Social Distancing Is Crucial But Started Too Late, Says Former Milwaukee Health Official

Mar 20, 2020

Each day we see the rise of confirmed COVID-19 cases as places across the globe work to treat and respond to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

It’s not just global cities that are at risk for things like SARS, H1N1 or COVID-19 —  secondary cities and urban hubs, such as Milwaukee, are too. We’ve seen mandates and efforts passed both on the federal and state level, but cities also play a large part in preparing for, mitigating and adapting to pandemics.

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Paul Biedrzycki is the former director of disease control and environmental health for the City of Milwaukee. His work with the city included preparing for and responding to everything from cryptosporidium to H1N1.

And while no two viruses are the same, Biedrzycki says that existing action plans for pandemics can help establish protocols to help ensure the health of city populations.

So, what does he think about the federal government's response to the coronavirus?

“I think it’s improved. But I do think we were out of the gate a little late, perhaps by a couple of weeks since the first case was detected on the West Coast a couple months ago,” says Biedrzycki.

When it comes to Milwaukee, information sharing between local government, businesses, and non-profits is key. Constant communication as the pandemic progresses will ensure a better "continuity of operations within the community to build, what we call, resiliency,” Biedrzycki explains.

But every pandemic comes with new challenges. A term that has become incredibly important during this coronavirus crisis is "social distancing": a practice of limiting all social interaction to slow the spread of the disease and buy the health care system some critical time.

“The number of cases will grow exponentially over the coming weeks as we reach the peak of what we refer to as 'the epidemic curve.' So it’s incredibly important to aggressively implement and pursue social distancing to really lessen or reduce the steepness of that curve to buy us some time, as well as preserve health care capacity,” says Biedrzycki.

Measures like social distancing and proper hygiene can flatten the curve of the rate of infection, keeping the health care system from being overwhelmed.
Credit Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris / commons.wikimedia.org

When it comes to Milwaukee, information sharing between local government, businesses, and nonprofits is key. Constant communication as the pandemic progresses will ensure a better "continuity of operations within the community to build, what we call, resiliency,” Biedrzycki explains.

Resiliency is important because this pandemic will eventually end. So, the more economic and social resiliency is built up, the easier the recovery effort will be.

The coronavirus pandemic may not end until well into the summer, with officials hesitant to put out any defined timelines. This calls into question whether Milwaukee has the ability to handle an event like the DNC scheduled for July 13-16. Biedrzycki says if this continues into the summer, no city would have the capacity for something like the DNC.

“This isn’t a slight on Milwaukee. I think any city, even larger cities, would have a difficult time handling that number of people,” says Biedrzycki. “DNC planning officials need to not only have a tiered approach to conducting the convention but really a plan B, plan C, and plan D should it be difficult or untenable to hold the convention here in Milwaukee.”

Finally, Biedrzycki says, “This is the time to condition yourself to really routinely practice good hygiene every single day.”

Visit the CDC, State of Wisconsin Division of Public Health, and Milwaukee Public Health for updates about the coronavirus. 

During this pandemic, WUWM's Bubbler Talk is focusing on the coronavirus and its impact on the Milwaukee area. If you have a question, submit it below.

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