Milwaukee County Health Officials Reflect on 2020

COVID-19 wasn’t the only challenge this year.

As 2020 draws to a close, and not soon enough as far as most are concerned, local health officials offered a retrospect of what has been a year filled with unparalleled challenges.

“If you’ve not lost someone close to you because of COVID, consider yourself lucky,” Milwaukee County’s Emergency Management Medical Director Ben Weston said in a year-end virtual conference with reporters on Tuesday.

Weston noted that COVID-19 has led to 869 deaths in Milwaukee County since March with 295 residents currently hospitalized for treatment of the coronavirus.

Although COVID-19 has presented the greatest public health crisis this year, it has been far from the lone calamity facing the community.

“As we close out this difficult year, we must remember that COVID was not our only challenge,” Weston said.

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As of Tuesday, 479 people in Milwaukee County had died from drug overdoses, 216 people had been murdered and 106 had died in car accidents, each a record-high number for the past two decades of data management, Weston noted.

“Knowing the mental health challenges from isolation and economic strain inherent in this last year, we also saw 122 people take their own lives through suicide,” he said. “It’s been a hard year for so many reasons.”

Despite the challenges, there remain reasons for optimism, Weston said.

“It’s been a year when we’ve seen government, healthcare, EMS and public health pull together and aid their community as never before,” he said.

Healthcare providers, first responders and essential workers have made personal sacrifices while hopefully earning the much-deserved recognition for the tireless work they’ve performed, he added.

“And we all certainly have recognized how precious our time is with friends and family. Time we previously took for granted,” Weston said. “None of these is a consolation for the challenges we all felt over the last year but it’s important to take stake in that which we’ve gained in addition to that which we’ve lost.”

The planned widespread distribution of COVID-19 vaccines is proof that “light can be seen at the end of the tunnel,” Weston said.

But significant challenges remain, he added.

“We enter this new year facing a tremendous national disease burden but also with a newfound hope for the vaccine,” he said. “The next few months will certainly not be easy. We have ongoing COVID fatigue among all segments of our population. We have much to learn of the concerning new variations of the virus being discovered around the world.”

Weston also spoke of the ongoing efforts to provide comprehensive data through the Milwaukee County COVID-19 dashboard, which went online shortly after the start of the pandemic.

“When we consider trends in our county and how COVID is impacting our community we look to the Milwaukee County COVID dashboard,” Weston said. “It’s one of the most comprehensive and transparent dashboards in the country.”

To date there have been 2.4 million views, locally and nationally, of the dashboard ranging from community members to local officials to researchers working to understand the burden of the virus, said Shannon Gramann, data analytics manager for the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management.

Weston also noted that the Wisconsin Department of Health Services website has begun posting daily COVID-19 vaccine updates and urged people to go to the site to keep up with the latest news on vaccine distribution.

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.