Jeramey Jannene

Should Milwaukee Have a New Emergency Health Order?

MTEA is asking for more COVID-19 guidelines and private schools pushing back.

By - Aug 12th, 2021 05:56 pm
2019 Novel Coronavirus. Image by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

2019 Novel Coronavirus. Image by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

COVID-19 cases have surged in Milwaukee since Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson and Mayor Tom Barrett let the city’s mask mandate expire on June 1.

It’s not the elimination of the mandate that is directly the cause, but a more transmissible variant, Delta, and a general opening up of the economy.

The seven-day Milwaukee case burden now stands at 230.1 cases per 100,000 residents, a level that the CDC classifies as “extreme” but is down from Tuesday’s reported level of 240. But it’s up substantially from a month ago. The rolling total was 9.8 on July 8th. Lagging indicators have begun to climb as well, hospitalizations and deaths are both up in the past week.

As a result of the nationwide surge, a wide variety of businesses and events have instituted vaccination or stringent testing requirements for employees, including Summerfest and Tyson Foods.

“What is the city’s response to ‘extreme’ transmission?” Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic wondered in an interview with Urban Milwaukee. Dimitrijevic chairs the city’s Public Safety & Health Committee and said she couldn’t currently articulate the city’s response.

Along with five of her colleagues, she sent a letter to Johnson and Barrett on July 27th calling for an enhanced response. The case rate was 50.7 cases per 100,000 residents then.

“What immediate steps are we taking?” asked Dimitrijevic Thursday. She said she is especially concerned given that the first wave of Milwaukee Public Schools students will return to school next week.

She would like to see an increased response. “Until people are fully vaccinated we are going to need additional mitigation,” she told Urban Milwaukee.

Does Johnson think Milwaukee needs a new health order and restrictions that could go with it?

“This has absolutely been an internal conversation the Commissioner is having with the recent increase in positive cases,” said a health department spokesperson. “However, the burden rate and percent positive that we received today is actually slightly lower than Tuesday’s data, so we’re going to continue to monitor this trend before making any decisions. The data from other countries and states have shown the Delta variant causes a quick increase in positive cases that then begin to drop after approximately 6 weeks, and we are optimistic that this is what we’re experiencing in Milwaukee as well. We hope to not have to implement any health orders, so we’re going to keep watching this data carefully, but we know the best way to avoid having to do that is by getting vaccinated.”

Avoiding any new health order is backed the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce and a number of its members.

“We are writing to express our strong support for the leadership of Milwaukee Health Commissioner, Kirsten Johnson, and to affirm her strategy for handling the current increases in COVID cases in our community,” wrote MMAC deputy director of government affairs Cynthia Ortega in a letter Wednesday. “We know that there are voices trying to pressure Commissioner Johnson into imposing new one-size-fits-all public health mandates on the City of Milwaukee. We believe such mandates would be largely unenforceable and would have a polarizing effect in the community that would detrimentally impact individual behavior.”

The letter also raised the specter that imposing a new mandate at the local level would make Milwaukee a regulatory island, a route that Milwaukee went willingly for much of 2020 and the first half of 2021.

MMAC’s letter was cosigned by the leaders of a number of private schools, bars, restaurants and business associations, including the heads of Wisconsin Lutheran High School, St. Marcus, Black Husky Brewing, the Milwaukee Brewers, VISIT Milwaukee, Milwaukee Public Market, Milwaukee Downtown and the United Community Center.

But at least one signer, Amanda Dixon of the restaurant Lazy Susan, is backing away from the letter and said she signed it on the premise that it was helping Johnson keep her job.

“I signed it because I support the commissioner not losing her job,” wrote Dixon in an email to MMAC lobbyist Steve Baas. “However, I feel that there are other motives behind this that we’re not fully disclosed to the group and feel that emphasize on her job at risk was an exaggeration to get support for other motives.”

“The credibility of that letter I think needs to be re-evaluated,” said Dimitrijevic, who said Dixon was the only signer she contacted. But the alderwoman is more concerned with another letter.

On August 5th, the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association said it would like to see the health department introduce enhanced guidance and stronger requirements for all schools in the city, not just MPS. It noted that MPS was going above any requirements set by the health department and is requiring masks in addition to other practices.

“We believe that serious and consistent requirements for all schools should include masking, distancing, improved ventilation, as well as the establishment of enforceable metrics for when remote instruction should take place to contain outbreaks and an elevated regime for testing, isolation, and contact tracing until Milwaukee returns to low transmission and the vaccine has been widely distributed to all students,” wrote executive director Benjamin Ward and president Amy Mizialko.

Dimitrijevic said she would like to see MHD provide better guidance to schools, similar to how the department helped Summerfest on its vaccination or negative test requirement.

“It’s same urgency as Summerfest, if not more,” she said.

Johnson, in an August 11th response, told the teacher’s union she has been working with MPS administration and the board at their request. “We were not aware that there was yet another constituency, namely the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA), which is within the district that would counter the understanding that we are responding to and working with the school district,” wrote the commissioner, a parent of MPS students.

She said she strongly agreed with the MTEA statement and encouraged all MPS educators and staff be vaccinated, but did not mention the dozens of other Milwaukee choice and charter schools, the leaders of many of which signed the MMAC letter.

The health department itself has mixed messaging on its website. “In accordance with CDC guidance, fully vaccinated individuals can safely resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing,” says the top of its COVID-19 webpage.

But CDC guidance was revised on July 27th to recommend that people, including those already vaccinated, wear masks indoors in communities where the disease is spreading at a “substantial” or “high” rate. Milwaukee not only meets that threshold, but exceeds it.

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Categories: Health

One thought on “Should Milwaukee Have a New Emergency Health Order?”

  1. NieWiederKrieg says:

    I just ordered 10 more 3M brand N95 masks from Amazon. The price has dropped considerably over the past 18 months. These masks might be difficult to obtain in the near future.

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