Emerging from the holiday season, local health officials are expressing increasing concern over the record-breaking number of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the community with the rapid spread being driven by the highly contagious Omicron variant.
Milwaukee County is experiencing an average of 1,168 new cases of COVID-19 per day, along with three daily deaths, according to the latest figures. Test positivity has climbed to 34% and 635 people in the county are hospitalized with COVID-19.
“Despite all of this, Wisconsin is only in the middle of the pack in disease burden when looking at other states,” Dr. Ben Weston, director of medical services in the county’s Office of Emergency Management warned in a media briefing on Tuesday. “The East Coast is getting hit much harder, which likely means we will have worse days to come.”
The COVID-19 metrics for the city of Milwaukee remain in the “extreme transmission” category, with 926 cases per 100,000 residents. Testing metrics also remain at the extreme level, with a positivity rate of 37.4%.
“We’re experiencing a dramatic increase in cases and hospitalizations,” Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson said.
He urged residents to get vaccines and boosters and wear masks in public to control the troubling rise in cases.
In Milwaukee, 61% of adults age 16 and older are fully vaccinated, while 66.2% have received a least one vaccination dose. Those who have received a vaccine booster stands at 34.7%.
Johnson, who has received both vaccine doses and a booster, recently tested positive for COVID-19, which has forced him to carry out his mayoral duties from home.
With numbers on the rise, the demand for COVID-19 testing has skyrocketed. Long lines have sparked short tempers at some public testing sites, leading to altercations and threats of violence against workers. This has prompted the city to station police officers at testing locations to ensure the safety of residents and Milwaukee Health Department staff.
The health department has testing sites at the Northwest Health Center, 7630 W. Mill Road; the Southside Health Center, 1639 S. 23rd St.; and in the Menomonee Valley at 2401 W. St. Paul Ave.
“Due to multiple accounts of individuals attempting to cut in line or cause altercations with others waiting in line, the Milwaukee Health Department has increased security at its testing sites,” City Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson said.
Those who are found to deliberately cut in line or cause a disturbance will either be sent to the back of the line or asked to leave, Kirsten Johnson said.
“We understand that the demand is high, and the lines are long and uncertainty and stress cause heightened emotions,” she said. “Please continue to exercise patience with one another.”
She said the dramatically rising figures are indicative of the presence of the Omicron variant, which is rapidly spreading throughout the city and state after emerging immediately prior to the holidays.
“This created a perfect storm, with a highly transmissible variant emerging while people are traveling and gathering in their homes with friends and family,” she said.
Despite the situation, Milwaukee health officials have no intention of issuing a citywide mask mandate, due to various factors.
Kirsten Johnson responded directly to a call from Milwaukee Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic, who posted the following statement on Twitter on Tuesday.
“Hospitalizations in Milwaukee are skyrocketing and hospital beds are scarce. To make sure we can keep schools and businesses open, it’s past time for a mask mandate in our city. What are we waiting for?”
Kirsten Johnson said her message remains the same and is focused on a top priority of getting through the COVID-19 crisis through increasing vaccinations.
Kirsten Johnson also said she’s limited in her authority to issue an effective mask mandate.
“The public health power that is given to me through state statute has really come under question over the past year and a half to two years,” Kirsten Johnson said.
Any health order at this point should been done through legislative action and an ordinance.
“I would encourage the alderwoman to proceed and pursue an ordinance,” Kirsten Johnson said.
Another issue, she said, is that a mask mandate would only apply to the city of Milwaukee and not neighboring communities, limiting its effectiveness.
Meanwhile, Kirsten Johnson said she stands by a mask advisory previously issued by the Milwaukee Health Department.
“People should absolutely be masked when they are indoors,” she said.
Cavalier Johnson said there has been a “good faith” demand for a return to a mask mandate in Milwaukee, but he plans to rely on the expertise on local health experts.
“I can assure you that any decisions that we will make around masking will be done in consultation with our public health professionals,” he said. “This is not a political decision, it’s one that’s being done in consultation with those who are experts on Covid-19 and experts in health.”
Milwaukee’s high COVID-19 infection rate continues to have wide ranging impacts and led to a last-minute decision to ban spectators and media from attending the U.S. Olympic Long Track Team Trials this week at the Pettit National Ice Center in advance of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, which begin early next month.
Kirsten Johnson said she wasn’t consulted on the decision, but fully supports it.
“I think that it’s appropriate,” she said. “The Olympians who are going to represent the U.S. team obviously need to be healthy to compete well but also to just to get into the country and travel. I understand the desire and need to protect them the best they can. This is a way to do it.”
The event was expected to draw as many as 1,500 spectators each day over the course of five days.