How Effective Is Milwaukee’s Mask Mandate?

Before Gov. Tony Evers issued a statewide mask mandate, Milwaukee was two weeks into its own order.

WELCOME TO MILWAUKEE MAGAZINE’S HOME FOR CORONAVIRUS NEWS. WE WILL CONTINUE TO UPDATE THIS STORY TO GIVE YOU THE LATEST LOCAL NUMBERS RELATING TO THE HEALTH CRISIS.

UPDATE: Aug. 5, 2020

The short answer to the question, “Is Milwaukee’s mask mandate working?” is, “Yeah, probably.” Here’s what the experts are telling us about masks, how well they work, what we know and what we don’t.

It’s impossible to track how much of a difference requiring masks made. There’s no way to track how many people wore a mask while out and about. Nobody is tracking how many people left the city simply to avoid the order. There’s no way to know exactly how many people were asymptomatic and wearing masks and how many transmissions were prevented.

“It’s very hard to measure something like that,” Dr. Ben Weston, Milwaukee County emergency management medical director, said last week when asked if there were any metrics showing if mask requirements were working. “There’s a lot of moving pieces. There’s people going out more, going out less; children engaged in summer activities, going back to school.”

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“Just tearing apart whether a mask ordinance made a difference — or that people got the message and closed their circles and stayed more within their family units and restricted visits to parties and out in the community — it’s going to be very hard to know that impact,” adds Darren Rausch, director of the Greenfield Health Department who has been central to the county’s coronavirus response in the suburbs.

But one thing that medical professionals agree on, regardless of government orders: Masks work.

“I think what we know is that the evidence has shown us that masks prevent the transmission of disease,” Weston says.

The overarching stats we do have indicate that the mask mandate is working. Pretty quickly after the Milwaukee Common Council approved its mask mandate on July 13, which went into effect three days later, the city’s COVID numbers started dropping. There had been several days in a row with 230+ cases confirmed. After the mask mandate went into effect, we haven’t been over 200 cases in a day.

The same goes for the county’s numbers, showing a sharp decline within days of the mask mandate going into effect, with testing data remaining relatively consistent.

Now the attention turns to the suburbs and the rest of the state. Milwaukee isn’t the hotspot any more.

“Really since June, the rate of transmission in the suburban communities has been higher than that in the City of Milwaukee, hence the reason that the suburban numbers have been quite a bit higher in the last couple months than they have had at any time in the pandemic previously,” says Rausch.

Rural Barron County saw its confirmed case totals double in a matter of weeks in July. Even in Milwaukee County the attention is turning to the suburbs where only a couple municipalities had mask mandates preceding Gov. Tony Evers’ order requiring masks indoors across Wisconsin, which went into effect on Saturday, Aug. 1. 

On July 14, when the City of Milwaukee’s mask mandate went into effect, new County Executive David Crowley said he supported the decision, but he never publicly moved to make such an order.

The county hasn’t instituted a full mandate, but it has expanded its limited one. Since early June, face coverings have been required in almost all county-run buildings and at the zoo. They are now required on Milwaukee County Transit System buses too, even before the statewide order went into effect.

Whitefish Bay and Shorewood already had mask mandates in place before the governor stepped in, but the combined populations of those municipalities and the City of Milwaukee still cover less than two-thirds of the county’s residents. Just this week, Wauwatosa added a mask mandate that will outlast the statewide mandate and continue through January. 

The questions encompassed by “What next?” linger. Rausch and Weston both say that the death totals lag behind hospitalization spikes by a couple weeks, partially because you have to get sick first before you pass away, secondly because there’s a lag time in reporting and confirming deaths.

“It’s certainly good we are not seeing increased deaths at this time, but of course we know that deaths are a lagging indicator,” Weston said on July 27. Rausch also pointed out that young people nationwide and in Wisconsin are seeing spikes in confirmed cases compared to previously, and that could also lead to lower death rates on account of young people being less likely to be killed by COVID — although they still very well can die from it.

Rausch emphasized that everything we as a whole community do now greatly affects our situation in two weeks, and then two weeks after that, and after that, thus altering what back to school and the NFL season and the business situation and death totals throughout 2020.

“Decisions we’re collectively making about wearing masks and maintaining physical distancing are also significantly impacting COVID-19 disease rates,” Rausch says. “Regardless whether there’s an ordinance or an order with enforcement or whether it’s just a recommendation, we really urge you all to be wearing a mask and physical distancing and do everything you can to prevent disease transmission when you’re out and about in the community.”

Rausch added: “COVID cases in our community are growing pretty rapidly. That’s something we’ll continue to watch.”

Although it’s assumed that mask orders would increase the number of people wearing masks, there’s no real data on the effect the orders and ordinances have on compliance considering the amount of people who are willing to protest against the claimed loss of rights over being told to wear a mask — especially considering many county sheriffs in Wisconsin and elsewhere have said they are refusing the governor’s order to enforce the mandate.


Wisconsin Keeps Setting Records As We Charge Further in the Wrong Direction on COVID

We keep breaking records, in a bad way.

BY ADAM ROGAN

UPDATE: July 22, 2020

On April 24, 304 coronavirus cases were confirmed in Wisconsin, the highest single day mark by nearly 80 cases.

That was a month to the day after the Gov Tony Evers and the Department of Health Services’ Safer at Home order went into effect. Three weeks later it would be overturned.

In the interim, another spike hit: 460 cases on May 1.

On May 16, three days after the Supreme Court overturned the statewide order, we hit another record: 502 cases confirmed in one day.

Four days later: 528. Then 599 on May 27. And 733 on May 29.

Then the numbers dipped. Maybe we were out of the woods. Maybe the curve had been flattened. Maybe we were doing enough. Regardless of why, daily case counts bottomed out in mid-June.

Then they started climbing. Fast. We hit 738 cases on the Fourth of July. There were 845 on July 10. Then 926 on July 11. Another 964 on July 14. And 978 on July 18.

The high-water mark came yesterday. We had never added more than 1,000 cases in a 24-hour period. But on Tuesday, July 21 we confirmed 1,117 positive coronavirus cases.

Just a couple weeks ago, Wisconsin had the fastest rate of spread in the United States, according to The COVID Tracking Project. We’re still in the top 10, as other states like Kentucky (who has the nationwide lead as of Tuesday) refuse to enforce restrictions. Arkansas (in second place) issued a statewide mask requirement order last week.

“The trend is going in the wrong direction,” Stephanie Smiley, the interim administrator for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services’ Division of Public Health, said on Tuesday.

With that fast-rising case rate has also come fears of death rates rising too, even as the American medical system gets better at helping people with COVID-19. Thirteen deaths were reported the same day as Wisconsin’s record-breaking Tuesday, the most deaths reported in a day in over a month.

It’s still not clear why death rates nationwide appear so much smaller in percentage compared to positive cases. But reporting from The Atlantic shows a couple reasons why that could be: that expanded testing has highlighted milder cases affecting healthier people, that truly sick people are starting to get better more often, that the hot summer weather has helped fight the virus and that the death rate may be headed for a spike a couple weeks behind case counts.

The transmission rate hasn’t shrunk much, including at least three days with positive test percentages over 10% in the two middle weeks of July.

The state as a whole is still considered a hotspot, with those flying from Wisconsin into four northeastern states (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Rhode Island) being required to quarantine for weeks.

Concerns have also been raised about how long the National Guard will be able to help out. Most testing in the state is being conducted by the Guard. That effort is being funded by the federal government, specifically by order of President Donald Trump. Concerns have been raised by some health officials that Trump may not keep the Guard activated after August.

Doing that might bring numbers down, but it won’t decrease the spread. The lack of public knowledge could also lead to lower levels of concern, again increasing the spread.

States could still pay for testing, but that would mean states would have fewer CARES Act money to pay for other side effects of the virus, like job losses and unemployment.


Wisconsin Ranks Worst in the Country for the Spread of Coronavirus

We’re also far behind other states in the Midwest when looking at the numbers.

BY ADAM ROGAN

UPDATE: July 8, 2020

Wisconsin leads the country in one of the worst ways possible: coronavirus transmission. And there’s little that can be done on a statewide level to reverse it.

