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Fearing Holiday COVID-19 Spike, Milwaukee Leaders Urge Cancellation Of In-Person Gatherings

Susan Bence
Cars beging queuing up at Miller Park Covid-19 testing site Tuesday morning.

For months, public health officials have been repeating coronavirus messaging: wear masks, social distance and get tested for possible exposure when possible. With Christmas and New Year's just days away, officials are more concerned than ever.

Credit Susan Bence
Mayor Barrett (far right) confers with Milwaukee public health officials before Tuesday press briefing begins at Miller Park.

On Tuesday, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and city health department officials held a news conference in the Miller Park parking lot. It's one of the places where COVID-19 testing is being offered. They hoped the visual reinforcement would drive their message home.

In recent weeks, fewer people have been tested for the coronavirus in the Milwaukee area.

“This site is a very important site. It's been a very successful site for us over the last six weeks. We want to continue to have it be a success because we think that the value it brings to our efforts to fight COVID-19 are so very, very important. But we also know that we have not had the volume here that we can handle. And I want to stress, first, that the testing here is quick and it’s free and you get your results back very, very quickly,” said Barrett.

Barrett urged people to get tested especially if they're experiencing symptoms or have been exposed to someone who's tested positive for the coronavirus.

Milwaukee Health Department Interim Commissioner Marlaina Jackson is among the people keeping a watchful eye on how many people test positive.

“As of today, our positivity rate for the city is 10.4% and if you compare that, so the last time we were at that number was about August. We’ve been as high as 20% in September, end of September into October. So the number has come down,” said Jackson, "but if you look at all of the CDC and Harvard public health numbers, that number of 10% is still considered extremely high for community spread.”

That’s why, Jackson said, she worries about people congregating over the coming days — and not just those in bars or restaurants.

“We’re overall concerned about any celebration where anyone is outside of their home. That’s whether they’re in a bar or at grandma’s house or wherever. We want people to stay home, we want them to pare down because again, the numbers are still significant and so the goal is to get through this last hump, the most significant hump here as it relates to trying to stay home and be safe,” she said.

Nick Tomaro manages the Miller Park testing site. He said the need for vigilance and testing won't end when the new year arrives.

"We're really projecting to go on through summer with testing. Obviously, the vaccine starting to be available is an incredibly hopeful thing for all of us, but that rollout of the vaccine is going to take a long period of time," - Nick Tomaro

“We’re really projecting to go on through summer with testing. Obviously, the vaccine starting to be available is an incredibly hopeful thing for all of us, but that rollout of the vaccine is going to take a long period of time based on availability of the vaccine, and based on phasing that we’ll be doing to get through the various phases of rollout,” said Tomaro. “So, this work that we do at the public health level to get through this pandemic is still critical throughout.”

Mayor Barrett said he’s optimistic Milwaukee can continue to fund ongoing testing, especially with news this week of a federal package finally moving through Congress.

“We’re going to look at all of the nuances of this new $900 billion bill and see exactly what’s in there, but we do have the ability right now to breathe a little easier than we did three days ago, when we didn’t know if there would be anything that we were going to be able to use. We’ve got some flexibility now, and importantly, they also let us continue to use the money that was allocated for 2020 into 2021. So, we don’t have a lot of money left because we wanted to make sure that we were spending the money that we had been allocated. But this will allow us a little bit more flexibity,” he explained.

Barrett said he plans to fight for every dollar he can get because some Milwaukee residents are among those most vulnerable to the virus.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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