City of Milwaukee Health Department issues mask advisory in anticipation of Omicron variant

NOW: City of Milwaukee Health Department issues mask advisory in anticipation of Omicron variant

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- The City of Milwaukee Health Department is recommending that all individuals, regardless of vaccination status or past COVID-19 infection, wear a mask when in public, indoor settings.

The health department made the mask advisory announcement Tuesday, Nov. 30, in response to the new Omicron variant and in "anticipation of future identification of this variant in Milwaukee." The advisory applies to indoor public settings, and there are exceptions for activities that cannot be done while wearing a mask.

"This is not a cause for alarm but I do think we have to be concerned with it," Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said during a COVID-19 media briefing. "And there's much to be learned about this new variant but it does give us reason to be concerned."

Until now, the department said COVID-19 test specimens it has collected and sequenced have not shown to have the Omicron variant. Still, the advisory is part of a step of preparation as more information about the variant and its severity is learned.

"Because we are continuing to learn more in the coming days and next week, about the Omicron variant and its degree of transmissibility, it is crucial for us to layer measures to protect ourselves and our community," City of Milwaukee Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson said.

While the Omicron variant is sparking concern ahead of its likely arrival, health leaders said there still needs to be focus about current COVID-19 spread. "Even if Omicron isn't as bad as predicted, we still have Delta to deal with," Dr. Ben Weston, Milwaukee County's chief health policy advisor, said during the briefing.

Business leaders are urging calm and patience as new data is gathered every day, but health experts say the trends are concerning. But business owner Omar Shaikh said, "It's really hard to see how people are going to respond to anything at this point."

Shaikh says businesses need to remain calm and wait for the data. The labor shortage, supply chain issues and rising food costs are still hurting the hospitality industry. So far, city and county leaders are not even discussing a mandate. Shaikh said, "I think we can rest assured that we're still able to operate our businesses, be open and hopefully make a living because it's gotten tough these last two years."

Of Omicron, Commissioner of Health Kirsten Johnson said, "We don't know yet the transmissibility, we don't know yet if it evades immune response with the vaccine."

That concern is on top of a Delta wave that's leading to record cases and hospitalizations in Wisconsin for 2021. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said, "Our hospitalizations are up; our deaths are obviously going in the wrong direction. We're seeing increases in the transmission of this disease."

Dr. Weston said it's a dangerous place for Wisconsin to be. So far, no PCR specimens processed by the Milwaukee Health Department lab contained the Omicron variant, but Dr. Weston expects it will rapidly spread to our community soon.

The Wisconsin Hospital Association reported this week the state is at its highest level of COVID-19 hospitalization rate since December of 2020. On Nov. 30, the WHA COVID-19 dashboard showed 1,432 COVID-19 hospitalizations across the state.

Dr. Weston said western Wisconsin hospitals currently have zero intensive care unit beds available. In southeastern Wisconsin, 92 percent of ICU beds are currently occupied, with that number expected to go up.

The combination of current spread of the virus and the unknown severity of the Omicron variant pushed leaders Tuesday to make the mask advisory announcement, as well as reemphasizing the importance of getting vaccinated.

"A storm is brewing and the best way to prepare by far is to get yourself vaccinated," Dr. Weston said.

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