Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Milwaukee Preparing for the Arrival of Coronavirus

Scale of virus outbreak in Wisconsin doubles during press conference as Barrett asks Evers to declare statewide emergency.

By - Mar 11th, 2020 09:16 pm
Mayor Tom Barrett addresses the media alongside Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Mayor Tom Barrett addresses the media alongside Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

It appears to be a matter of when, not if, coronavirus (COVID-19) arrives in Milwaukee.

“This a very rapidly changing story,” said Mayor Tom Barrett at a Wednesday conference.

That was an understatement. Before Barrett and Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik could finish press conference the number of diagnosed cases in Wisconsin had doubled from three to six.

Barrett and Kowalik are calling on Governor Tony Evers to declare a public health emergency in the state. A move that, Barrett said, would allow access to federal resources and supplies. Before this article could be published, Evers had called a press conference for Thursday at 11:30 a.m. The press conference will be held at the State Emergency Operations Center in Madison.

“We don’t know what’s going to come next, but we want to be prepared,” said Barrett. That includes having more equipment to protect emergency medical services workers. The State of Washington, which had the biggest COVID-19 outbreak as of Wednesday, has had to quarantine a number of EMS personnel for exposure to the virus after responding to the incident. Milwaukee Fire Department Chief Mark Rohlfing said the department is getting ready and has standard operating procedures for first-responders to protect against communicable diseases.

A Milwaukee Health Department (MHD) lab is one of two public labs in the state that can process COVID-19 tests. Barrett said it currently could process 25 to 30 tests a day, but he said with more resources it could be quickly scaled to 500. The state operates the other lab in Madison. “I believe we need a lot more testing capacity,” said Barrett.

The city will be launching a hotline later this week, staffed with MHD nurses, to answer questions about the virus. More information about the service was promised Thursday.

“We are preparing for whatever might come ahead,” said Barrett.

The city isn’t shutting down events or telling people to do so. “At this point in time, the Milwaukee Health Department is not issuing formal guidelines on closures,” said Kowalik. The Health Commissioner is the only local individual under state law who can quarantine individuals and the department has the ability to revoke permits. Kowalik said she is meeting multiple times a day with city officials and her regional peers to discuss strategy and expects any change in stance to happen in a unified fashion. “We want to be on the same page,” said Kowalik.

But whether Kowalik and others act might not matter, organizations are doing it voluntarily. The NBA suspended its season. The NCAA basketball tournament will be played without fans. UW-Milwaukee is suspending in-person classes through April 10th. Events are being scaled back, postponed or canceled.

To reduce the risk of contracting the disease, Kowalik and Barrett suggested washing your hands for at least 20 seconds, avoid touching your face, not coughing into your hands and maintaining a distance of six feet from others when possible. Individuals feeling ill should stay home. “It’s okay to stay home,” said Kowalik.

John Hopkins University reports 1,311 cases of COVID-19 in the United States and 36 deaths as a result at the time of publication. The Center for Disease Control reported 938 cases as of 4 p.m.

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