Local Leaders Talk COVID-19 Heading Into the Holidays

Health officials say the vaccine is the most effective tool we have in fighting the pandemic.

With the start of the holiday season at hand, another spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations has local health officials and other leaders urging residents to take steps to lessen the spread of the disease.

Milwaukee County is experiencing an average of 267 new cases of COVID-19 per day, along with about three daily deaths.

“Our trends have been overall quite poor,” said Dr. Ben Weston, medical services director for Milwaukee County’s Office of Emergency Management, in virtual media session on Tuesday afternoon. “When it comes to COVID, we are not close to being out of the woods. We are deep in the woods. Wisconsin is the sixth worst state in the country in cases per population and we have more cases per day than at any other point in 2021.”

Weston stressed that hospitalizations from COVID are also higher now than at any other point this year.

“The bottom line is that we don’t have enough people vaccinated,” Weston said.

 

 

Weston offered the following advice to keep Thanksgiving and other holiday gatherings as safe as possible:

  • First or second doses of the COVID-19 vaccine: “If you are not already vaccinated get the first dose as soon as possible. It can start to give you some level of protection. That protection will increase through the upcoming holiday season as you see more friends and relatives and neighbors.”
  • COVID-19 boosters: “If you are 18 or older and got the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine more than six months ago, get a booster. Period. If you got (Johnson & Johnson) more than two months ago, get a booster. The added protection from the booster is substantial, so get it today.”
  • Testing for COVID-19: “You can go out and pick the relatively cheap rapid COVID tests. They are a few bucks, and you can have everyone take it the morning before you gather and have that additional layer of safety at your event.”
  • Ventilation: “Crack a window, or if have you have a HEPA filter, you can turn one on at your house.
  • Masking: “You want to consider masking those who are not yet fully vaccinated.”

Each of the steps provides an added layer that allows people to host safer gatherings, Weston said.

“Thanksgiving can be a wonderful celebration among families, but you don’t want it to be the reason that someone gets sick or gets hospitalized or can’t join you for the next gathering.”

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said the city remains in the “extreme transmission” category for COVID-19 cases at a rate of 205 cases per 100,000 residents.

“That number is up again from last week. It’s not the trend we want to see, particularly going into the holidays,” Barrett said.

He also noted that the test positivity rate for COVID-19 is in the “moderate” category at 7.5%.

“It continues to be a serious issue. We are seeing more hospitalizations and more deaths,” Barrett said. “As we get into this period of the year where we want to be with our loved ones and friends, we want people to be safe.”

Gating metrics for Tuesday shows 59.6% of Milwaukee’s population to be full vaccinated, while 64.6% have received one dose of the vaccine.

“Thanksgiving brings families together and it’s a good time to have respectful discussions about vaccination,” Barrett said. “Health experts agree that vaccination improves safety.”

The Milwaukee Health Department Community site at 2401 W. St. Paul Ave. in the Menomonee Valley will be open from noon to 6 p.m. on Wednesday to provide vaccinations. Vaccines will also be available at three mobile sites on Wednesday located at: Summerfield United Methodist Church, 728 E. Juneau Ave., from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Ascencion All Saints Family Health Center, 2400 W. Villard Ave., from 1-4 p.m.; and the Children’s Outing Association Goldin Center, 2320 W. Burleigh St., from 3-5 p.m.

First or second vaccinations and booster shots are available at all locations, as well as flu shots. COVID-19 testing is also offered at the sites.

“We are absolutely ready for you at our city clinics,” Barrett said. “So, receive your booster and enjoy the holiday season knowing that you have the highest level of protection against the virus.”

The Menomonee Valley Clinic, as well as community clinics at the Northwest Health Center, 7630 W. Mill Road, and the Southside Health Center, 1639 S. 23rd St., will be closed Thursday through Sunday in observance of the Thanksgiving holiday.

The holiday season will be especially challenging for Milwaukee area residents due to ongoing challenges with COVID-19 and the tragedy surrounding the Waukesha Christmas parade on Sunday, in which six people were killed, including a boy who died from his injuries on Tuesday, and more than 60 injured after being rundown by an SUV driven by a 39-year-old Milwaukee man with a lengthy criminal history. The suspect is being held in the Waukesha County Jail on $5 million bail and faces multiple homicide counts.

“The next few weeks will be hard,” Weston said. “They will be hard with reflection and impacts from that terrible event. It will be hard with people who are missing from the Thanksgiving table lost from tragedies like this and due to the loss of so, so many people from COVID. It will be hard as our cases and our hospitalizations, and eventually our deaths, continue to rise.”

Mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety are likely to rise as a result, Weston warned. He urged people to reach out to family, friends and neighbors to check on their well-being.

Health officer Darren Rausch, who serves as director of Greenfield’s Health Department, also stressed that COVID-19 data is trending in the “wrong direction” in Milwaukee County.

“Wisconsin is one of the leading states in terms of COVID-19 transmission,” he said. “When we look at the counties, it’s notable in Wisconsin that we don’t have high, medium or low levels of transmission, we only have critically high and very high. So, when we are thinking about Thanksgiving, and we are thinking about traveling we must make sure we are keeping COVID in the back our minds and following the precautions.”

Rausch Noted that about 6% of 5- to 11-year-olds, the latest group approved for vaccinations, have now received at least one vaccine dose.

Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley also urged residents to get vaccinated against COVID-19, especially with cases on the rise locally and across the state.

“This a trend we are watching closely as we head into the holidays and the cooler months,” Crowley said. “It’s really important to get the COVID-19 vaccine for yourself as well as your family. The vaccine is the most effective tool we have in fighting this pandemic. I know we are all anxious to resume activities like family gatherings like we did pre-pandemic, but we have to increase our community vaccine rates to overcome the increase in disease burden.”

Crowley noted that the care team at the Milwaukee County Zoo has begun to vaccinate high-risk animals against COVID-19. None of the animals who have been vaccinated to this point have shown any ill effects from the vaccine, he said.

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.