The call to fight the rapid spread of the coronavirus escalated this week. Wednesday the Department of Health Services added a "critically high" category to its online COVID activity dashboard. All but seven Wisconsin counties are on that list.
Gov. Tony Evers called for unity to bring the pandemic under control in a statewide address Tuesday, while health leaders are speaking out, urging Wisconsin policymakers to create a united front to stop its spread.
Also this week, 20 local municipal leaders sent an urgent letter to Evers and state legislators pointing to the need to expand COVID testing and funds to cover it.
The local group, called the Milwaukee County Intergovernmental Cooperation Council, has been around since the 1960s. Over the years, the group has worked through thorny issues, including sewer disputes and the creation of cross jurisdictional fire, police and ambulance services.
The council did not plan to take joint action on the subject of the coronavirus at the start out of its monthly meeting earlier this week
Chair and Glendale Mayor Bryan Kennedy simply called for a report. “The first item is actually an update on COVID-19. A number of public health officials are joining us and you have all the mayors and village presidents of the county here, so we’d love to hear how bad are things,” Kennedy said.
Milwaukee Health Department Deputy Commissioner Griselle Torres was first to report on testing trends. “Currently in the county, positivity is hovering over 18%. The takeaway here is that testing continues to grow, the need for it continue to grow. There are serious concerns about our capacity to maintain this over the long haul," Torres said.
Jacqueline Ove heads the South Milwaukee/St. Francis Health Department. It’s doing its part, offering testing in a former Bucyrus building in collaboration with Cudahy and Oak Creek.
“Right now, we have the resources from the Wisconsin National Guard that are assisting our South Shore [COVID-19 Testing] Site with specimen collection. The test kits are also funded from the state and their funding is also limited,” she said.
Ove says federal CARES dollars helped cover testing coordination; still so far, the four southern Milwaukee County municipalities have covered $80,000 in expenses.
“The personnel and then, of course, the cost for the sites because of course we’re paying for a building,” Ove explaied.
On any given weekday, the team delivers 800 tests. On Saturdays, the South Shore COVID-19 Testing Site is the only site of its kind open weekends at this point, averaging 600 tests.
Still, unless more funding materializes, Ove said the site will have to close Dec. 9, the National Guard’s last day on duty.
The update didn’t get brighter at the Intergovernmental Cooperation Council meeting. North Shore Health Department Director Ann Christiansen stopped just short of calling the region’s COVID situation a crisis; describing, instead, two streams impacting the health care community.
“The increasing numbers of COVID positive patients that are maximizing resources in the health care system. The other thing that’s been reported to us in public health from health care is the staffing shortages with employees who are COVID positive,” she said.
Had Council members all been in the same room, instead of meeting virtually, you could imagine Greenfield Mayor Michael Neitzke rising to his feet. “It seems to me we’re getting pretty darn close to a crisis,” Neitzke said.
He urged the group to take immediate action — issue a unanimous demand to state leaders including for more testing and funding to cover it.
”If we had these numbers in March or April, we’d all be freaking out because this is sort of what we didn’t want to have happen and it’s happening.” Neitzke continued, “It needs to be CC’ed to every legislator, the governor, anyone who will listen.”
County Executive David Crowley was optimistic that funds exist. “Two pots, two pots of resources of money in a sense. So, we can be looking at the COVID-19 dollars through the CARES Act money that came from the Feds that the state is currently sitting on, but I also think that you have to also force the state to put up some money of their own as well because everything doesn’t end on Dec. 31,” Crowley said.
This isn’t the council’s first attempt to appeal for additional COVID dollars. Last month, Milwaukee County Government Affairs Director Alec Knutson hand delivered its request for additional COVID dollars for public health and economic mitigation.
“I met individually with the Wisconsin delegation and White House staff. We didn’t get a definite answer,” Knutson said.
Greenfield Mayor Michael Neitzke hopes this time around the council can create a squeaky wheel that state leaders cannot ignore. “All of this has been thrown in our laps as local elected officials, most of us unprepared, initially, to even know how to deal with any of this stuff.” He added, “It seems to me that we make sure that the big folks at the state start addressing these things before the responsibility completely falls on us, where we’re underfunded and don’t have the resources to deal with it.”
The council closed its letter to Gov. Evers and Senate and Assembly leaders stating: “Without additional assistance, we will be unable to conduct the basic mitigation and prevention efforts critical to addressing the pandemic. We need your help.”