Health Officials Push N95 Masks, Vaccinations

Conversations are also in motion about another mask mandate.

The Milwaukee Health Department has distributed more than 500,000 N95 masks this week and hopes to have another allotment from the state to hand out to the public, possibly by Thursday.

The masks were distributed at three health centers as well as 13 public libraries. Individual Milwaukee County residents are eligible for packages of five masks, with 10 masks for couples and 20 for families.

“These higher quality masks offer greater protection against the COVID-19 virus,” Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson said in a virtual session with reporters this week. “We are partnering with the state to secure more masks.”

But Johnson stressed that the fight against COVID-19 extends beyond higher quality masks. He repeatedly stressed the need to get more residents vaccinated against the virus.

“We’ve directed a lot of attention to masks in recent days,” Johnson said. “Masks can be helpful, but masks cannot distract us from the most important thing we can do to fight Covid. The most important step is vaccination. Our numbers are far too low.”

As of Tuesday, 61.3% of city residents age 16 and older had received a first vaccine shot and 66.6% had received both shots. About 37% of residents had received the two initial shots and a booster.

The COVID-19 metrics for the city of Milwaukee remain in the “extreme transmission” category, with 590.9 cases per 100,000 residents. Testing metrics also remain at the extreme level, with a positivity rate of 37.1%.

Milwaukee County is experiencing an average of 1,107 new cases of COVID-19 per day, along with six daily deaths, according to the latest figures. Test positivity has climbed to 36% and 771 people in the county are hospitalized with COVID-19.

“Clearly, we face unprecedented challenges,” Dr. Ben Weston, director of medical services in the county’s Office of Emergency Management said. “The Omicron variant continues to break record after record for COVID cases, positivity and hospitalizations here and around the world. But that variant will not be with us forever.”

Weston noted that the spread of the variant is decreasing in one country, South Africa, which could be a sign of things to come in the United States.

“It appears that we likely have a few more weeks of increases in cases before we see a downward trend nationally,” Weston said. “Those few weeks will be critical.”

Weston urged residents to continue to social distance, wear high quality masks and only gather in well-ventilated areas to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The high number of cases tied to the Omicron variant continue to put a strain on local health systems and are leading to the postponements of elective surgical procedures due to capacity issues, Weston said. He noted that outpatient clinics are being closed and staff reallocated to local hospitals where large portions of employees are out sick and compounding existing staff shortages.

“All of this is happening in the setting of still skyrocketing cases nationally and unprecedented positivity,” Weston said.

He acknowledged that frustration among residents is growing.

“As we start 2022 with this as our backdrop, it’s easy to fall into the feeling that this will just be another year of the pandemic, high disease burden, hospital capacity issues and endless variants,” he said. “However, there are reasons to be hopeful due to progress in technology and medicine and improved understanding of the virus.”

He pointed to therapeutics like the upcoming Pfizer pill for high-risk patients who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and more pediatric vaccines on the horizon.

“Without a doubt, challenges remain and though we move in the right direction that road will undoubtedly bend and curve,” Weston said. “But we can work together to protect ourselves and our community.”

Not enough people are wearing masks, Weston said.

“This isn’t the same variant we had 21 months ago,” he said. “This is a far more transmissible, far more contagious variant. That means you need to step up your masking. Cloth masks are better than nothing, but they are not nearly as good as paper surgical masks, which in turn are not as good as KN95 or N95 or KF94.”

A Milwaukee Common Council committee recently moved forward an ordinance that would establish a citywide mask mandate. The measure would require anyone age 3 and older to wear a face covering when inside public buildings if transmission of the virus reaches a specified level.

The full Common Council is scheduled to vote on the measure Jan. 18.

“I’m not against masking. I’m supportive of the mask advisory currently in place in the city of Milwaukee,” Johnsons said. “I’m interested in having conversations on a mask mandate if done the right way. But let’s not forget the fact that the most effective tool we have to mitigate the spread and to make sure that symptoms are mild and to keep people out of hospitals are for folks to get vaccinated.”

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.