Data from The Atlantic‘s The COVID Tracking Project (available at https://rt.live) shows that for two weeks straight (the last week of June and first week of July) Wisconsin has had the fastest rate of transmission countrywide of the novel coronavirus.

Nationwide data compiled by The Atlantic’s The COVID Tracking Project shows that Wisconsin has the fastest spread of COVID-19 nationwide, as of Tuesday, July 7.

The above chart tracks Rt, which is the average number of people who become infected by an infectious person in each state. This is a key measure of how fast the virus is growing, because if Rt is above 1.0, the virus will spread quickly, but when Rt is below 1.0, the virus will stop spreading, according to the Tracking Project.  

As other states take strong measures to slow the spread — like required quarantines for travelers entering New Jersey and Illinois, bars being closed en masse in California, and masks being required in New Mexico and elsewhere — Wisconsin can’t really do that.

Gov. Tony Evers said he, and the rest of Wisconsin’s executive branch, don’t really know what powers are left to institute precautions on a statewide level.

“Unfortunately the reality is that the Supreme Court ruling and the Republican lawsuit really hamstrung our ability to respond to this pandemic,” Evers said, referencing to how Safer at Home was overturned almost two months ago. “This is not a political issue. This is a virus issue. The virus doesn’t give a crap if you’re a Democrat or Republican.”

Evers applauded the localities that have been instituting protections — “We support local health officers making that decision based on the science and what’s happening on the ground … Local health officers are doing their damndest to do their thing” he said Tuesday during a virtual media briefing — but there’s no guarantee those local rules will stand.

On Monday, July 13, Dane County will start requiring everyone in the county to wear masks; the City of Milwaukee is considering doing the same. But local safeguards are being challenged in other places, like in Racine where courts have allowed, then disallowed, then re-allowed local restrictions. A similar lawsuit is attacking Dane County’s stay-at-home order.

And while those small-scale issues move onward, people are dying. A few days ago, the 800th Wisconsinite died from COVID-19. At least 805 people in the state have died so far from the virus, as of Tuesday, July 7, according to the state Department of Health Services.

Those deaths are likely to continue without being slowed much, so long as masks continue not being worn by a large proportion of the population and social distancing is only occasionally followed.

Not only is Wisconsin worst in the nation in terms of the spread of the virus: it is BY FAR the worst in the region. According to The COVID Tracking Project’s data, every other Midwest state is middle of the road. Illinois leads the region, ranking 11th for the slowest spread of the virus.

Nationwide data compiled by The Atlantic’s The COVID Tracking Project shows that Wisconsin has the fastest spread of COVID-19 nationwide and in the Midwest, as of Tuesday, July 7.

DHS Secretary-designee Andrea Palm said that Wisconsin was doing a great job through the first couple months of the pandemic. But that progress has slowed mightily as the virus is now spreading quicker than anywhere else in the country. State leaders put some of the blame on that for the early end to Safer at Home, a lack of statewide precautions and not enough people following social distancing protocols.

“We cannot let this trend continue,” Evers said. “We cannot go backwards.”

The advice from state leaders is simple: Stay home as much as you can. Wear a mask when you can’t.

This graph shows the rate of spread in Wisconsin of the novel coronavirus, according to data compiled by The Atlantic’s The COVID Tracking Project.

Why Haven’t We Heard ‘Flatten the Curve’ in Awhile?

The latest messaging focuses on “people, time and space.”

BY ADAM ROGAN

UPDATE: July 1, 2020

Coronavirus is still here. States that were quick to reopen are backtracking. Bars in Texas and Florida have both closed all of their states’ bars after what NBC News called an “explosion of COVID-19 cases” in both of those states.

The reasons why? Texas’ and Florida’s coronavirus curves were doing anything but staying flat. Florida’s total new case count per day was rarely above 1,000 any day between the start of the year and this month. It’s now averaging well over 2,000 per day since early June, including two consecutive days with more than 5,000 confirmed cases.

Texas has a similar trend, with more than 5,000 cases confirmed three days in a row, even though the state had never seen 2,000 confirmed cases in any one day until June.

State leaders in Wisconsin no longer have the same abilities as the leaders in those states to change its rules depending on the local situation: the Supreme Court made sure of that when it gutted the Department of Health Services’ ability to establish rules amid a pandemic. The legislature should still be able to put in rules, but won’t be able to act as quickly as the executive branch.

Screenshot via DHS.Wisconsin.gov, as of June 26

Wisconsin’s numbers may not be spiking, but they aren’t staying flat either.

Screenshot via DHS.Wisconsin.gov, as of June 26

Milwaukee County has the most cases per capita again, a title that had been temporarily held by Brown County (seated by Green Bay) and Racine County but is now a title that has been returned to the Cream City. The city and county of Milwaukee have the highest rates of COVID-19 in the state, with approximately 1,400 and 1,110 cases per 100,000 people, respectively, as of Friday, June 26.

“This means that the chances of contracting COVID-19 are higher in our area,” says Milwaukee Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik.

So what’s that mean? It means that even though case counts aren’t skyrocketing, the curve isn’t staying flat either. Kowalik repeated a message that’s being spread throughout Milwaukee County: People, Space and Time. What that means is that health leaders are still telling the public to “limit close contact” with people outside of their own household. And when being in close quarters is necessary, we are told to limit the time we are close to others — the CDC says 15 minutes max; the Milwaukee Health Department says 10 minutes. On top of that, the space between ourselves and others should be maximized as possible — 6 feet. So why don’t we hear flatten the curve anymore? Because that’s not the frame of mind leaders are using anymore.

We still don’t know when coronavirus will be gone, so we don’t know where the endpoint for the curve will be. And we also know the curve could spike again, and maybe even again after that. 


Confused by the Ongoing COVID-19 News? Here’s What Local Experts Are Saying

Milwaukeeans are still dying from COVID.

BY ADAM ROGAN

UPDATE: June 22, 2020

“People are confused and fatigued with the information on COVID-19,” says Dr. Ben Weston, Milwaukee County’s emergency management medical director, reflecting a feeling felt by professionals in the medical fields and also the public at large being inundated with negative news stories about the state of the world. “I think anyone would be forgiven for not knowing how to stay safe, how extreme to be with physical distancing and what practices to follow … The simple answer is that COVID-19 is still with us.”

He continued by saying that there is good news, like how we are seeing “promising trends” in hospitalizations and, especially in certain parts of our community, percent-positive positive case counts.

But Weston added that the virus isn’t gone, and it will likely increase at some point in the future, as we are seeing in most states throughout the country. 

It doesn’t help that people might be getting different or conflicting information, depending on what newspaper(s) they read and what TV channel(s) they watch.

Here are some answers to questions you may have:

How can I assess how safe an activity is during the pandemic?

There are three rules to look at when assessing how “dangerous” an activity might be when it comes to the spread of COVID-19, according to Weston. They are:

  • People: How many people are around you?
  • Space: How close will you be to those people?
  • Time: How long will you be in close proximity to others?

Walking in a park alone or only with people of your household is a “low-risk” activity, Weston says, but getting coffee with a friend or colleague in a crowded shop for half an hour is “high risk.”

“The people you live with are fine. You can interact with them as much as you want,” Weston says. Outside of your housemates, however, Milwaukeeans should, “Keep your circle as small as possible.”

Meeting up with friends is still considered dangerous. Marching in protests also increases the chances of exposure, but Milwaukee’s health leaders have not discouraged those demonstrations in the fight against systematic racism, which has played a direct role in people of color being more negatively affected by COVID-19.

Should I be wearing a mask when out and about?

Wearing a mask is still considered essential to slowing the spread of COVID-19, even though it isn’t being required everywhere.

Your mask — whether it’s a hospital-grade material or an artisan-made cloth mask or a bandana — should cover your nostrils, your entire mouth and go down around your chin “to have the full benefit,” says Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik.

Why haven’t Milwaukee’s rules been rolled back yet?

Milwaukee County has experienced a “dramatic dropoff” in the number of people being tested for coronavirus, according to County Executive David Crowley.

That dropoff has been blamed on a number of factors, one of the main reasons being coronavirus has fallen a bit out of news cycles and virtual water cooler conversations because of the ongoing George Floyd protests. With the media’s focus having shifted, we are all less often reminded of the reality of COVID-19, which has killed more than 330 people in the county so far.

