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  • Writer's pictureAletheia

Dane County's Hidden Breakthroughs, Pt 1

What if Public Health of Madison and Dane County (PHMDC) had been keeping secrets...?

And what if we could prove that PHMDC had failed for months to communicate crucial information to the public--information of a serious nature?

We're all about to find out.

Recently, a private citizen provided Dane Undivided with approximately 500 pages of internal PHMDC Data Team meeting minutes. Acquired through open records, the minutes encompass the period from July 14, 2020 through Sept 7, 2021, and hold numerous important insights about how PHMDC thinks and operates. This blog will ultimately share numerous aspects of what those documents contain. It's quite a treasure trove. Today's post, however, will begin to lay bare one of the most troubling items uncovered so far: the rising rate of breakthrough cases in Dane County, and the reluctance of PHMDC to communicate this reality to citizens in an open and transparent manner.

To provide ease and clarity for readers, we've broken this exposé on breakthrough cases into several blog posts. Yes, there's that much to unpack. Part 1, below, examines meeting minutes from February through May of 2021. Parts 2 and 3 will focus primarily on minutes from June and July 2021. In addition, my colleague Eleos will contribute a related post in order to reveal some of the tactics PHMDC has used to camouflage Dane County breakthrough rates--and explain how he achieved greater transparency via a bit of linear algebra.

This story builds as it unfolds; so stick with us. The fullness of what we're going to show you over the next several posts is well worth your time.

To keep things neat and easy to follow, headings will identify important meeting dates. Beneath each date, you'll find a breakdown of what we discovered in the associated minutes, helpful screenshots, and which aspects of PHMDC's discussions the agency did or did not choose to communicate to Dane County citizens. Let's roll...

Feb 24, 2021

Less than two months after Dane County's COVID vaccination efforts began in December 2020, Data Team meeting minutes included the following note pertaining to Public Health Director Janel Heinrich's Forward Dane 2.0 COVID mitigation plan:

The vax we have are still very effective against the variants. We're monitoring for variants with UW--we'll know if variants are causing a problem. We'll assess level of impact to determine if mitigation is necessary. Need to be nimble--we need to be flexible, don't want to be tied to a plan that can't adapt.

Despite their faith in the value of COVID vaccines, then, PHMDC had already, by this early date, privately anticipated that efficacy issues might arise as new variants emerged. It's an extremely reasonable assumption. All vaccines--all therapies--have a failure rate, and no one has ever successfully created a vaccine for coronaviruses, largely due to their fast mutation rates.

What's concerning, though, is that nowhere outside of this meeting does the PHMDC team share with Dane County citizens its awareness of potential problems. While they engage in a lot of unqualified cheerleading in the early vaccination push, it's challenging to find any prudent warnings about the unknowns associated with unproven therapies still under Emergency Use Authorization (EUA).

In fact, searches of past screenshots from PHMDC's dashboard, COVID-related blog posts, and weekly Data Snapshot newsletters suggest that, despite internal awareness of the potential for problems, PHMDC offered precious few, if any, public warnings about the possibility of loss of vaccine efficacy or outright vaccine failure. There's a similar dearth of language concerning serious potential side effects. If we as motivated seekers can't find any such PHMDC-issued considerations or warnings, how likely is it that anyone else could or did find such information?

March 19, 2021

Less than a month later, two more interesting bullet points appear. The first references the possibility of obtaining information from the contacts of people who tested COVID-positive after immunization, indicating that--no longer merely theoretical--breakthroughs had, in month 3 of the county's vaccination push, become an observable phenomenon.

The second bullet is far more straightforward: "DHS is tracking breakthroughs." DHS is the WI State Department of Health Services.

So, we know that PHMDC is aware, at this juncture, that breakthroughs are an issue. PHMDC is aware that DHS is also aware. But still no language of note in any PHMDC site-related public messaging outlets.

March 22, 2021

PHMDC Data Team analyst Brittany Grogan reports on an investigation she and Data Analyst Manjari "Manj" Ojha have pursued into a Dane County Long Term Care Facility, or LTCF (the name of which PHMDC has redacted in accordance with state statutes). Out of a total of 55 patients and staff at this unidentified facility, 4 immunized individuals had tested positive for COVID. After noting the CDC definition for "breakthrough" as a positive test "two weeks post-second dose," one of the four previously identified breakthrough cases is eliminated from the tally, reducing the count to three breakthroughs.

You'd think that the Data Team would press forward with germane questions about an already concerning 5 to 7% breakthrough rate in an LTCF filled with vulnerable people. Instead, the team muses: "Why so few staff vaccinated? High rate of refusals? Barriers to vax?"

Again, good luck tracking down a word about these or any other breakthroughs from PHMDC in public communications.

April 5, 2021

In covering Data Team members' workloads, Data Analyst Manj Ojha seems to have been assigned to track down information on breakthrough cases.

Still no word to the Dane County public, though, that breakthroughs are even "a thing."

April 13, 2021

Data Team Lead Katarina "Kat" Grande assigns team member Casey Schumann the task of starting a spreadsheet on Dane County breakthroughs, noting that another team member, Crystal Gibson, had already repeatedly asked someone external to the Data Team, for such a spreadsheet. That individual was likely a WI State DHS employee.

PHMDC, however, continues to say essentially nothing to the public about breakthroughs.

April 21, 2021

In the context of notes about a potential $2 million molecular surveillance project (about which more in the future), the minutes reveal that COVID breakthrough cases already receive both priority and surveillance sampling. PHMDC, then, is clearly concerned enough to keep a close eye on breakthroughs...but mum's still the word where the public's concerned.

May 24, 2021

Data Analyst Manj Ojha reports back on a May 21 WI DHS call for medical providers. Ojha notes that the call included little of note on breakthroughs, but poses a fascinating question: "How will we define breakthrough [sp] versus reinfections when immunity starts waning."

Note that Ojha doesn't say "if" immunity starts waning but "when." The question is carefully framed--as if no decline in efficacy has yet taken place. It's still quite a daring thought to verbalize, particularly considering the Data Team's cherished hope in the salvific power of the jab. Reading closely, we can now make the following statement with certainty: By this date, the notion that breakthroughs might relate to waning vaccine efficacy had certainly entered the team's consciousness, however uncomfortably.

Think PHMDC was ready to warn the public, though...? Nope. As we'll see in subsequent installments of this series, the agency wouldn't begin discussing breakthroughs in anything that even pretended at honesty until mid-to late summer 2021. Even then, PHMDC seemed far more interested in damage control--in safeguarding their own agendas--than in actually coming clean on the topic.

What this first set of documents shows should already deeply concern every Dane County resident. It already strongly suggests that PHMDC's biases prevented it from raising important considerations, problems, and risks. However, it pales in comparison to what's coming in the June minutes.

Stay tuned for Part 2...


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