City Of Milwaukee Says It's Preparing For A Local Coronavirus Outbreak

Mar 6, 2020

For the latest Bubbler Talk, we respond to a listener question about the city of Milwaukee's plans in the event of a widespread, local outbreak of COVID-19. That's the disease caused by the coronavirus, which has now killed more than a dozen people in the U.S. and more than 3,000 worldwide.

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It so happens that a lot of folks want to know what the Milwaukee Health Department and other agencies have in mind.

Milwaukee Commissioner of Health Jeanette Kowalik said some have the wrong impression. "We're getting many, many requests from community partners and organizations, 'Like, what is the city doing? The city's not prepared.'  Which is not true. We have been working on it," Kowalik said Thursday at a special meeting of the Milwaukee Common Council Public Safety and Health Committee.

Milwaukee Health Department officials (foreground) speak with members of the Milwaukee Common Council on Thursday.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

Kowalik noted that Milwaukee doesn't have a case of COVID-19 yet. So, state health officials have been taking the lead on updating the news media and public, especially about Wisconsin's only confirmed case in Dane County last month. That person has since recovered. 

But things are ramping up locally. The Milwaukee Health Department just became one of two Wisconsin sites that will do the initial testing of potential COVID-19 cases.   The department also says it's been taking part in many discussions with Milwaukee Public Schools, local universities, hospitals, doctors, the Wisconsin National Guard, Milwaukee County and others about response plans. 

City Public Health Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Nick Tomaro said health officials are even talking with the Secret Service about the Democratic National Convention this July.  

"This is a common topic at every meeting I've been at.  And, the planning that's going into that event is taking into account that pandemic that's considered imminent at this point. But, there's no way to predict how this is going to affect the DNC," Tomaro told the meeting.

Dr. Tomaro and other health department leaders said they still have hopes of heading off a big outbreak here. With no coronavirus vaccine coming this spring, officials are counting on the public to take preventive measures like frequent hand washing, covering your cough or sneeze, and cleaning of frequently used surfaces. 

COVID-19 information is posted on a bathroom wall of Center St. Library in Milwaukee.
Credit Michelle Maternowski

Tomaro said he even cleans his cell phone: "My wife thinks I'm a little nuts, I think, but I use an alcohol wipe every morning. And when we get into a response like this, it's an important thing that people don't always think about, but you're putting it up to your face constantly."

The health department does not have a lot of firm advice at this point about public gatherings. Ald. Robert Donovan asked about receiving communion at a church, or even shaking hands in the pews. “You know, you've got a hundred people in church, and they don't necessarily wash their hands,” he said.

>> Find WUWM & NPR Coronavirus Coverage Here

Health commissioner Kowalik responded, saying many people already take steps against spreading the flu. "We're not saying anything like cancelling or limiting congregating folks or anything of that nature. But definitely taking precautions is something that is important," she advised.

If prevention measures are overwhelmed and an outbreak of COVID-19 hits the area, Kowalik said she and leaders of other health departments do have the authority to issue isolation orders for those who are ill, and a quarantine to limit those who were exposed to the disease. 

"We would look at the number of community cases, the community spread and that would help make the decision. Or, help me make the decision to issue orders. Like stop movement orders, so that would essentially be like cancelling large events — church, sporting events, school, things like that, “ Kowalik told reporters after the meeting.

The Health Department said it would also look at how to provide city services that normally require a lot of personal interaction. A memo advising city employees on what may be ahead for them may come out soon.

Nick Tomaro and Jill LeStarge listen to public comments during Thursday night's meeting.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

The health department also promised more meetings with the public. 

Thursday night at the DNR building on King Dr., Tomaro and other health department employees met with members of the Historic First Street Ad Hoc Committee.

Commitee member Fannie Smith asked for the session. Smith said she believes COVID-19 will hit Milwaukee.

"I think that a lot of people are talking about it. But very few know anything about it," Smith told WUWM. Smith urges more health department outreach in the coming days. 

State officials said Thursday that 14 people are now being tested for the coronavirus in Wisconsin. 

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