Milwaukee Health Department issues citywide mask advisory due to high COVID spread

NOW: Milwaukee Health Department issues citywide mask advisory due to high COVID spread

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Health officials on Friday, May 20, announced another mask advisory has been issued for the city of Milwaukee.

It's an advisory, not a mandate, and will not be enforced, but health officials say it's in place because things are not getting better.

The city's Health Department says everyone over the age of 2 should wear a mask at all times indoors and in public settings, regardless of vaccination status or past infection.

Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson said, "I'm sure nobody wants to hear this news, I certainly don't want to be the one delivering it, either."

Nonetheless, the Milwaukee Health Department issued the latest mask advisory after case rates shot up and hospitalizations tripled in the past few weeks.

Three key COVID indicators factored into the health department's decision to reinstitute the advisory: the number of new cases and new hospitalizations, and the percentage of beds occupied by COVID patients.

Johnson says it's a time for caution but not panic, and acknowledged many people are tired at this stage of the pandemic. That includes health professionals. Johnson said, "they don't want people to be hospitalized or critically ill, either."

Because critical illness and death are still possible outcomes, the health department is focused on messaging to make sure people learn to live with the coronavirus.

Few masks were being worn at the Milwaukee Public Market Friday, and most of the ones we did see were worn by employees.

But it's even frustrating the people who are taking it seriously.

Brenda Vetter, visiting Milwaukee from Endeavor, Wisconsin, said, "And we're all tired of it. We're tired of it, too. But I feel like it's important to keep each other safe."

Vetter is being careful and keeping her mask on to protect a daughter with disabilities. "i think it's worse than we're talking about right now. It's on the rise again and I just think we're not really talking about it anymore because we're tired of it."

Overall, the current metrics are nowhere near where they were at the worst of the pandemic.

Johnson said, "We're at a different point in the pandemic. We've learned a lot. We are not seeing the rise in hospitalizations we've seen previously. We are not seeing the severe illness we've seen previously."

But the short-term trends are headed in the wrong direction. Earlier this week, Milwaukee County moved back into the highest level of community spread. The upper Midwest and east coast are the most concerning areas of the country.

And Dr. Ben Weston, the county's chief health policy advisor, said on Twitter, "we are now higher than at any point during the delta variant surge with no signs of slowing."

Commissioner Johnson said her crystal ball is broken; she can't say if more severe measures will be needed if the downward trends continue. Johnson says summertime weather will help as many people will now be outside. And in the meantime, masking indoors will help.

Johnson said, "We have the tools, and so this advisory is really asking people to use the tools that we know are effective to help mitigate some of this."

Johnson says this phase of the pandemic is about learning to live with it and making sure people are safe and reducing severe illnesses and death.

According to a news release, masking is a critical public health tool and a key layer of protection against transmitting and contracting COVID-19. While different types of masks provide different levels of protection, it is important to remember any mask, worn consistently and snugly, is better than no mask. Higher-quality masks, such as KN95 masks and N95 respirators, can offer an additional layer of protection. For those without access to a higher-quality mask, wearing twos masks is an option to increase protection.

In addition to masking, the Milwaukee Health Department strongly advises implementing a layered mitigation strategy: stay up-to-date on COVID-19 vaccines, physically distance and avoid crowded spaces, improve ventilation of indoor spaces, practice thorough hand hygiene, and test to prevent spread when sick or identified as a close contact.

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