Milwaukee community reflects on 1 year since the first COVID-19 case in the city

NOW: Milwaukee community reflects on 1 year since the first COVID-19 case in the city

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- We are nearing the one-year mark since Milwaukee’s first COVID-19 case, and it hasn’t been an easy road, with many twists and turns landing us where we are today. In a special report, CBS 58’s Cearron Bagenda spoke to the people of Milwaukee, along with state and local leaders, to reflect on the year and hopes of what’s to come.

In March 2020, Friday the 13th marked an unlucky day for Milwaukee, the first COVID-19 case was detected and what followed was a year no one could have predicted.

“I think we all would agree that this has been the most tumultuous year that we’ve probably have seen in our lifetime,” said Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

Mayor Barrett says within 72 hours of the city’s first case, a big decision had to be made. St. Patrick’s Day 2020 was around the corner. It’s a big day for the city’s bars and restaurants, but this time it wouldn’t be a celebration of luck.

The decision came just hours before March 17, and at this time there were still many unknowns.

“We had to issue the order closing them down and that was a very hard decision, because we knew it was going to have an economic impact,” he adds.

“We didn’t know how infectious this was, we didn’t know exactly how it spreads,” said Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy secretary, Wisconsin Dept. of Health Services.

Shortly after Governor Tony Evers’ safer at home orders came into play, followed by a mask mandate. By late April and early May of 2020, community testing became available and contact tracing efforts ramped up.

“We had a stay at home order that essentially came out literally hours before his order, but then we went and did the mask,” Mayor Barrett says.  

“We were a leader in testing in the nation, we were one of the first states to get community testing,” added Willems Van Dijk.

The people of Milwaukee strapped up for a year that redefined what ‘normal’ was, some missing moments they won’t be able to get back.

“I think the big thing overall is human connection, not seeing family and close friends,” said Alex Hofstetter of Milwaukee.

“We didn’t really have a chance to introduce everybody to our daughter when we had her because it was March 2020 and you know the lockdown had first happened,” said Elisha Davis of Milwaukee.

For some students, the pandemic put hurdles in the way of academic success and friendships.

“Our senior year has been definitely a little crazy and it’s like kind of sad to just not have those normal like events that we normally would have,” said Kathryn Lagore, a high school senior.

“Just missing out on a lot of the great things that are usually happening in Milwaukee, like the Brewers games and Summerfest,” added Honor Callanan, who is also a high school senior.

State officials say toward the end of summer 2020, people started to believe the pandemic was over, resulting in a massive surge for the state. The Alternate Care Facility accepted its first patient on October 21, 2020.

On November 11, the state saw more than 9,400 positive tests with a higher than 17-percent positivity rate. Since March 2020, more than 6,500 people in Wisconsin lost their lives to Covid-19.

“With the onset of schools and people coming back together, we had the huge surges in October and November,” Willems Van Dijk says.

November, December it just took off and it placed Wisconsin in the top three or four states nationally for the pandemic,” Mayor Barrett recalls.

The pandemic has taught many lessons for the community.

“Not taking connections for granted. I learned a lot more about how to stay in touch in different ways and the value of a simple phone call,” Hofstetter said.

“Keeping clean and staying away, I mean it’s been crazy out here so I just look at things different now,” says Audrius Morris of Milwaukee.

Leaders learned working together and patience is key when dealing with an ever-changing virus. The collaboration ultimately led to a light at the end of the tunnel, on December 14, 2020 the first vaccine was administered in the state. Now 1.9 million doses in the state have been put in people’s arms.

“We’ve all known we’re in it together and that has been really important,” added Willems Van Dijk.

The more people are vaccinated, the more life can get back to normal and one of the things in particular, I want to see the kids back in school, I want to see people in restaurants, I want to see people in churches,” says Mayor Barrett.

The ramping up of vaccinations and promising case trends are factors many in the community are holding on to in the hopes some normalcy will return by summertime.

“I’m going off to college, I hope that it’ll be more of a normal year,” said Lagore.

“The biggest thing for me is being able to see family again,” Hofstetter says.

“No more wearing masks, and that I’ll be able to hang out with my friends, family,” said Sonsaray McCradic of Milwaukee.

“Hopefully things are in place for the school system,” adds Davis. “I really want my daughter to have a normal kid life.”

Mayor Barrett says as we reflect back on this year, resiliency, determination and working as a community are key takeaways to help us get through what’s been a wild and unpredictable pandemic.

“We’re going to get through this, we are getting through it and we’re going to have brighter days ahead, and it’s because so many people have worked together,” he said. “This to me, as difficult as this year was, it really proved to me what a strong community we have here.”

To remember the one-year mark, on Saturday March 13, 2021, Mayor Tom Barrett will be highlighting Milwaukee heroes who have helped in the fight against COVID-19. He will be spotlighting them on his social media pages using the hashtag #HonoringMKEHeroes.

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