Three years later, more than 2,300 Milwaukee County lives lost to COVID-19
On March 13, 2020, the first COVID-19 cases were identified in Milwaukee County. Three years later, the world we live in has profoundly changed. Now, it’s common to think in these terms: before COVID-19 and after.
“We’ve all been through a life-altering segment of our collective history,” said Dr. Ben Weston, Milwaukee County’s chief health policy advisor. He’s been the face of local COVID-19 information for the past three years, holding regular media calls to update the public. "It's been challenging, frustrating, and, at times, heart-breaking."
Weston said Milwaukee County has lost 2,345 lives to the virus. Statewide, there have been about 16,400 deaths, losses that disproportionately affected Wisconsin’s communities of color. Acknowledging the toll, Weston said as this “after” phase evolves, there are reasons to be thankful.
“As we near the fourth year of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re in a far better place than in the past,” he said.
Hospitalizations are at their lowest levels in the last 10 months. And, while the virus has evolved to become more transmissible, our collective immunity has grown, meaning infection is generally less serious. On top of that, we have more tools than ever to combat the virus, from vaccines to antiviral medications like Paxlovid and better medical understanding.
“We are turning a corner,” Weston said. “But COVID has been unpredictable, so we must remain prepared. That preparation comes in continuing to promote strengthening and maintaining immunity in the safest way possible through vaccines and boosters.”
Weston said it’s important to remain cautious among vulnerable groups like the elderly and immunocompromised, who still experience deaths at a higher rate. Only 18% of the county at large have received the updated bivalent booster, which was formulated to protect against the omicron variant, since it became available last fall. About half of the county's population over 65 got the updated booster.
“If we want to target a group, that is the group to target,” Weston said. “Talk to your parents, talk to your grandparents, your neighbors.”
As eager as people are to move on, those with long COVID continue to struggle.
“For people who have continued symptoms after COVID, we are still in the height of the pandemic,” said Dr. Julie Biller, medical director at the Froedtert and Medical College of Wisconsin post-COVID clinic. “They feel their lives have been significantly changed and altered.”
Long COVID refers to a wide range of symptoms that linger or emerge after infection, including fatigue, brain fog, and difficulty breathing. Since the clinic opened in January 2021, Biller said the medical field has learned a lot. There’s evidence that fully vaccinated and boosted people are less likely to get long COVID.
“The good news is that we’re seeing the overwhelming majority of people ultimately get much better,” Biller said. “They may not get back to 100% of their pre-illness health, but most of them get much better. And it’s a smaller percentage of people who have very significant disabling symptoms after COVID.”
People who experienced severe COVID-19 illness are more likely to develop lasting symptoms. Biller said you can reduce risk for severe infection by maintaining overall health with vaccinations, exercise, and a healthy diet.
“All of those things sound like common sense, but we know that there are certain characteristics where people are high risk of having very severe illness from COVID,” she said. “It would be best if we could try to reduce those risk factors.”
Biller acknowledged it can be confusing to navigate this late phase of the pandemic with fewer public health directions. The early pandemic was characterized by clear guidelines: stay 6 feet apart, wear a mask, quarantine for 10 days.
“What’s happening is that we’re moving from pandemic to endemic,” Biller said.
A world where COVID-19 is endemic means it’s no longer unpredictably disruptive. The virus continues to circulate, but at relatively stable rates. Biller compared it to the flu.
“We still have many people who die from influenza,” she said. “But most of us made it through the flu season having hopefully had a minor infection and illness, not really putting our whole lives on pause. I think we will ultimately get to that with COVID-19.”
The transition to an endemic phase isn't clear-cut, and experts will likely debate over when COVID-19 has reached that point. As with the flu, Biller and Weston guessed that annual boosters for the coronavirus will become available each year.
In the meantime, Biller said it’s natural for behavior to evolve with the pandemic. Staying up-to-date on local transmission or hospitalization rates can inform decisions. She said opting to wear a mask in crowded spaces, or skipping a get-together if you have a runny nose and low-grade fever, are both measures that can help keep individuals and the community healthy.
“I would just ask people to not only think about their own health issues, but think about other people’s health issues,” Biller said.
To Biller, that’s the takeaway for the post-COVID world.