'Headed in the wrong direction': Milwaukee Health Department may reimpose COVID-19 restrictions

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) --  It’s a race between vaccinations and variants as case numbers continue to increase not only here in the area, but neighboring states as well. Health officials say they're seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases in Milwaukee County.

"We're seeing a more definitive increase in cases in the county this week. So on Tuesday of last week, I reported 77 cases per day, and we’re now at 112, that’s more than a 45-percent increase in new daily cases in just one week," said Dr. Ben Weston, director of medical services for the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management. 

He says positivity continues to rise as well as testing numbers. He says that indicates more people are having close contacts with people who have COVID or have symptoms. 

“This is due to a loosening of precautions paired with the contagiousness of the new variants,” he said. "The fact that our percent positivity is increasing, the fact that our testing rates are increasing -- which we want people to get tested, but it’s just another indicator that there may be a higher burden of disease.”

"The COVID-19 case numbers are headed in the wrong direction. This is a troubling development with significant consequences," said Milwaukee Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson. 

Johnson says the public health orders and restrictions that are in place in Milwaukee are determined by gating criteria. She says they are continuing to watch the rate of COVID-19 cases in the city. The concerning trends may even mean re-imposing restrictions for Milwaukee’s restaurants, bars, museums and entertainment venues.

"Unless there are changes, the health department will be issuing a new order in the coming weeks, reimposing restrictions that were eased just a week and a half ago. This has implications for entertainment, restaurants, museums and bars," said Johnson. “There is an interim order or restrictions that we jumped over from the last order so it’s likely we would move back to that interim order.”

She says the only way to avoid new restrictions is if the case numbers reverse and start to decline again. She says within the next two weeks the health department will be addressing gating criteria and potentially issuing new orders.  

Other areas of the country are also seeing a resurgence, data from Johns Hopkins University and Medicine show more than half of U.S. states are reporting cases increasing the last two weeks. Doctors say neighboring state Michigan’s case counts are now four times what they were a month ago.

This amid quickly spreading UK variant B.1.1.7 now being the predominant strain. The variant originating in Brazil has now been detected in Wisconsin. 

“It’s not unreasonable to think that people may be traveling from Michigan to Wisconsin and is really just a reminder that this is not over yet,” said Dr. Jeff Pothof, chief quality officer at UW Health. 

"Anytime we’re seeing a new variant, particularly one of the variants that we’ve seen cause so much damage in Brazil and other countries where it’s become dominant, it’s of great concern,” adds Dr. Weston. 

Doctors say having a robust vaccine rollout will help stabilize hospitalization and death rates. They say getting vaccinated and taking precautions is crucial to avoiding case growths. 

“With exponential growth, the sooner you take action to address a problem that you see, the bigger impact it can have,” says Dr. Pothof. 

With spring break upon us and a holiday weekend coming up, Johnson says right now is not the time to let our guard down. 

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