“It’s easy to seeing them (the deaths) as an aggregate statistic, a percentage of a whole,” Weston says. “These are parents, husbands, wives, best friends, coworkers, sons and daughters.”

Two of Weston’s close friends lost loved ones — a father and a brother — over the past week. “If you haven’t yet been touched by loss during the pandemic, I think you’re one of the lucky ones.”

Weston pleaded with listeners during a call with reporters this week: “Please be kind to those around you.”

Because of that dropoff in testing (to below 100 people per day at some points), a red flag was raised in Milwaukee’s coronavirus tracking metrics. And so, leaders will not consider allowing the city and county to open up further until at least June 26. For now, restaurants will be stuck at 25% capacity.

What was that about asymptomatic people not transmitting?

Weston says said that a World Health Organization official saying that asymptomatic people weren’t transmitting COVID-19 was “a bit of a miss-speak.” (Even the WHO later admitted that wasn’t good information.)

Weston says that the media as a whole blew that statement out of proportion. The truth of the matter, according to Weston and the CDC, is that there isn’t much research showing how much asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic people contribute to coronavirus spread. But Weston said that more research needs to be conducted before conclusions can be made on that front.

Medscape ran a story about the topic with the title: “Asymptomatic Transmission? We Just Don’t Know,” even though it still appears that symptomatic people are much more likely to spread the virus than those who aren’t experiencing any symptoms.

For now, Milwaukee’s health leaders advise people who don’t have coronavirus symptoms to still practice social distancing.

If a young person catches COVID-19, will there be long-term effects?

The jury is still partially out on this one, but there is a substantial fear that people young and old who get sick with coronavirus but survive will suffer long-term mal-effects.

“Just because you’re not older or you don’t have a health condition, does not mean you won’t be negatively impacted or affected by COVID-19. Yes, you may recover from it, but you don’t know what damage may become long-term. You may contract some disability from it,” Kowalik says.

Possible long-term damage caused by COVID include “lung scarring, heart damage, and neurological and mental health effects,” Vox reported after speaking with Joseph Brennan, a cardiologist at the Yale School of Medicine.

Election?

We’re going to keep having elections amid the pandemic. The American public will be electing or re-electing a president in November.

But what polling places will look like is still being planned out, says Mayor Tom Barrett.

He called the April election a “fiasco” because of how long the state government (led by Gov. Tony Evers) waited to try to postpone it, and then how quickly the state and U.S. Supreme Courts shut down that attempt just hours before polls opened.

“There is a lot more news to come on that,” Barrett said earlier this week.


Yes, You Should Still be Wearing a Mask

Milwaukeeans are still dying from COVID.

BY ADAM ROGAN

UPDATE: June 15, 2020

There isn’t much debate about it anymore. Wearing masks makes a difference in slowing the spread of coronavirus.

When health care workers (the people who know a thing or two about pandemics and illness) took a knee in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement at the Mayo Clinic in La Crosse and across the Wisconsin-based Advocate Aurora network, they kept their masks on.

On June 9, County Executive David Crowley said that masks would be required at all county facilities — that doesn’t include parks or the airport. That’s under the advisement of the CDC, which is still pushing pro-social distancing and pro-mask wearing messages.

Need evidence of why masks work? In Missouri, two hairstylists at a Great Clips both caught the virus. Combined, they saw 140 clients while both were experiencing symptoms. And somehow, not a single one of those 140 clients caught the virus, according to the local health department.

Don’t know where to get a mask locally? CLICK HERE!

Still, the spread of coronavirus in Wisconsin continues. There hasn’t been a spike, and leaders are praying that mass demonstrations that started two weeks ago don’t cause one.

Even though the news cycle has turned away from COVID, people are still dying. Over the past week in Milwaukee County, an average of 2.4 deaths per day was reported by the health department. In the nine days prior, an average of 3.44 Milwaukeeans died per day from the novel coronavirus.

It’s a similar story at the state level. Over the past three weeks, an average of 9.24 Wisconsinites have died from COVID every day.


COVID-19 Is Still Here, But Fewer and Fewer People Are Getting Tested

The focus has shifted to protests, but local leaders warn the community not to ignore the pandemic.

BY RICH ROVITO

UPDATE: June 10, 2020

For nearly two weeks, protesters have taken to the streets of Milwaukee each day demanding an end to social injustice and police brutality. 

The protests, some of which have drawn thousands of demonstrators, have shifted the community’s attention away from the COVID-19 crisis, causing concern among local health officials. 

“Please remember that COVID-19 is still in our community and though we are opening back up we need to be more vigilant than ever to make sure we don’t take a step backward in this fight,” Dr. Ben Weston, director of medical services for the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management, said Tuesday.

The COVID-19 pandemic “does not create exemptions for protests,” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett warned.

“I remain concerned that what we are seeing right now could lead to a spike. I hope I am wrong,” Barrett said.

Barrett also expressed concern over what he termed a “dramatic drop” in the number of people who are being tested for COVID-19. 

A Wisconsin National Guard testing site at Custer Stadium on Milwaukee’s North Side drew only 80 people on Monday, while a South Side testing site at United Migrant Opportunity Services administered just 206 tests.

There have been 21,308 positive cases of COVID-19 in Wisconsin as of Tuesday, and 661 people have died. Confirmed cases in Milwaukee County total about 9,000, with 301 deaths. 

Although there has been a downward trend in COVID-19 patients needing hospitalization, there hasn’t been a decline in the percentage of positive tests for the coronavirus, Weston explained.

That suggests “we are under testing in Milwaukee County and missing a substantial number of cases of COVID-19 in our community,” Weston said.

There appears to be diminished awareness of the presence and severity of COVID-19 in the community, he added.

“As we see stores and restaurants and workplaces opening back up, there’s a sense that we are done with COVID-19,” Weston said. “At the same time, the media and public attention has shifted to the protests and racial inequity in our communities. These factors likely lead to people thinking less about COVID-19 and fewer people finding the need to get tested.”

Testing remains critical, especially for people exhibiting symptoms, in controlling the spread of COVID-19 and decreasing the likelihood of a major future spike in cases that could strain the local healthcare system and push the community back to more restrictive physical distancing measures, Weston said.

“We have the capacity to test many more people than we are,” he added. 

Dr. Jeanette Kowalik, City of Milwaukee’s commissioner of health, said the number of tests has declined not only at community sites but also at health care providers.

“We are at a boiling point in our country right now and there has been a shift in focus as far as advocating for reforms in law enforcement and government in general related to anti-black racism in our city, our state and our country,” Kowalik said. “But we also need to acknowledge that COVID-19 is still here.”

She urged protesters to properly wear face masks that cover the nose and mouth and extend to the bottom of the chin.

“If it is not worn that way, you are pretty much defeating the purpose of wearing it,” she said.

She also stressed the use of hand sanitizer and proper social distancing, as much as possible, during marches.

Kowalik and Barrett also addressed the timing of the city’s move to allow restaurants and bars to re-open for dine-in and drink-in service at 25 percent capacity. The move to the next phase of the city’s re-opening plan went into effect at 2 p.m. Friday, 24 hours of Barrett announced the plan.  

“There is no perfect way to do this,” Barrett said. “For some businesses, it made them happy. For other businesses, it was not enough notice.”

Kowalik said the city will remain in the third phase of the plan “for a while.” Another reassessment won’t take place until June 19, a time period that coincides with a full incubation period for the coronavirus.

Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley also announced Tuesday that a universal face mask policy is being implemented for people entering county facilities and grounds with a controlled entry point, including the Milwaukee County Zoo, which will begin a phased re-opening on Saturday. The face mask policy will apply to employees, contractors, vendors, volunteers and the general public. Face masks will be provided for those who don’t have them.

Face masks are being highly recommended, but won’t be required, at Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport, on public buses and in outdoor spaces. 

“The zoo opening up is a very exciting time, but we need to remind folks that we are still in the middle of a pandemic,” Crowley said. “Because Milwaukee is an area of significant community spread and transmission, we have to take the necessary precautions.”


Coronavirus Wasn’t Slowing Down in Wisconsin When We Started Opening

Milwaukee might have the most cases, but it doesn’t have the highest rate of cases. That new title goes to Brown and Racine counties.

