospitalized each week — but hospitalizations haven’t flattened yet.

Last week four county residents were admitted to hospitals with COVID-19, and five were admitted the week before, according to county data.

Cases are falling, but easing up on pandemic restrictions means that people who haven’t gotten vaccinated are at higher risk, Zurob said.

“ … If you’re not vaccinated, there’s probably a false sense of security that you’re protected,” he said Thursday. “You’re not as protected as you think you are, because the virus is still out there, people can still spread it to you. While three to four months ago the person that might be carrying it now was masked, they’re not masked now.”

He urged people to get vaccinated before summer activities kick into high gear: “It’s a safe vaccine. It’s a very effective vaccine and it’s available.”

Contact: 715-833-9206, sarah.seifert@ecpc.com, @sarahaseifert on Twitter

Sarah Seifert is the L-T's education and health reporter. She has worked as a journalist in the Chippewa Valley since 2017 and joined the L-T in 2019. Get in touch at sarah.seifert@ecpc.com or on Twitter @sarahaseifert.