The City of Milwaukee Health Department on Tuesday issued an advisory that urges all individuals, regardless of vaccination status or past COVID-19 infection, to wear a mask when indoors in a public setting, due in part to the new Omicron variant.
Although Omicron hasn’t been detected in the United States, the variant is present in Canada and it’s likely, over time, to appear in the Milwaukee area, health officials said.
“Anticipation of future identification of this variant in Milwaukee and due to the burden of positive COVID-19 cases remaining in the extreme transmission category, the Milwaukee Health Department is issuing a mask advisory,” Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson said during a virtual session with reporters.
COVID-19 is predominantly transmitted by inhaling respiratory droplets and studies have shown that masks effectively block the release of these droplets into the environment and protect the wearer to exposure to other droplets, Johnson noted.
“It is crucial for us to layer measures to protect ourselves and our community,” she said.
A mask advisory is necessary “because there are more questions than answers right now around Omicron,” Johnson said.
“We don’t know yet the transmissibility, or if evades the immune response with the vaccine,” she said. “We’re trying to be cautious. We don’t know exactly how this is going to play out, but we want to make sure that we are adding a layer of mitigation to ensure that people are safe.”
The city doesn’t have any plans at this point to issue a mask mandate.
“It’s certainly something we talk about frequently,” Johnson said. “Our cases in the city of Milwaukee are at high transmission but have been sort of flat. What we’d need to see is a significant spike.”
Other issues would need to be considered before implementing a mask mandate, Johnson added.
“A mask mandate in the city of Milwaukee would only apply to the city of Milwaukee,” she said. “It wouldn’t apply to the county. I think that’s a barrier to having an effective policy in place. It’s not really black and white.”
The city lifted a nearly year-long mask ordinance in June, although there have been calls at times from parents, teachers, hospitality workers and health care professionals asking that the indoor mask mandate be reinstated as cases began to climb.
“There’s much to be learned about this new variant but it does give us reason to be concerned,” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said.
In addition to wearing masks, Barrett urged residents to get initial COVID-19 vaccine doses or boosters, focus on their hygiene and remain six feet apart in public.
“Our song continues to be the same. Let’s do what we can to take the standard mitigation measures,” he said.
The Milwaukee Health Department will also host another COVID-19 vaccination clinic from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. on Saturday at Fiserv Forum. Those who attend the clinic can have their photo taken with the NBA’s Larry O’Brien championship trophy and can enter a drawing for a four-pack of tickets for that night’s game versus the Miami Heat.
Uncertainty about Omicron has health officials and city leaders worried but not in a state of panic at this point, Barrett said.
“And let’s be real. We’re all tired of this,” he said. “We want life to go back totally to pre-COVID, where we can ignore all of this. But we have to continue to be mindful that our hospitalizations are up, deaths are going in the wrong direction, and we are seeing increases in transmission of this disease.”
The city’s COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents stood at 214.9 on Tuesday, putting it in the “extreme transmission” category. The test positivity rate of 8.9% has risen to the “substantial” category, he added. Both figures rose when compared with the prior week.
Nearly 60% of Milwaukee residents age 16 and older are fully vaccinated and 64.7% have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Although the numbers continue to climb, Barrett said he’s concerned that Milwaukee’s figures fall short of those of many other cities.
“The pandemic continues on, and vaccines remain our best way to move past this virus,” Barrett said.
Milwaukee County is averaging 231 new cases of COVID-19 per day, along with two deaths. Overall, Wisconsin has the fourth-worst rate of COVID-19 positivity of any state, according to Dr. Ben Weston, Milwaukee County’s emergency management medical director and associate professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin.
“Even if Omicron doesn’t end up being as bad as predicted, we still have Delta (variant) to deal with,” Weston said. “We are in the middle of a record wave of cases and record hospitalizations for all of 2021. The entire western region of our state has zero ICU beds available. We are entering a long winter and holiday season with poor trends and a new variant on the horizon.”
About 92% of intensive care unit beds in Southeastern Wisconsin are currently occupied, Weston added.
“We are lucky in our region to have several large hospitals with a good amount of capacity, typically,” he said. “Nonetheless, they are filling up. This is an example of how COVID affects not only those who are sick with COVID illness, but it affects others who need medical care.”
The highest increases in COVID-19 positivity rates in Milwaukee County have come in children ages 10 to 14, followed closely by those in the 5- to 9-year-old category, which will affect schools, Weston said.
“Without a doubt this impacts schools,” he said. “We’ve seen outbreaks and quarantines and isolations in schools throughout the county. But it also impacts the community and these kids, both with short-term as well as potential long-term effects. In the end, I think we need to see more kids getting vaccinated.”
The Omicron variant has many mutations, making it different from previous variants, Weston said.
“What we can be quite confident in is that the variant will soon be here,” Weston said. “Our vaccines have been effective against every variant we’ve seen so far, and it will likely have a pretty good level of protection against this one as well.”
In a related matter, Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley noted that the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors is being asked to consider a measure that would declare medical misinformation as a public health crisis. The request is being made by Dr. Sheldon Wasserman, a long-time board supervisor.
“Misinformation is a threat to public health as it causes confusion and undermines public health efforts and prevents people from seeking preventative care and diagnostic testing,” Crowley said. “We cannot let misinformation lead to additional rumors, especially during times when cases are rising, and Omicron is likely starting to spread.”