BY ADAM ROGAN

UPDATE: May 30, 2020

Milwaukee isn’t the hotspot for coronavirus in Wisconsin anymore.

We certainly suffered the worst of it at the beginning, and that might still be the case when looking at pure numbers. More than half of Wisconsin’s confirmed cases, and sometimes as many as two-thirds of the deaths, were in Milwaukee County through most of April.

But at the end of May, only about 40% of the state’s total cases and fewer than half of the deaths were out of Milwaukee County. Those are still disproportionate percentages — Milwaukee County only accounts for about 16% of the state population — but the numbers are trending downward. All that while the virus has spread. In mid-May, the final two Wisconsin counties that had been free of the virus confirmed their first cases.

On Friday, May 29, when the state set a record with 733 new cases confirmed in one day, only about a third of the new cases came out of Milwaukee County.

“As much as we would like to believe it, this is not over,” Mayor Tom Barrett said on Thursday, May 28.

When asked about the political divide in Wisconsin and how it’s affected coronavirus policy, Barrett initially joked about “What political divide?” knowing full well how far apart Republicans and Democrats often are here — as local and national media have only been too quick to point out.

But Milwaukee’s Democrat mayor then pointed to how cities and counties and districts led by members of both major parties are facing rising deaths and diagnoses from COVID-19. As large as the philosophical chasm between politicians appears, their constituents are all being hit by the worst worldwide pandemic in a century.

Brown County is led by a Republican county executive but the mayor of its biggest city, Green Bay, is a Democrat. Brown County also has the most cases per capita in Wisconsin with one case for every 113 people as of May 29.

It’s a similar story in Racine County, which has the second-most cases per capita — one case for every 118 people as of May 29. Racine County is also home to Wisconsin’s top Republican Robin Vos and is led by a Republican county executive. But the City of Racine is mayored by a Democrat.

Milwaukee County, which solidly votes Democrat, ranks third in per capita with one case for every 127 people.

In fourth is Kenosha County with one case for every 149 people. Like Milwaukee before it, the county executive and mayor are both Democrats.

Barrett, during a briefing with reporters on Thursday, emphasized that coronavirus is not just an urban problem and thus Milwaukee shouldn’t be treated differently than other parts of the state — pointing to how quickly the virus has been able to spread in Brown County and other places that have been more eager to reopen. Referencing Vos, Barret eagerly pointed out: “His county is No. 2 in the state for per capita cases.”


Coronavirus Wasn’t Slowing Down in Wisconsin When We Started Opening

Here’s the latest update on the numbers in Wisconsin.

BY ADAM ROGAN

UPDATE: May 23, 2020

Wisconsin’s coronavirus case count is only rising. The state’s total is expected to surpass 15,000 on Sunday.

Despite what all those people on Facebook say, it’s not just because more people are being tested.

Still, the statewide percentage of tests coming back positive has fallen down to around 6% per day, rather than the average of around 12% that was the norm a couple weeks ago. But in Milwaukee and nearby Racine, the percentage is way higher: above 20% per day over the past week, showing the rate of spread in more urban areas.

Only a couple places have restrictions still in place after the Wisconsin Supreme Court said on May 13 that the state can reopen, abruptly forcing localities to decide individually what they wanted to do.

Most cities and counties said they weren’t going to stick with restrictions.

Appleton and Kenosha County were among those who said they were going to keep restrictions in place after May 13 but quickly said “Y’know what? Nevermind” after talking with attorneys who weren’t sure if they could win a court case defending a local order.

Racine, Dane County and the City of Milwaukee (but not the county) have held firm, with local leaders saying the presence of coronavirus poses a real threat in their communities. That’s been their argument for why restrictions are legal. Both Mayor Tom Barrett and Milwaukee Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik have said the decisions by some places to reopen have been more political than anything else, considering local health leaders in those places are still urging people to avoid gatherings and follow social distancing guidelines.

The majority of the city council and patrons of vacation town Lake Geneva, however, feel otherwise. The beaches there are open (even though one beach manager resigned in protest of the decision) and the streets are busy with pedestrians.

Coronavirus is now present in all 72 of Wisconsin’s counties. The virus, which has killed more than 100,000 Americans, is considered a threat everywhere in the U.S., according to health experts.

And thus these piecemeal responses show differences in leadership, not so much differences in COVID-19. Walworth County (where Lake Geneva is located) has the fifth most cases in the state per capita, as of Saturday, May 24, even though testing hasn’t been particularly robust there.

During a City Council meeting last week, Alderman Michael Murphy asked Kowalik “Are the public health officials in those other communities being overruled and they agree with you?”

Kowalik responded: “For the most part, yes.”

Still, that doesn’t mean the city is keeping its citizens on lockdown. They can still legally travel to the municipalities that are open and there is a plan to allow the city’s businesses to reopen fully.


Wisconsin Just Had One of Its Lowest Totals for Positive Coronavirus Tests in Awhile

But health officials warn that we shouldn’t celebrate yet.

BY ADAM ROGAN

UPDATE: May 19, 2020

On Monday, May 18, the State of Wisconsin only had 144 new confirmed cases of coronavirus. That’s the lowest total in more than a month, since April 14.

And although that is good news (the fewer cases of this thing the better), it’s still definitely doesn’t mean that this pandemic is automatically over.

With Safer at Home gone in all but a couple places – with only Dane County, the City of Milwaukee and City of Racine still enforcing their local orders – virtually every expert and state leader agrees that cases are going to rise.

Whether the rise in the case count is acceptable depends on each person’s perspective as bars reopen their taps, restaurants let eaters back inside and stores unlock their doors.

In Milwaukee County, a recent spike has already emerged since Safer at Home was shot down — although it has come too fast to be related to the pullback of the order, since COVID-19 has an incubation period of up to two weeks, although the incubation period is usually only 4-5 days.

Since the beginning of May, the percentage of total tests that came back positive held steady below 15%. On May 13, only 9% of tests in the county came back positive. The next day, 13% came back positive. Then 21% came back positive. On Saturday May 16, 28% came back positive, tying for the highest daily percentage in the county since the outbreak began.

Milwaukee County’s goal is for 10% or fewer of tests to come back positive, a mark that’s only been reached on six days between March 12 and May 16.

Dr. Ryan Westergaard, Wisconsin’s chief medical officer of infectious diseases, said that four counties ⁠— Milwaukee, Brown, Dane and Racine ⁠— are all still showing significant signs of being hubs of community spread.

“What we know about the virus,” Westergaard says, “is that unless we have really robust intelligence (gathered via contact tracing) about knowing exactly who has the virus, who they’ve been in contact with and resources to support people in isolation and quarantine … until we can do those very comprehensively, community-level mitigations like social distancing and limiting gatherings play a really important role.”

So far in Milwaukee County, 236 people have died, making up more than half of the state’s 459 deaths from coronavirus reported in total Monday. Put in other terms, Milwaukee County’s population makes up less than 16.5% of the state population, but accounts for 51.4% of Wisconsin’s coronavirus tests.

Total testing statewide was also slightly down on Monday. Fewer than 5,000 tests were completed. The prior four days, an average of 6,051 tests were completed per day.

The number of tests being performed is expected to ramp up by a lot over the next couple weeks. After weeks of training, helping at elections and other projects, 25 Wisconsin National Guard teams have now been dispatched to free community testing sites statewide, from tiny Minocqua to more than a dozen sites (including at community health centers) in Milwaukee County alone.

Dr. Bill Schwab, a family physician who practices at Madison’s Northeast Family Medical Center, teared up while speaking with reporters via videoconference Monday. His mother died last month from COVID-19, the same disease he is on the front lines of fighting. He wants attention to remain on the sometimes dehumanizing metrics of death data, to continue to show the scope of coronavirus’s widespread impact in every community in Wisconsin.

“We live in a microbially shared world. Your microbiology is my microbiology,” he says. “I can attest that COVID-19 is very real. And can be very devastating … Statistics are just human beings with the tears wiped off.”

Dr. Ryan Westergaard, Gov Tony Evers’ top infectious disease adviser, supported what Schwab attested to. “The data gives us a snapshot of what is going on in the overall community. The other thing that hasn’t changed, in fact we’re continuing to learn more about, is the role of a community-wide mitigation measures. Globally, there’s pretty good evidence (and) pretty good trends suggesting that communities that have restricted physical distancing have put a dent in or flattened their epidemic curve.”


