Rising COVID-19 cases and increasing concerns over the spread of the worrisome delta variant has local officials urging a return to mask wearing in certain circumstances, even for individuals who are fully vaccinated.
COVID-19 cases have been climbing in the city of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County.
“We continue to see case counts rise and honestly the pace we are seeing is alarming,” Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley said. “In Milwaukee County, we have seen cases quadruple over the last few weeks as vaccination rates in nearly all demographic groups slow down.”
Crowley described the delta variant as “extremely infectious” and said it is spreading quickly throughout the community.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett this week recommended that all Milwaukeeans return to wearing masks in groups and indoor settings outside of their homes as a means of controlling the spread of COVID-19, especially the delta variant.
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Barrett continued to stress the need for all Milwaukeeans to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
“We believe here that the best way for us to fight the spread of COVID-19 remains, hands down, more people getting vaccinated,” he said. “I am going to continue to beat that drum. We want everyone to get the vaccine. They are proven to provide excellent protection against hospitalization and death.”
But with COVID-19 cases on the rise, Barrett said he believes additional measures are needed to control the spread of the disease.
“Because we are seeing transmission of the virus even among some vaccinated people it is increasingly important for everyone to wear a mask in groups in indoor settings away from home,” Barrett said.
The recommendation comes after extensive conversations with Kirsten Johnson, Milwaukee’s health commissioner, and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Barrett said. The CDC issued new guidance this week that recommended a return to indoor masking, even for those who are fully vaccinated, in areas of the country with high or substantial coronavirus spread. The CDC is also urging that schools require masks for all students, teachers and visitors.
Milwaukee has shifted to the “substantial transmission” category, with up to 75.7 cases per 100,000, according to Barrett. The city’s percent positive rate for COVID-19 has also increased to the “moderate transmission” category at almost 7%, he said.
“Those numbers were significantly lower just two and three weeks ago,” he said.
Barrett stressed that he’s requesting a return to masking but that there won’t be any enforcement at this time.
“We are not enforcing it, but we are asking people to wear masks regardless of vaccine status as they go indoors,” he said.
Barrett acknowledged that COVID fatigue has long been an issue but stressed the seriousness of the situation.
“This is a tough request to make because we felt like we were getting life back to normal,” he said.
Milwaukee County’s Emergency Management Medical Director Ben Weston said the county is seeing an average of 84 new cases of COVID-19 per day and one death every three days.
“The delta variant has been game-changing in our approach to the pandemic. As a community, as a state and as a country we must stay ahead of the curve,” Weston said. “We cannot repeat last year.”
He, too, stressed the need for vaccinations.
“Is it possible that you might have a breakthrough case? Certainly,” Weston said. “But if you do get infected you are far less likely to have severe symptoms, you are far less likely to get hospitalized and you are far less likely to die. We expect a few breakthrough cases but largely those people have mild symptoms or no symptoms at all.”
Barrett said local health officials will continue to watch for any connections between the mass gatherings at the Deer District outside Fiserv Forum, where tens of thousands of fans gathered for games during the Milwaukee Bucks’ march to an NBA title, and a celebratory parade that attracted massive crowds to parts of Downtown.
“The full picture is not yet known,” Barrett said.