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Members of the Wisconsin National Guard medical team help with free COVID-19 drive-thru testing at Blackhawk Technical College.

Rock County health officials worry a coronavirus variant strain might be driving a jump in local COVID-19 hospitalizations.

The county’s COVID-19 hospitalizations more than doubled in one week—from seven on April 5 to 17 on Monday, according to data from the Rock County Public Health Department.

The last time the county saw hospitalization numbers that high was Feb. 10, as hospitalizations were declining after fall and winter surges.

Epidemiologist Nick Zupan said Monday he fears the B.1.1.7 variant coronavirus strain, which was detected in Rock County in recent weeks, might be driving hospitalizations up.

The variant spreads more easily than the traditional virus that causes COVID-19. It also can contribute to more severe illness, Zupan said.

It is difficult to know how much variant strain is circulating through the community because not all coronavirus test samples are sent to the state lab for genetic sequencing, he said.

Most recent COVID-19 hospitalizations have involved people between the ages of 50 and 65 who have not yet been vaccinated for COVID-19, Zupan said.

Anybody can become seriously ill from the coronavirus. Zupan urged people to continue taking precautions, such as wearing masks and social distancing, and to get vaccinated as soon as they can.

An increase in hospitalizations typically occurs three to four weeks after case numbers begin rising, Zupan said.

Active and confirmed cases of COVID-19 began increasing steadily in late March. On March 19, the county reported 126 active and confirmed cases—174 fewer than the 300 active and confirmed cases reported Monday.

An increase in deaths could follow in the weeks to come, Zupan said.

Many people considered especially vulnerable to COVID-19 because of age or medical condition have been vaccinated, he said. That could mean fewer hospitalized people will die, but Zupan said it is too soon to predict.

The health department does not anticipate tightening capacity recommendations for businesses and gatherings anytime soon, despite the increases in case activity and hospitalizations, Zupan said.

He said health officials want to keep businesses open as much as possible and strike a balance between disease prevention and economic health.

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