Safer at Home Is Over, But the Pandemic Isn’t

An early end to Safer at Home has local health officials looking at what comes next.

BY ARCHER PARQUETTE

UPDATE: May 15, 2020

Wednesday evening, the state supreme court struck down Gov. Tony Evers’ safer-at-home order extension that would have left the restrictions in place until May 26. Some cities and counties, including Milwaukee, put extensions in place after the ruling that continued modified versions of the order within their localities, but others, like Waukesha, have allowed immediate re-opening.

This lifting of restrictions means that bars, restaurants, malls and other such businesses will soon be operating in various counties, depending upon localized restrictions.  Any potential effects of this lifting will likely not be seen for a couple weeks, as the virus’ incubation period is as long 14 days.

“There’s a lot of models out there and they all show different things and have different data inputs, but what they all agree on to be sure is that without a measured pullback of the stay at home orders we see an overwhelming numbers of cases, an overwhelming number of deaths, and overwhelming number of hospitalizations,” said Dr. Ben Weston, Milwaukee County’s Emergency Management Medical Director. “What’s key is pulling back it back in a measured way.”

As of Friday, Milwaukee County has 4578 total confirmed cases and 233 total deaths. There has been an increase in cases, but Weston said this is likely due to increased testing. Milwaukee opened up 17 community testing sites this past week, which will provide a test to anyone who is symptomatic. You can reach them by dialing 211. The national guard also opened two testing sites this past week. This increased testing capacity is bringing Milwaukee’s testing numbers closer to their goal range.

With increased testing, one of the most important numbers to track is the percentage of tests in Milwaukee that are positive each day. This number has been steadily trending downward over the past week.

“As far as the numbers, we’re seeing positive signs,” said Weston. “You can tell by cases and deaths, we’re definitely not out of the woods by any means, but we are getting close to being at the bottom of this peak. I say ‘this peak’ because I think there’s probably more peaks to come.”

Another crucial metric is hospital capacity. As of Friday, the number of Milwaukee County hospital beds occupied by Covid-19 patients was down to 9%. This dip below 10% is bringing the capacity numbers closer to the county’s goals.

The county numbers are also showing that cases are no longer concentrated primarily in the city. Significant numbers of cases are seen across the entire county now as opposed to in March and April, when cases were largely centralized in the north and central sides of Milwaukee.

“As we pull [safer-at-home restrictions] out, it’s hard to know what’s going to happen,” said Weston. “I think there is a perception out there that we’re just about at the end of this, and we can go back to life as normal. I wish I could say that was so, but it isn’t. I think this is just the beginning unfortunately until probably a vaccine is developed. … I think we’re going to have a new normal for quite a while. I don’t think our new normal is stay-at-home like we have been, but I think it is going to be a new normal, and how we’ll transition into that is what concerns me now.”


Wisconsin Is Starting to Reopen. But Will Life Return to Normal?

Wisconsin reopening means more community spread, but it likely won’t be a deluge if we continue social distancing.

BY ADAM ROGAN

UPDATE: May 12, 2020

Coronavirus cases are going to continue going up. And we are going to reopen.

Gov. Tony Evers, in what most Republicans are considering a small step in the right direction, allowed most of Wisconsin’s retail stores to reopen on Monday with limits to five customers.

Still, Republican leaders want Wisconsin to sprint back to reopening — something not even President Donald Trump or his top advisers (i.e. Anthony Fauci and company) want.

“This shutdown has put half a million people out of work. It’s time to get everyone back to work in every part of the state,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (Wisconsin’s top Republican) said Monday. And Sen. Van Wanggaard, another veteran Republican in the Legislature, called the most recent turning-back-of-the-dial “overdue.”

Even if the restrictions posed by Safer at Home were to be rolled back in their entirety, Wisconsinites will not be returning to normal life ASAP. Seventy-one percent of Americans, according to a poll published last week, said that they fear the country is going to reopen too quickly. As such, those same people will likely avoid eating in at restaurants and going to barbershops for a while.

And, in a UW-Madison poll published in mid-April, more than 60% of Wisconsinites said they were “very much” practicing physical distancing while only 1% said they were practicing physical distancing “not at all.”

That plays into why Wisconsin’s coronavirus spread appears to be trending downward.

Wisconsin COVID-19 testing totals and percentages, April 28-May 11. Courtesy of Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

The number of confirmed cases continues to rise (going from 6,289 cases statewide on Tuesday, April 28 up to 10,418 on Monday, May 11) but the percentage of positive cases has been dropping. That trend implies that the virus isn’t spreading as much as it was previously, but that it still very much is spreading. And it’s almost impossible to tell if the spread that continues is because of accidental community spread at places like the grocery store or gas station, or if it could be blamed on mass gatherings like Reopen Wisconsin rallies.

There was a time more than a month ago in Wisconsin when the majority of cases were medical workers and hospitalized patients, back when almost no one else could get a test. Now the majority appear to be outside of hospitals, which was likely the case beforehand — we just couldn’t be sure because testing was so limited. Now, virtually anyone can get a test thanks to the community testing centers popping up around the state.

Each Milwaukee community health center is offering free testing, and new dedicated testing sites have popped up on the North Side (5760 W. Capitol Drive) and on the South Side (2701 S. Chase Ave).

Still, the spread is very much location-based. On a statewide scale, fewer than 10% of tests have come back positive over the past eight days. But in Racine for example, 15% came back positive on Monday, May 10. The City of Racine still hasn’t seen any community testing either.


How Are Local Suburbs Affected by Coronavirus?

Here’s a look at the numbers in local suburban communities.

BY ADAM ROGAN

 UPDATE: May 8, 2020

“I have one neighbor who has five or six cars pop up in his driveway then leave in the last week, and I’m like what the hell!?” says Maureen Laber, who has lived in Mequon for 10 years. She’s been busy in recent weeks, selling sewing materials to active mask-makers at her Thiensville store: My Material Matters Quilt Shop.

She says she “can probably count on one hand” the number of people not wearing masks or refusing socially distance she has seen over the past few weeks. “Most people are taking it seriously.”

But for the few rulebreakers, the spread of coronavirus is as much a concern in suburban and rural areas as much as it is in urban centers — where breakouts have been more common and more deadly.

“We should all be taking the same precautions,” says North Shore Health Department Health Officer Ann Christiansen regarding why health leaders and the governor support statewide restrictions.

Christiansen added that “as the pandemic unfolds” that advisory could change. But so long as community spread continues, that messaging will remain unchanged. “Everyone is at low-to-medium levels of risk, no matter where they live.”

May 7 Milwaukee County general epidemiological report

And the most recent Milwaukee County heat map shows that the density of cases per capita spreads across the county with hot pots popping up all over, not just underneath the skyscrapers.

As CityLab — in its article “Are Suburbs Safer From Coronavirus? Probably not.” — reports: “Now that humans and freight can travel from, say, Hong Kong to Los Angeles in less than 13 hours — and arrive by vehicle to somewhere sparsely populated hours after that — outbreaks can happen just about anywhere. New pathogens tend to arrive sooner in global hubs, but that doesn’t mean they can’t quickly reach rural locales and proliferate from there, says Benjamin Dalziel, a professor of integrative biology at Oregon State University who studies population dynamics.”

Saying Milwaukee is the only place in Wisconsin with a breakout and thus should be treated differently is dangerously inaccurate, according to Darren Rausch, director of the Greenfield Health Department.

“Since mid-to-late April, we’ve seen a shift where there are more cases outside of Milwaukee than in Milwaukee,” Rausch says.

For example, Kenosha and Racine counties have the second and third most confirmed cases in the state, with 580 and 559 cases respectively as of Wednesday. But in terms of population density, Racine and Kenosha are the eighth and 10th most dense in the state.

Dane County only has 445 confirmed cases, fewer than Racine or Kenosha counties, even though Dane’s population is more than double either Racine or Kenosha populations.

And Rock County has 311 confirmed cases. That’s only 134 fewer cases than Dane County’s 445, even though Rock County has about 160,000 residents and Dane County has more than 500,000.

