Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Vaccination Rate Below 20% in One Milwaukee Neighborhood

But your sewage doesn't lie, COVID-19 case rates are declining in the city.

By - May 26th, 2021 01:13 pm
Milwaukee County COVID-19 vaccination rollout by census tract. Data from May 15th. Darker is higher. Image from Milwaukee County COVID-19 Dashboard.

Milwaukee County COVID-19 vaccination rollout by census tract. Data from May 15th. Darker is higher. Image from Milwaukee County COVID-19 Dashboard.

When it comes to the COVID-19 vaccination rollout, Milwaukee County and the City of Milwaukee aren’t the slowest in the state.

That distinction belongs to Taylor County, located west of Wausau in central Wisconsin, where 23.5% of eligible residents 12 and older have received at least one vaccine dose.

But Milwaukee’s vaccine rollout has been extremely uneven.

City Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson told a Common Council committee Wednesday that 48.1% of city residents ages 16 and up have received at least one vaccine dose as of May 15th. That percentage falls to 20.7% in one census tract.

Many of the city’s north side census tracts have vaccination rates below 30%, among the lowest in the county and among the lower rates in the state. The vast majority of the residents of those census tracts are Black.

The city is moving ahead with rescinding its long-standing COVID-19 health order on June 1st, which would invalidate the city’s mask ordinance at the same time.

That fact had Common Council members asking questions.

“I have deep concerns about the impact the lifting will have on the African American community,” said Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs.

Council members are also concerned they weren’t included in the decision to lift the order.

Johnson and Mayor Tom Barrett had previously announced they would lift all restrictions other than the mask mandate on June 15th, but changed their decision after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance saying vaccinated individuals do not need to wear masks.

“That’s about 50% of the reason we are having this meeting,” said Public Safety & Health Committee chair Ald. Marina Dimitrijevic.

Mayoral policy director Aaron Szopinski apologized for the lack of communication, noting that Barrett himself wasn’t happy with it.

“The Mayor’s priority right now is let’s get together and find all the ways we can to get shots into arms,” said Szopinski.

Johnson said scientific data support lifting the restrictions, at least for now.

She cited a declining case burden, the key benchmark the city tracks.

Johnson said experience last year, when case counts fell in the summer even without a vaccine, gives her confidence that the city will continue to see a shrinking number of new cases. “I am not concerned what may happen over the course of the summer with disease spread,” said the commissioner.

Showing a chart from a state dashboard, she said sewage testing data confirmed the nasal-swab testing that shows a declining case load.

“Just because we are expiring the health order doesn’t mean we couldn’t put it back in place in the fall,” she said.

“I would just note that last year we suspended the parking rules and then we put them back in effect and lo and behold, people weren’t too keen on following them,” said Alderman Scott Spiker. “It’s just really hard to go back rather than maintain.”

Johnson said part of the challenge is CDC guidance makes it very hard to enforce the mask order at this point. The enforcement component of the city’s mandate is written for businesses, not individuals. But businesses are free to continue to have their own mandate, which Johnson said the health department would support.

“I don’t want that to be misunderstood. In no way, shape or form have I ever said that individuals that are unvaccinated should be unmasked,” said the commissioner.

Dimitrijevic and others brought up the disparity in vaccination rates across the city, and questioned if more could be done.

The census tract bordered by W. Brown St., W. Vliet St., N. 35th St. and Washington Park has an eligible population vaccination rate of only 20.7%, the lowest in the county.

“I don’t think anyone at this meeting can be happy with a 20% vaccination rate,” said Dimitrijevic. “I have a hard time believing that in 53208 [the ZIP code the least vaccinated census tract is located] 80% of the people are hesitant.”

The alderwoman asked if the health department planned to go door-to-door to boost vaccination rates.

Johnson said the department was scaling up its mobile vaccination clinic efforts.

“We have scheduled vaccine clinics in that specific census tract,” she said, citing the Washington Park Senior Center. “When we are scheduling our mobile clinics we are looking at the areas of the city with the lowest vaccination rates.”

Johnson said the department has scheduled 265 mobile clinics, of which 127 have already taken place. Szopinski encouraged council members to reach out about holding them in their districts.

Ald. Chantia Lewis assisted in scheduling one at a church in her district, drawing praise from Johnson and Szopinski. But Lewis said she would like to see more incentives rolled out for people to get the vaccine.

Johnson said she expected more events to be announced in the coming weeks. Black Husky Brewing, the Brady Street Business Improvement District and AXE MKE have all done or are planning events where those getting vaccinated can get free drinks or play games. But those businesses are all in census tracts with city-leading vaccination rates.

The commissioner said backpack-based clinics would also be operated at the Juneteenth Day festival and at future Milwaukee Bucks games. She said the city was a national leader in its mobile efforts.

Ald. JoCasta Zamarripa asked about the heavily-Latino South Side, which includes her district.

“The South Side, 40% is really the lowest of [its] census tracts,” said Johnson. “It’s much higher than more north in the city.”

Johnson said she expects vaccination rates to improve across the  city. As of last week, 8.8% of the newly eligible 12-to-15-year-olds have received vaccine doses in the city. “I think part of this is just time and hearing from family and friends that it’s safe,” she said.

Council members asked what the city’s target rate should be?

“The science says that between 70 and 80% is herd immunity,” said Johnson. “I have been reluctant to put that number out there because I don’t want us stopping there.”

The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce HealthyMKE guide for employers calls for an 80% vaccination rate. Health department officials said they are happy to work with employers on mobile clinics, and praised Palermo’s Pizza for hosting a multi-lingual, friends-and-family clinic.

There is one city policy the health department won’t control: an employee and facility mask mandate. The Department of Employee Relations will determine if the city will issue its own mask mandate for employees and visitors to city buildings.

What city census tract has the highest rate? The tract encompassing the Historic Third Ward and northern tip of Walker’s Point has a first dose rate of 77.9%.

Want more data? Milwaukee County’s COVID-19 dashboard contains a multitude of mapped datasets regarding age, ethnicity, vaccination rate and case rate.

More about the Coronavirus Pandemic

Read more about Coronavirus Pandemic here

Categories: Health, Weekly

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us