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Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

COVID-19 claims more than 2,300 Milwaukee County lives since first case reported three years ago

By Devi Shastri, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,


Three years ago, on March 13, 2020, Milwaukee County logged its first known case of COVID-19, sparking a painful chapter of history that would leave no aspect of daily life untouched.

The pandemic, for many, warped our sense of time: simultaneously making that day feel like it was just yesterday or, perhaps, a lifetime ago.

By the next day, a second case had been identified, before the count rose to the dozens, hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands.

And there is the grimmest number of all: 2,345 deaths in Milwaukee County.

Dr. Ben Weston, the county's chief health policy advisor who helped guide the county through the pandemic, marked the anniversary of the county's first COVID-19 case Tuesday with an acknowledgement of the difficulties that the pandemic brought.

"We've all been through a life-altering segment of our collective history," Weston said. "It's been challenging, frustrating, and at times heartbreaking."

But there are reasons to be thankful, Weston said.

Among those: As the county enters its fourth year of the pandemic, COVID-19 hospitalizations are at the lowest point in the past 10 months. It's been a year since the last significant surge in hospitalizations, Weston added.

The availability of vaccines and boosters , anti-viral medications , the evolution of the virus to cause less severe disease ― though it is also more transmissible ― and a better understanding of how to treat COVID-19 have all changed the way in which the disease is impacting the county.

More: Health experts optimistic that even if COVID cases rise, hospitalizations and deaths should remain under control

There is cause for celebration, Weston said. But also, a need to remain cautious and vigilant.

Here are his recommendations as the county enters year four of the pandemic.

Celebrate, but remain vigilant, especially to protect those most vulnerable

While COVID-19 hospitalization rates continue to improve, we have to remember that the virus can be unpredictable, Weston said.

Continued public health precautions, like choosing to wear a high-quality mask in public spaces, can help protect individuals and their communities.

More: 'A perfect storm': African Americans in Milwaukee, already facing health disparities, hit hard by coronavirus

It's especially important, Weston said, to take "continued caution among vulnerable populations and in high-risk settings as deaths in these populations continue at far too high a rate."

The pandemic threatened more than just people's health, Weston acknowledged. Children, especially, faced the difficulty of remote education, isolation, even the loss of a parent or caregiver.

"What we can do moving forward, is keep our immunity as high as possible ― our kids' immunity and our own immunity ― to prevent getting COVID, prevent getting long COVID and prevent that sort of loss in the future as well," he said.

Get vaccinated, and stay up-to-date

Being up-to-date on COVID-19 vaccinations today means making sure you've gotten one bivalent COVID-19 booster, the shot that is tailored to the omicron variant.

More: New omicron-specific COVID-19 vaccine booster shots are available in Wisconsin. Here's what you should know about them.

Those shots first became available in the fall. But many have still not gotten them: only 18% of people got the booster in Milwaukee County.

Looking at people 65 and older ― considered at higher risk for COVID-19 complications ― only about half have gotten their bivalent booster.

"If we want to target a group, that is the group to target," Weston said. "Talk to your parents, talk to your grandparents, your neighbors."

It's hard to know for certain, but Weston said it's likely that COVID-19 vaccines will be recommended annually, like the flu shot.

"We're at that time period, where for a lot of folks, myself included, it's been probably around eight months since I got my last booster," he said. "And so is my immunity starting to wane or am I still quite protected? There's differing data out there."

Still, having the one bivalent booster is currently considered up-to-date, and those who have had that shot are considered the most protected.

Mask if you get COVID, and stay home for at least five days

For those who get COVID-19, recommendations for isolation have remained the same for several months.

People who test positive for COVID-19 should stay home for at least five days, and wear a high-quality mask (N-95, not a cloth mask), for the next five days.

If you're still testing positive on an at-home test, it's likely you can still spread the virus to others, Weston said.

"The studies show that it's quite variable. Some people after four days are no longer contagious and can go out and socialize. Some people it takes 12 or 13 days," Weston said. "So, if you want to be as cautious as possible, coupling that isolation period with a negative antigen test is going to be important."

Contact Devi Shastri at 414-224-2193 or . Follow her on Twitter at @DeviShastri .

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: COVID-19 claims more than 2,300 Milwaukee County lives since first case reported three years ago

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