It’s important to remember that COVID-19 is way more transmissible than run-of-the-mill influenza.

Dr. Ben Weston, medical director of Milwaukee County’s Emergency Medical Services, said that a typical person infected with COVID-19 can pass the disease to two to three people as quickly as someone with the flu. According to Weston, by the time someone with influenza causes five new illnesses, someone with COVID can spread it to 25 or 30 more people.

As evidence of why only locking down epicenters like Milwaukee only wouldn’t work, Weston points to how there aren’t any rules for which counties have high numbers of confirmed cases and which don’t.

Both Weston and Rausch say that we are “dramatically undercounting” the number of actual cases in the state.

That’s part of why just a few people not following social distancing, like Laber’s neighbor and their many visitors, can pose such a danger: because one person could potentially cause up to 30 new cases.

“It’s not an urban disease. It’s not a suburban disease,” Weston says. “We will see continued outbreaks … until a vaccine is developed.”

Still, it’s not clear exactly how much of the outbreaks can be blamed on those “bad actors” and how much of it is on people generally following the rules but still going out for necessities: like voting or grocery shopping.

“We have not had any significant violations of the Safer at Home order here in Wauwatosa,” Wauwatosa Police Capt. Brian Zalewski says in an email. “The majority of our complaints come from callers or officers on patrol who observe groups of people congregating where they shouldn’t be, such as baseball fields, parks, skate park, etc.”

“Anecdotally, I would say the occasions of non-compliance have been few,” adds James Archambo, Wauwatosa’s city administrator, “but I don’t know what others are experiencing by comparison.”

Almost every day in Mequon, the police department gets a call about some group of people — usually in a park, although sometimes just big families — being too close together, says Mequon Operations Commander John Hoell.


No, Wisconsin Isn’t Planning on Building Herd Immunity to Coronavirus

“Our goal is not herd immunity … That would not be a good idea,” says one of Wisconsin’s top disease experts.

BY ADAM ROGAN

UPDATE: May 5, 2020

A lot of people, from your weird uncle on Facebook to state legislators to political pundits and plenty of others, have been talking about how the country needs to start building a “herd immunity” to coronavirus.

Herd immunity is when a high percentage of people in a community (in regard to coronavirus, at least 70% of people) have been exposed to a contagion and build up an immunity to it. Herd immunity is why it’s generally OK for some kids to opt out of vaccinations, so long as 95% of their peers are vaccinated for chickenpox or seasonal influenza or whatever. If none of your classmates get sick, then you probably won’t either.

“Herd immunity is the status of all the people living in a local area and their ability to fight off a given infection,” Jaquelin Dudley, associate director of the John Ring LaMontagne Center for Infectious Disease and professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told Discover Magazine. That publication, which focuses on breaking down science news for the everyman, concluded that, “In the long run, (herd immunity) could protect us from future COVID-19 outbreaks. To get there, we need an effective vaccine.”

With coronavirus, most (but not all) infectious disease experts don’t think letting herd immunity happen naturally — i.e. just letting the virus run its course like a normal flu — is smart.

Carl Bergstrom

“The cost in lives would be unacceptable,” Carl T. Bergstrom, a professor of biology with the University of Washington, wrote on Twitter on April 19.

In Wisconsin, the plan is to “contain the virus,” to find every single positive case and “box it in,” says Dr. Ryan Westergaard, Wisconsin’s chief medical officer for communicable diseases. “This is one of the most transmissible respiratory viruses we’ve ever seen, so allowing people to get infected — the danger would be that it would spread too quickly out of control and we wouldn’t find that happy medium.”

The media hasn’t been talking about what went down in Italy much anymore, even though its crisis peaked only about two months ago. Remember how the country’s entire health care system was overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients? That’s because Italy’s population is one of the oldest worldwide, but also because social distancing advisories weren’t well followed when the virus first arrived.

Dr. Ryan Westergaard

“I don’t think that our colleagues at DHS (Department of Health Services), and I think many in public health agree, that (herd immunity) is not a viable option. That would cost many lives and many preventable deaths. Our goal is not herd immunity. Our goal is to contain the virus,” Westergaard says, noting that coronavirus is way more contagious than almost every other disease known to man.

He adds, “There’s no guarantee we’ll have a vaccine in a year and a half” — the primary concern that could lead to life not returning to “normal” for another 12 months or more. “We are really not in favor of letting large numbers of people getting infected,” Westergaard says with a laugh.

But not everyone agrees with that plan.

The country of Sweden hasn’t changed much over the past couple months. Restaurants have stayed open, with distancing, and it’s still legal to get drinks in bars. School is still in session.

But as Business Insider reported, Swedes have a much higher level of trust in their government than the average American. As such, more of them are following social distancing guidelines strictly.

Sweden is also much less urban than the U.S. It’s easier to avoid contact with other people there. That’s almost impossible to achieve in places like Milwaukee, Chicago, Madison, New York and Minneapolis.

Despite that, the deaths there so far have outpaced the U.S. and other countries with stricter precautions.


Here Are the Benchmarks Wisconsin Needs to Reach for Safer at Home to be Pulled Back

Right now we’re still in the Safer at Home phase.

BY ADAM ROGAN

UPDATE: May 1, 2020

There’s been a lot of talk about flattening the curve and reopening Wisconsin — two things pretty much everyone on every side of the aisle wants.

The governor’s office and the Department of Health Services has a plan for doing both of those things. That said, some individuals  (mainly Republicans) want the state opened up sooner than these benchmarks, believing they’re too lofty of goals and will take too long to achieve.

Firstly, there are three statistical trends that Wisconsin’s “Badger Bounce Back” plan needs to see before Safer at Home can be further repealed:

  1. Downward trajectory of influenza-like illnesses reported within a 14-day period
  2. Downward trajectory of COVID-19-like syndromic cases reported within a 14-day period
  3. Downward trajectory of positive COVID-19 tests, as a percent of total tests, within a 14-day period

Take note: For the 14-day downward trajectory to count, the number reported does not need to decrease every single day. There only needs to be a clear downward trend over any two weeks.

Also: The number of total cases could still technically be on the rise over those 14 days. The criteria state that the percentage of positive tests is what needs to go down — so even as testing expands, so long as the growth in the numbers of negative tests further outpaces the numbers of positive tests, Safer at Home will become closer to going away.

On Wednesday, April 29, for example, 8.6% of tests came back positive. The next day, 6.9% of tests came back positive. That’s the kind of short-term trend that state leaders are looking for in the long term.

Another lofty state goal is completing 85,000 tests every week OR complete 12,000 tests every day. As of Thursday, fewer than 77,000 tests have been completed in total in Wisconsin since mid-March. And no one week has seen even 20,000 tests completed so far.

That said, Wisconsin’s total testing capacity is close to the goal, even if not enough tests are being conducted. There are now 50 laboratories providing testing statewide, and they combine to allow more than 10,000 tests to be completed per day. Now we just need more tests to be administered.

Below, find what each phase of pulling back restrictions statewide entails and requires. As of Friday morning, we’re still in the Safer at Home phase:

This chart comes straight from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services’ Badger Bounce Back plan.

 


‘An Exciting Day:’ Milwaukee Just Made a Big Step Toward Universal Testing

Expanded testing is an important step forward.

BY ADAM ROGAN

UPDATE: April 28, 2020

From the beginning, health leaders have said that expanded testing is the key to allowing life to return to normal.

And soon, Milwaukee County — even if they don’t have health insurance or a primary care physician and regardless of their immigration status — is getting closer to being able to test everyone for COVID-19. That’s because the five federally qualified health centers (FQHCs) in the city are now able to offer drive-thru testing.

Dr. Ben Weston, medical director of Milwaukee County’s Emergency Medical Services, says that this is one of the first steps in allowing everyone to get tested, rather than only people who are direly sick or medical professionals.

Mayor Tom Barrett called Monday “an exciting day” after the announcement was made. “It’s incredibly important for health purposes … Expanded testing is also the key to reopening our economy” and is “Instrumental in getting us going.”

Weston adds: “One of the key elements of being able to responsibly and safely dial back the Safer at Home order is to ramp up our testing capacity.”

What this will lead to, according to Weston, is “transitioning from a reactive strategy” — where only a few people in hospitals are able to get tested, the result of limited testing supplies on a national scale — “to proactive testing.”

