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Health Department Says Milwaukee's COVID-19 Response Aided By Racism Declared A Public Health Crisis

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Residents line up at a mobile COVID-19 test center staffed by members of the Wisconsin National Guard on the grounds of Miller Park on Oct. 29 in Milwaukee.

The coronavirus pandemic is at an all-time high in Wisconsin. So far, more than 2,100 Wisconsinites have died of COVID-19 and nearly a quarter of a million Wisconsinites have tested positive for the virus.

The disease has disproportionately impacted communities of color. But Lillian Paine, chief of staff for the Milwaukee Health Department, says thanks to Milwaukee’s declaration of racism as a public health crisis, the city has been able to identify these racial disparities and work toward mending them.

"Earlier in the pandemic, the health department was able to identify our COVID data with ethnicity and race, we’ve been like a model for that. We were able to do that because of the City Council declaring racism a public health crisis," she says.

Paine was instrumental in creating this declaration, which allowed the department to identify and address racial disparities in COVID-19 infections and treatment.

The pandemic has impacted every part of our lives, and many Milwaukeeans are facing eviction, food insecurity, and unemployment. Paine says that the pandemic exacerbated these issues, but didn't create them. 

"A lot of things that we are experiencing right now were taking place prior to this pandemic, it's just magnifying the need," she explains. 

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Joy Powers joined WUWM January 2016 as producer for Lake Effect. Most recently, she was a director and producer for The Afternoon Shift, on WBEZ-fm, Chicago Public Radio.