Local health officials are urging residents to be highly cautious heading into the Christmas and New Year’s holidays as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue a troubling rise amidst the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.
“This week should be a time for celebration, for gathering with family and friends, for joy,” Dr. Ben Weston, director of medical services in the county’s Office of Emergency Management said in a media briefing on Tuesday. “However, what we see in our community and our state and our hospitals is anything but.”
Milwaukee County is experiencing an average of 472 new cases of COVID-19 per day, along with six daily deaths, according to the latest figures.
“We’re just about exactly where we were a year ago with respect to cases,” Weston said. “A year ago, as we went into Christmas, we were seeing a decline in our overall disease burden. The difference this year is we are on a dramatic incline, which will be made even more prominent with the rise of Omicron.”
Weston painted a dour scene heading into what typically is a joyous time of year for many.
“Hundreds in our county alone will spend the holidays in a hospital bed and struggling to breathe and also struggling with the decisions they’ve made or not made that led to their hospitalization,” Weston said.
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Area hospitals are “under water” as patients battling COVID, a majority of whom are unvaccinated, have filled many to capacity, he added.
The situation also has Weston worried about those who have received the vaccination and booster shots but may be faced with other medical issues in the coming days.
“I worry that you may fall off the ladder putting up the lights, you may slip on the ice getting the newspaper, choke on your Christmas dinner or have the inopportunely timed stroke or heart attack,” Weston said. “If you do, no matter where you live, you will encounter an emergency department and a hospital that is full. You’ll wait for a bed as nurses and doctors call around to try to find another hospital that may have capacity to help you.”
The assessment, Weston said, is difficult to deliver as many people prepare to gather for the holidays.
“I can hear people saying ‘that is grim,’ but I can assure you that is our current reality,” he said.
However, Weston stopped short of urging people to remain isolated and apart from family and friends.
“I want to celebrate with my family, and I want you to be able to celebrate with yours. Many of us don’t get to gather nearly as much as we used to,” Weston said. “We can gather, but we have to do safely.”
Health officials are encouraging many of the steps recommended prior to the Thanksgiving holiday and before the presence of the Omicron variant had been detected. Those measures include:
- First or second doses of the COVID-19 vaccine
- COVID-19 boosters
- Testing for COVID-19
- Proper ventilation
- Masking beyond a simple cloth face covering
- Social distancing
- Hand washing and sanitizing
Weston especially urged those who are gathering for the holidays to take a rapid COVID-19 test the morning of the planned get-togethers.
“This week and the weeks to come will be challenging to many. Our hospitals are at the breaking point,” Weston said. “And with Omicron making up a substantial portion of new cases, frankly the majority, we have a flood of cases coming. We know Omicron is more transmissible.”
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett warned that the COVID-19 situation in the city is “getting more serious.”
Milwaukee remains in the “extreme transmission” category with 340 cases per 100,000 residents. The test positivity rate has reached the “extreme” level at 12.6%.
Vaccinations in the city have stagnated, Barrett said, with 60.6% of Milwaukee residents age 16 and older having received their first two shots, while 65.7% have received a least one vaccine dose. Only 30% have received a booster shot.
Barrett urged families and friends to gather in small groups with only those that are fully vaccinated. He, too, stressed the importance of testing, either through rapid tests purchased from pharmacies or by going to a local testing center. He issued a reminder that the community clinics in the Menomonee Valley and at the Northwest and Southside health centers will be closed on Friday, Saturday and Sunday for both upcoming holiday weeks. Other testing sites can be found here.
Health officer Darren Rausch, who serves as director of Greenfield’s Health Department, also stressed the need to gather safely.
“The prevention measures, by and large, are going to be more successful than anything that may come by way of treatment if you end up going to a hospital or seeking care,” he said.
The rapid rise in COVID-19 cases isn’t limited to the city of Milwaukee, he added.
“You continue to see significant increases in both suburban communities and the city of Milwaukee, almost paralleling each other,” Rausch said.
On Monday, the city of Boston announced that it would begin banning unvaccinated people from going to all restaurants, bars, nightclubs, sports arenas, fitness centers, movie theaters, concert venues, museums and entertainment venues. The city of Chicago announced a similar measure on Tuesday.
Milwaukee isn’t considering such a move right now, Barrett said.
“Clearly, the trend we are seeing right now is not a favorable, whatsoever,” Barrett said.
He expressed confidence that city Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson and incoming acting mayor Cavalier Johnson will continue to appropriately monitor the situation. Barrett is expected to resign as mayor in the coming days to begin a new role as ambassador to Luxembourg with mayoral powers being transferred to Johnson, the Common Council president.
Any decision pertaining to citywide COVID-19 restrictions should be “based on science,” Barrett said.
“If the health commissioner believes, looking at data from other communities and guidance from the CDC and the state, that it’s appropriate then I think that’s something the city should consider,” Barrett said.
The Department of Health Services on Tuesday reported the first death from COVID-19 complications of a child age 9 or younger, which added to the somber tenor of the briefing.
“We should never see a child death, no matter what it’s from,” Weston said. “COVID hasn’t caused many deaths in children. It’s relatively rare that it causes severe disease in children. But I think this brings home the point that when something’s rare, it still happens and when it’s your child that it’s happening to it isn’t rare. It’s affecting your family and it’s affecting your child.”
Weston said he has a simple message for parents of young children.
“Get your kids vaccinated,” he said. “Get them protected and take all the measures you can to keep them safe.”
The latest surge in COVID-19 cases has also had a major affect on professional and college sports, with several games being postponed or canceled. Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo entered the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols on Dec. 14. Teammates Wesley Matthews, Bobby Portis and Donte DiVincenzo have also been sidelined due to COVID issues.
Antetokounmpo must sit out a minimum of 10 days, raising questions whether he’ll be able to play in the team’s highly anticipated Christmas Day game at Fiserv Forum versus the Boston Celtics.
There were reports on Tuesday that the times of Christmas Day games could be shifted due to COVID-19 issues.
“We have not yet had conversations with (the Bucks) about this Saturday’s game,” Barrett said. “If that’s something we need to be talking with them about, we will do so.”