Several of Milwaukee’s health leaders explained Monday during a call with reporters that anyone with COVID-related symptoms, or who came in contact with symptoms, will be able to get tested at the FQHCs.

The newly expanded list of symptoms for COVID-19, according to the CDC, are cough and shortness of breath/difficulty breathing, and at least two of the following:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Repeated shaking with chills
  • Muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • New loss of taste or smell

“I’m encouraging all residents, if you are feeling as if you need to get tested, get tested,” Alderwoman Chantia Lewis says.

That’s at least the goal. The five clinics will collectively conduct approximately 375 tests daily during the first phase of this expanded testing.

“This will help move toward the challenging but achievable goal that anyone within our county will be able to easily get a test,” Weston says.

“We are all here as sister clinics with a sister mission,” adds Dr. Tito Izard, president and CEO of Milwaukee Health Services. “We’re all independent financially from each other, but we all have the same mission of ensuring that the whole community — regardless of their ability to pay — has access to timely and appropriate high-quality health care.”

Milwaukee’s five FQHCs can be contacted at:


The Four Phases of COVID-19 Restrictions, and Why We’re Still in Phase Zero

Life will return to normal in phases. 

BY ADAM ROGAN

UPDATE: April 24, 2020

There are four phases to the COVID-19 lockdown.

Dr. Ben Weston, medical director for the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management, walked us through them:

Right now: Phase 0

Oddly, we start in Phase zero. And that’s where we are right now. That’s Safer at Home, being fully enforced. No gatherings of 10 or more. Restaurants closed except for takeout. No sports on TV. “What we’re all getting used to,” Weston says.

To start changing things, we need a “downward trajectory” in the percentage of confirmed positive cases, Weston says. “We’re starting to see that downward trend occurring. And we want to see that very consistently at least over a two-week period.”

That plan is what Gov. Tony Evers said he was “jazzed” about on Monday, April 20, and was created under the advisement of the Department of Health Services.

A blueprint has been laid out by the state about how restrictions will start being lifted, but it has yet to be enacted.

Phase 1

Next is phase is Phase one. That’s the first phase in rolling back the restrictions we’re all living under right now.

That means it’ll be OK to have gatherings of 10 people. Restaurants would be able to open “with some social distancing requirements,” Weston says. More businesses could be deemed essential. Schools could reopen, even if they’re going to remain out of session for the rest of the school year.

Phase 2

If the numbers keep going down, restaurants will be able to go back to normal. Groups of up to 50 can gather; the Brewers wouldn’t be able to play again, but that’d let most social life return to normal. And bars will be able to reopen. (Yay!)

Weston said Thursday that “We’re starting to see that downward trend occurring” in terms of new diagnoses. The numbers haven’t gone down much, but a bit. “We want to see that very consistently at least over a two-week period,” Weston says.

Phase 3

Phase three is what Weston calls “Life as normal.” It’s “what we all remember from six months ago.”

To do that, we need to see that sustained downward trend in terms of the number of cases that Dr. Weston described.

In Milwaukee County, the numbers are not skyrocketing: the number of new cases per day in April have never been over 100 and most days are less than 70. But statewide, the numbers have done anything but slowed. Between the start of the crisis and the middle of April, the state never saw more than 199 new cases in one day. On Wednesday, April 22, there were 225 new cases in a day — the first time the state surpassed 200 cases in a day. The next day, another 207 were added to the statewide count.

Weston had one other warning, when he sat down for a videochat interview with Milwaukee Magazine: “There’s no doubt that when Safer at Home is pulled back the number of cases will increase. That’s just inherent with infectious diseases.” 


7 Cases of COVID-19 Potentially Linked to Election Day in Milwaukee

Health officials are tracking “Election Activity.”

BY ADAM ROGAN

UPDATE: April 21, 2020

Coronavirus spread further over the past two weeks, likely because Wisconsin went ahead with in-person voting on April 7, according to numbers from the Milwaukee Health Department.

Thousands turned out to wait in hours-long lines at Milwaukee’s five polling places on Election Day, something that Mayor Tom Barrett and health leaders had been begging to call off since March. Gov. Tony Evers, less than 24 hours before polls were set to open, tried to postpone voting, but that last-minute attempt was blocked when the Wisconsin Supreme Court sided with a Republican lawsuit, allowing in-person voting to continue.

And now, seven cases of COVID-19 have been linked to Election Day in Milwaukee alone. Six of the cases were voters and one was a poll worker, the Milwaukee Health Department has confirmed.

The typical two-week incubation period for coronavirus for someone who caught it on Election Day (April 7) has now passed.

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services is collecting information called “Election Activity,” referring to people who participated in the election (either as in-person voters or as poll workers) who have contracted COVID-19. But as of Tuesday, April 21, the state only had compiled 30% of the data it needs for reliable Election Activity data.

“While we continue to monitor cases of COVID-19 linked to election activity, we know that gatherings such as this (referring to in-person voting) are detrimental to the efforts to slow the spread of this pandemic,” Dr. Ben Weston, medical director for the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management, said in a statement. “We encourage everyone to continue to practice responsible social distancing.”

For the first election-related cases to come out of Milwaukee isn’t much of a surprise. Milwaukee had the biggest shrinkage in the number of polling places available (from 181 down to five), although some other places still saw long waits — like how Green Bay only had two polling places open, and Waukesha only had one. More than 3,000 people reportedly showed up to each of Milwaukee’s polling places.

Those long waits extended the time people could come in contact with one another, not to mention the unavoidable person-to-person contact that occurred between voters and poll workers that happened at every polling place across the state.

One of the focuses of the state’s efforts right now is contact tracing, through which state health employees (some of whom were hired since the start of the outbreak) backtrack through an infected person’s recent movements and interactions to find out who they might have infected before learning they had coronavirus. That’s what’s planned for those seven people now, in order to identify how many more people might end up getting sick.

At least one poll worker fatality has been reported in the U.S. due to COVID-19, and that was in Illinois.


No, Coronavirus Isn’t Slowing Down in Wisconsin. In Some Areas, It’s Getting Worse.

The numbers aren’t going down.

BY ADAM ROGAN

UPDATE: April 19, 2020

As hundreds of protestors gathered near Brookfield Mall on Saturday — some waving Gadsden “Don’t Tread on Me” flags and standing close to one another in direct defiance of the Safer at Home order while begging the governor to reopen the state — the novel coronavirus continued to spread throughout Wisconsin.

Between March 25 and April 18, more than 100 cases have been confirmed every single day except one.

State leaders continue to say that this is proof Safer at Home is working. That’s because the number of known cases of the virus haven’t been skyrocketing like they did in New York City, in the Wuhan province of China and in Italy.

But the spread hasn’t slowed down, as evidenced by more than three weeks of consistent increase. Deaths haven’t slowed down much either. At least six people have died from COVID-19 every day so far in April in Wisconsin.

And in Brown County — the state’s fourth-most populous county, centerpieced by Green Bay — it’s gotten way worse. In less than two weeks, the county’s case total more than quadrupled from 41 cases to 204.

The state government and now the CDC are both responding to that county to identify the cause of the surge and to put a stop to it. The exact location of this new “cluster” of cases has been identified by authorities, but not publicly released.

It’s the possibility of localized breakouts like this that have health experts scared. If one person who has COVID can infect dozens if unchecked, 163 new cases could be 163 times as bad.

There are a few things state leaders have repeated endlessly over the past month: The directions of social distancing and “this week is critical.”

The meaning there, according to practically every public health expert in Wisconsin and nationwide and across the planet, is that stopping (or slowing down) COVID-19 every week is critical.

Whether mass gatherings like what happened in Brookfield on Saturday and having an in-person election on April 7 will exacerbate Wisconsin’s outbreak remains unclear. 


Is Safer at Home Working? What Recent Numbers Tell Us

Wisconsin snapped it’s 18-day streak of reporting 100+ new coronavirus diagnoses a day. Then the number grew again.

BY ADAM ROGAN

UPDATE: April 14, 2020

For 18 days in a row, from March 25 through April 13, the number of new coronavirus cases confirmed each day was in the triple digits.

