As numbers at community COVID-19 testing sites dwindle, Milwaukee public health officials and elected leaders are warning residents to remain vigilant even as hope of bringing the pandemic to an end intensifies with the early-stage rollout of the coronavirus vaccines.
“This is not the time to let your guard down,” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said on Tuesday in a virtual meeting with reporters.
Barrett appeared earlier in the day with Marlaina Jackson, the city’s interim health commissioner, at Miller Park, the largest of the area’s community testing sites, to demonstrate the ease of being screened for COVID-19. The Miller Park location, which opened in mid-October, is set up to administer about 2,000 tests per day, although the numbers have often exceeded that threshold. On Nov. 23, as people prepared for the Thanksgiving holiday, nearly 2,600 flocked to the site.
In recent weeks, however, the daily testing numbers at Miller Park have routinely fallen well below 2,000 – even as low as 1,100 – before bouncing back this week.
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On Monday, the number of people receiving COVD-19 tests at Miller Park stood at 1,994.
“When we opened Miller Park, not surprisingly, we had a real rush of people who came for testing,” Barrett said. “It peaked around Thanksgiving. Since the holiday, we have seen a continuous drop in the number of people being tested at Miller Park. That’s concerning to us.”
Although the percentage of positive tests has declined since the Thanksgiving peak, it remains greater than 10 percent in both the city of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County, but down from its peak of 20 percent, Barrett said.
“If you are feeling the symptoms of COVID-19 or if you have been exposed to someone who has tested positive, please make sure you take advantage of this wonderful amenity we have in our community,” Barret said of the community testing sites. “It’s something all of us should consider.”
The Miller Park site will be open on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, although the Milwaukee Health Department’s Northwest Health Center and Southside Health Center testing locations will be closed those days. All sites will be closed on Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Sobering coronavirus figures continue to be a cause for concern. As of Tuesday, there have been 81,243 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 838 deaths in Milwaukee County since the pandemic began in March.
But there is reason for optimism.
“We continue to see promising downtrends in our cases, positivity rates and hospitalizations,” Milwaukee County’s Emergency Management Medical Director Ben Weston said. “Unfortunately, the daily deaths from COVID-19 remain high.”
On Tuesday, Wisconsin set a new single-day record for COVID-19 deaths with 120, surpassing the previous high of 107 on Dec. 1.
As they did at Thanksgiving, health officials expressed concern about the people gathering for the holidays this week and urged extreme caution.
“We can now take what may not quite be the typical season of joy, but we can make it into a season of hope,” Weston said. “Across the country and across the state, while we are seeing devastating levels of disease and suffering, we’re also seeing the promise of a vaccine and an end to this terrible chapter in our history.”
Weston worked an emergency department shift on Friday before being given his first dose of a two-stage COVID-19 vaccine, along with fellow healthcare providers.
“I saw a sense of levity, unlike I’ve had in over nine months,” Weston said. “It really was incredible to be in that room surrounded by other front-line healthcare providers receiving vaccines, many of them smiling, many of them celebrating, some tearful, but all hopeful.”
The Milwaukee Health Department continues to ready itself for a large-scale distribution of the vaccines while ensuring that Milwaukee “has a seat at the table” in protecting local residents, Jackson said.
“The concept of nationally vaccinating individuals at the scale and the level we are looking to do is massive and is something that is historic in nature.”