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COVID-19 Brought Wisconsin Medical Innovation, Reflection & Controversies In 2020

Chuck Quirmbach
Drive-through COVID-19 testing became part of the landscape, such as this site outside Custer Stadium near Barack Obama School, in Milwaukee.

In 2020 the medical field saw more than deaths and illnesses related to COVID-19, there was also a lot of discussion about racial disparities, senior citizens, skepticism and scientific breakthroughs.

One new development was the drive-through COVID-19 testing site, whether run by government health care workers, the National Guard, or the private sector — such as at the new mobile clinic temporarily outside Barack Obama School in Milwaukee.   

As Oscar Rush pulled away from the clinic parking lot this week, the local resident said he was glad to have more testing nearby. "Oh yeah, it's a great idea to have more sites around. This is real close. A lot of people live in the neighborhood,” he told WUWM.

Rush is Black and the Obama school area along Sherman Blvd. is one of several in the city where COVID-19 has had a disproportionately high impact on Blacks and Latinos. 

A Wisconsin professor says there's been a greater recognition of racial disparities during the pandemic. But Susan Lederer, who focuses on the history of medicine and bioethics at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, adds, "I don't know if I've really seen the kind of intervention that would level the field, as it were.”

Lederer says as with other pandemics or major disease outbreaks over time, skepticism has slowed the response. "A blast from the past in that we've seen the same kind of resistance to public health measures that would have a great effect on preventing a spread,” she says.

Credit photo supplied by the University of Wisconsin
Prof. Susan Lederer, of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

Dr. Art Derse of the Medical College of Wisconsin says society must keep a focus on ending racial disparities in health care. "So, I do think that's a task for leaders — leaders in our political system, leaders in our government — as well as people in public health,” he says.

Derse directs the Medical College's Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities. He says another group suffering a disproportionate share of the pain and suffering of COVID-19 is the elderly.  According to state numbers, 79% of Wisconsin residents dying from the coronavirus were age 70 or older. 92% were 60 or older. 

Derse says the death toll highlights the need for advance planning — asking healthy seniors what medical steps they someday might want taken or not taken. "Because people are surprised when they go into the hospital walking, talking — short of breath, but otherwise seem to be fine and go into a rapidly downhill course,” he says.

Credit Photo supplied by the Medical College of Wisconsin
Prof. Art Derse of the Medical College of Wisconsin.

As the calendar turns to 2021, and more people receive the COVID-19 vaccine, Derse says one thing that's been exciting is that this new type of drug — called a Messenger RNA, or mRNA, vaccine — teaches cells how to make a protein and that triggers an immune response and later, the production of antibodies.  "Some of the things from the genomic revolution — sequencing the human genome — and our advancing in genetic understanding have helped us create these mRNA vaccines,” Derse says.

Medical historian Susan Lederer says the speed of the COVID vaccine development is unprecedented.  The smallpox vaccine, she notes, took a century to become effective and safe. The polio vaccine took decades.    Lederer says she hopes skepticism about the COVID vaccine is ebbing. "But, I'm not certain of it, and I suspect we'll continue to see skepticism and active resistance, because there is a robust anti-vaccination movement in the country right now," she said.

Lederer also says history tells us outbreaks and pandemics are bound to happen again at some point. She hopes today's younger people will help prepare future societies to be ready.

"Even if they haven't lost people, they'll remember the profound disruption — in schooling, social life, family life,” Lederer predicts.

Others will remember the nearly half a million COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin and the roughly 5,000 deaths. Numbers likely to grow well into 2021.  

Credit Chuck Quirmbach
The COVID-19 pandemic brought many disruptions, including cancellation of the 2020 Wisconsin State Fair.

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