MILWAUKEE — For the first time in months, the Milwaukee Health Department shows the city is back in the high COVID-19 transmission category due to cases climbing over the past week.
Meanwhile the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still considers Milwaukee County to have a low level of community spread.
Let’s go in-depth to explain the different criteria being used at the local and national level that’s resulting in conflicting messages.
The city of Milwaukee is back in the red when it comes to COVID transmission, meaning cases are climbing by the day with the omicron sub-variant leading the charge. Dr. Dimmy Sokhal says Hayat’s south-side pharmacy is seeing the trend in real-time.
“The month of February and March were very calm, not a lot of people were testing,” she said. "The positive cases had gone down too. For example if we were testing 50 to 60 people, it was like one or two cases that were coming back positive for the PCR test through the state program. But now for every 60-70 people, we’re testing - it’s around 10 to 15 people who are coming back positive, which is from 15-20 percent positivity rate.”
Milwaukee’s health department data shows the city has surpassed its threshold of 100 or more cases per 100,000 residents, putting Milwaukee at a high rate of COVID transmission.
But the CDC still shows Milwaukee County to be at a low level of transmission. UW Health Infection Prevention Director Dr. Dan Shirley says the two sets of guidance can be puzzling.
“It’s confusing,” he said. "We’ve had multiple meetings, even in our hospital, with people that have been following this all along and these levels and this risk is confusing."
The CDC switched its community spread level guidance a couple months ago, increasing the threshold for high transmission to 200 cases per 100,000 residents in each county, while also factoring in Covid hospitalization rates and in-patient bed vacancies.
“That has more to do with should we have mask mandates for indoors across the board,” Dr. Shirley said about the CDC community transmission levels.
The Wisconsin Hospital Association shows 203 people are hospitalized with COVID statewide, which is way down from mid-January when there were more than 2,200 COVID patients.
Dr. Shirley says that’s likely because the Omicron sub-variant is typically less severe and a large portion of the population has either already been infected, vaccinated or both.
“We’re of course watching for hospitalizations to see if they trend up, but now it’s been several weeks of rising cases in the community and if anything, it’s ticked up just a little bit, but nothing like it was during the big omicron surge,” Dr. Shirley said.
Back at Hayat, Dr. Sokhal says Milwaukee area residents are better off basing their masking and large gathering decisions on the Milwaukee Health Department’s current transmission rate.
“I would definitely say looking at the local numbers makes far more sense because we’re a densely populated city,” she said.
Milwaukee’s Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson told city leaders Thursday that she expects Milwaukee to climb above 200 cases per 100,000 residents by next week. Once again, that is one of the main criteria for the CDC to consider an area to have a high level of community spread.