Local Health Leaders Worry Vaccination Rates Are ‘Way Too Low’

While case counts are declining, Milwaukee is still seeing high transmission rates.

COVID-19 cases in Milwaukee are on the decline but remain at troublesome levels leading officials to continue to stress ongoing mitigation measures.

“Our cases are trending down from record highs we experienced just after the holidays. While this is a promising sign, we still remain in the extreme transmission category,” Acting Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson said. “Our vaccination rates are just way too low. We much continue to exercise caution and get our vaccination rates up in this community.”

As of Tuesday, 67.3% of city residents age 16 and older had received a first vaccine shot and 61.8% had received both shots. About 41% had received the two initial shots and a booster.

The COVID-19 metrics for the city of Milwaukee showed 778.3 cases per 100,000 residents, down from 1,379 cases per 100,000 residents a week ago. Testing metrics also remain at the extreme level, with a positivity rate of 21%, down from the week-ago figure of 28.3%.

Milwaukee County is experiencing an average of 975 cases of COVID-19 per day, down from 1,362 new cases per day last week. An average of eight people in the county are dying of COVID-19 per day, up from six daily deaths a week ago

“While cases are falling, deaths are rising,” Dr. Ben Weston, director of medical services in the county’s Office of Emergency Management said.


 

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There are signs that the community is “turning the corner” relative to the disease burden tied to the highly contagious Omicron variant of COVID-19, he said.

“But it’s important to keep in mind that we are not yet past this surge,” Weston said. “As we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, cases fall before hospitalizations, which fall before deaths. We see very high numbers of COVID hospitalizations and continually rising numbers of COVID deaths. We are not out of the woods yet.”

With that in mind, Weston stressed the need for continuing mitigation efforts, including the wearing high-quality masks, distancing and proper ventilation.

No measure is more important toward putting an end to the pandemic than becoming fully vaccinated, Weston said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released data from a network of over 250 hospitals across 14 states that showed that hospitalization rates are 16 times higher for unvaccinated adults, Weston noted.

Nonetheless, misinformation persists about the effectiveness of vaccines and boosters in fighting COVID-19, which has delayed putting an end to the current wave of the pandemic, Weston said.

The disease burden from the Omicron variant also is showing signs of easing among children, said Dr. Smriti Khare, president of primary care at Children’s Wisconsin.

However, Khare said she is concerned about the COVID-19 vaccination rate for children ages 5 to 11, which currently stands at about 24% statewide.

“We are really encouraging children to get vaccinated,” Khare said. “The more kids that are vaccinated, the more our community is protected and the more they are protected.”

Ongoing overall mitigation efforts in Milwaukee include a citywide mask mandate, which went into effect on Saturday. That mandate runs through March 1, at which time the council could vote to extend it or simply let it expire.

Johnson also stressed that the council could choose to rescind the ordinance earlier if warranted.

“Everyone should be masking and distancing as part of their routine but getting vaccinated and getting boosted are a top priority,” Johnson said.

Officials also expressed concern about the possible role the drawn-out pandemic is having on skyrocketing violence levels in the city. Milwaukee experienced record high homicide rates in 2020 and 2021. This year has begun with an even further escalation of violence, including the discovery this week of six bodies in a duplex in a neighborhood on Milwaukee’s North Side. All the deceased had gunshot wounds, according to the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office.

“Many people in Milwaukee face daunting combination of circumstances and have for quite some time,” Johnson said. “There certainly are the pandemic pressures. There are economic pressures. There is emotional trauma. There’s hopelessness. You add to that a sharp increase in the availability of firearms that too many people who should not have them in the first place have access to. All of those things help to contribute to an environment conducive to violence spilling out in the street.”

Mental health issues, which have climbed dramatically since the start of the pandemic, are a contributing factor, Weston said.

“When we look at our 911 system, 14 different fire departments, 100,000 patient encounters per year, we still see a lot of struggles with mental health in the community,” Weston said. “When we compared December 2021 to December 2019, before the pandemic, we see psychiatric calls, suicide calls and overdose calls are still nearly double what they were before the pandemic. We’re not done with COVID yet. We’re not done with the pandemic yet and mental health is one of the issues that goes hand in hand with that.”

The lingering effects of the pandemic aren’t fully known or understood at this point, Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley added.

“This is still new to us. It hasn’t been a full two years yet,” Crowley said. “We really don’t understand the long-term effects that this pandemic is going to have on us, physically or mentally. We have to take all of that into consideration as we think about how we are responding as a society to many of the things we are seeing.”

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.