Health commissioner applauds MPS vaccine mandate, explains decision not to reinstate mask order

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MILWAUKEE, Wis. (CBS 58) -- As the Delta variant surges through the community, council members are asking the Milwaukee Health Department to explain what's being done to prevent the high case numbers we're seeing.

On Friday, Sept. 10, Commissioner Kirsten Johnson provided an update to the Public Safety and Health Committee on the Milwaukee Health Department's COVID-19 response.

"We know there's high transmission in our community, and we will continue to see that," Johnson told CBS 58.

Nearly 60 percent of the city has received at least one vaccine dose. Data shows the city's highest transmission right now is among teenagers. The vaccine rate among teens is considerably lower than that of adults.

Johnson applauded the School Board's decision to require vaccines or routine testing for all Milwaukee Public Schools staff members.

"The decision that MPS made last night is spot on especially related to staff because, if you look at the actual percentage of total numbers of students and total numbers of staff, it's a much higher percentage of staff who are infected," Johnson said.

Johnson said transmission of COVID-19 is rare in classrooms when children are masked.

"MPS has done a tremendous job of requiring masking in the classroom universally," she said.

Morse Middle School became the first MPS school to temporarily shift to virtual learning due to a 3 percent positivity rate.

"Was it shocking to you to see that in the second week we already had a school closure?" Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic asked Johnson.

"No, not at all," Johnson responded.

I'm personally ... very disturbed by that," Dimitrijevic said.

Dimitrijevic, who chairs the committee, said she's concerned about young children, including her own kids, who aren't yet eligible to get vaccinated. 

For weeks, she said she's asked Johnson to put the indoor mask mandate back into place citywide.

While Johnson said people should be masked when in large groups, she does not currently plan to reinstate a mandate. She told CBS 58 it would be hard to enforce, and she cited data showing people who tested positive for COVID-19 reported most often becoming exposed at homes and private events.

"Birthday parties, sleepovers, family events," Johnson explained. "Knowing that that's not a place where a mask mandate or ordinance would touch makes it really difficult to have that policy have the impact we want it to have."

She said that makes vaccines event more important. The city plans to offer its own incentive once Gov. Tony Evers' $100 incentive expires.

Council members also asked Johnson about booster shots.

She said once the federal government authorizes the booster shot, the city plans to have a mass vaccine clinic in November and December. Johnson told CBS 58 the city is looking for a site, but it likely won't be the Wisconsin Center because that space will be booked with over events.

"We're looking for a place that is centrally located, easily accessible by the city and the surrounding counties," Johnson said.

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