128 cases were reported on March 25, the first day Wisconsin saw more than 100 confirmed cases in a day. On April 1, it was damn close to hitting 200 diagnoses within a 24-hour period; 199 people were confirmed to have had the virus on that date, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Three days later, another 196 cases were reported. But that 200-cases-in-one-day milestone has been avoided thus far.

On Monday, April 13, after 18 consecutive days with 100 new confirmed cases in the state, only 87 cases were confirmed. The next day it jumped back up to 127. But it was still a glimmer of hope that Safer at Home, which was enacted on March 24 more than two weeks prior, might successfully be slowing this thing down.

There was a two-week period when it looked like Wisconsin might have been on track to spike. A lot of that can be contributed to the upshoot in Milwaukee County. Between March 19 and April 12, the number of confirmed cases in the county shot up from 98 to 1,758, an increase of more than 1,600% in less than a month. But still much of that is because of the state’s expanded testing as the number of testing sites has quickly increased to 20.

Reports of new cases have tapered off a bit. New cases haven’t been coming in as quickly, even if deaths haven’t slowed down yet. As testing capacities have expanded, it doesn’t immediately look like there’s a massive wave coming — although no one knows that for sure.

Researchers warned the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel last week that the gatherings forced by April 7’s in-person election may eliminate some of the progress that’s been made. Although it will be tough to identify whether a spike could be directly attributed to one day of queuing.

A cure and/or vaccine is still months or years away, practically all medical professionals and researchers agree.

As such, health leaders have continued repeating the same refrain: Safer at Home is working. “Please keep social distancing,” local leaders from La Crosse to Eagle River to Merrill have pleaded.


State Finally Shares Race-Based Coronavirus Data

Have we flattened the curve? Not yet.

BY ADAM ROGAN

UPDATE: April 10, 2020

The number of people who are getting coronavirus in Wisconsin is still rising, faster than public health officials would like to see.

Here are a few things that are true: 

  1. As of Saturday, April 11, there were 1,653 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Milwaukee County.
  2. There were 3,213 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Wisconsin.
  3. There are certainly a lot more than 3,213 people who have COVID-19 but haven’t been tested — although testing restrictions are being lifted throughout the state.
  4. 137 people in Wisconsin have died because of COVID-19 between March 22 and April 11. 51 of those deaths have come in the last week.
  5. 85 people in Milwaukee County have died because of COVID-19 between March 22 and April 11. At least 50 of Milwaukee County’s deaths have been African-Americans.
  6. At least seven Wisconsinites have died every day from COVID-19 since April 4, with as many as 19 dying in one day.
  7. More people are going to die.

The total hasn’t grown by more than 200 people in a day, not yet at least. But it has gone up by at least 100 every single day since March 25 — that’s 16 days straight.

Testing is expected to expand though. Ryan Westergaard, the state’s chief medical officer for infectious diseases, said on Friday that doctors in Wisconsin can finally start order COVID-19 tests for patients who aren’t medical workers or hospitalized. The most sick individuals and medical staff will still be prioritized, but they won’t be the only ones getting tested. This is because the state’s testing capacity has greatly increased, to around 3,500 cases per day.

With a wider net of tests, we’ll finally start getting a fuller picture of how many people actually have the virus.

Talking About Race

Milwaukee County has been reporting cases by race for days.

But at the state level, that stat has only just started being reported on Friday, April 10. With more data, the picture only becomes more stark for how Wisconsin’s minority communities have been worse affected by this pandemic.

Even at this early stage, black people account for almost 9 out of every 20 deaths, despite comprising a little more than 1 in every 20 Wisconsinites.

White people only account for half of all diagnoses in Wisconsin, despite making up more than 80% of the state population. And 10% of all people diagnosed have been Hispanic, even though only 6% of the state population is Hispanic.

“The first step in confronting a challenge and trying to fix a different problem is understanding it. This means digging into the data and continuing to be transparent,” Andrea Palm, the secretary-designee for the Department of Health Services, said Friday. “Consistently with what the rest of the states in the country are seeing these numbers show us that the pandemic is disproportionately affecting the African-American community in Wisconsin. To be clear, COVID-19 can infect any individual. And at the same time, it also has a more significant effect on communities that have been underserved by inequitable access to health care.”

It’s a countrywide problem. Of the 13 states that are reporting coronavirus deaths by race, Minnesota is the only state where black people aren’t more likely to die than other races. 

What that means is that the state still has a lot of “long-term work” to do regarding race and health, Palm acknowledged, something few state officials have been willing to admit for decades.

One of the reasons for that disparity that has come into the zeitgeist in the last week is how air pollution is likely to lead to problems like hypertension and asthma. People of color are more likely to live in cities. Cities are more likely have problems with air pollution. 2+2=4.

When Will the Curve Flatten? Who Knows?

With coronavirus still spreading in Wisconsin, it’s unclear when our curve might “flatten.” State health officials have continued saying that the best ways to stop the spread are social distancing and following the Safer at Home order.

Since Wisconsin’s number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients (950 total hospitalizations as of April 11) hasn’t been growing exponentially, there’s a good chance our health care system won’t be overwhelmed when the virus peaks — probably sometime around the end of the month.

Experts have worried that allowing April 7’s in-person election to go forward could stunt that progress. There also have been rumblings of “civil disobedience” coming if Wisconsin does let up on its freedom-limiting rules intended to save lives. A couple GOP senators said Wisconsin should lift some restrictions to prevent civil disobedience, and former Sheriff David Clarke has been calling for people to “RISE UP” against state orders for weeks.


Coronavirus Daily Growth in Milwaukee Lowers Slightly, Might Show Preliminary Effects of Social Distancing

Intense social distancing is still absolutely necessary.

BY ARCHER PARQUETTE

UPDATE: April 3, 2020

Medical officials advise caution when looking at numbers related to coronavirus, especially short-term. What happens in one week or less may not bear out in longer trends and does not serve as a reliable predictor for the future.

Numbers may also change due to the ongoing issue with a lack of testing, which means that the number of confirmed cases can be suspect.

Dr. Ben Weston of the Medical College of Wisconsin advises against reading into short-term numbers and said in a press briefing Friday that “The best projections we have right now suggest close to 1,000 deaths in Wisconsin in the next two months, and that projection is assuming strict social distancing. It’s hard to say what kind of trend we’re having only a couple weeks in. At this point, it started out exponential, and now it’s more linear. The point to take away is it’s steady. That’s what we need to slow down.”


Milwaukee Might Be Starting to Flatten the Curve

Milwaukee shows early signs that social distancing efforts are working. We need to keep up social distancing if we want to flatten the curve.

BY ARCHER PARQUETTE

UPDATE: April 1, 2020

The Milwaukee County daily growth rate for COVID-19 cases dropped from 18.8% on Monday to 16.6% on Tuesday. So while total cases are rising, this is one of the first potential signs that social distancing and safer-at-home measures may be starting to flatten the curve.

This drop was mirrored in the state of Wisconsin as whole, where the growth rate dropped from 17.7% to 16.8%.

Last week, cases in Milwaukee and statewide were doubling every three days, but this lower rate means that they are now doubling every four.

A week ago, on March 25, Gov. Tony Evers issued his safer-at-home order. It takes about a week to see the effects of policies such as this, due to the roughly 7-day virus incubation period, during which infected people can be asymptomatic, which means that this lower growth rate could be the first sign that the order is having an effect.

This could hopefully indicate that continuing these intense measures could bring down the growth rate to a more manageable level to avoid an overwhelmed health care system.

This doesn’t mean we’ve yet succeeded in flattening the curve. Cases will continue to rise, and social distancing measures must continue to keep the growth rate down.

A recent study by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics & Evaluation released interactive projections for each states’ future COVID-19 cases. The Wisconsin analysis projected that we will reach our peak of COVID-19 deaths on April 26th and will reach peak resource use on the following day, April 27th, with the health care system at its most taxed.

Denser areas like Milwaukee could experience this peak sooner than the rest of the state, with more people in close contact. Continuing to lower the growth rate, as we’ve started to do, could hopefully blunt the impact of this eventual peak.

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Adam is a journalist who recently returned to his Wisconsin home after graduating from Drake University in December 2017. He interned with MilMag in the summer of 2015 and has been a continual contributor ever since. Follow him on social media @Could_Be_Rogan