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Frustration outside health centers as city hands out final packs of free N95 masks

Posted at 6:06 PM, Jan 11, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-11 19:06:08-05

MILWAUKEE — The city has given out all N95 masks it received last week in partnership with the state.

At least at the Northwest Health Center, patience was running thin among health department workers and people there for a free pack of N95s.

"I am over 65-years-old. I get out and walk here and they say, no you don't get 'em. Get back in your car and go back around," said Tea Fells.

To drive or walk-up — that's been the main source of tension.

The City of Milwaukee has been trying to keep the mask handouts to drivers who join a queue and wait in line.

That's for safety, according to the City. Employees say some people have tried to cross busy 76th St. on foot and nearly been hit by a car. So, the rule of thumb is no walk-ups.

But people who have parked across that street, or on the same side as the healthcare center, like Fells, don't see a reason why that can't just walk up.

"Just give us the masks and send us on our way. It’s not gonna hurt 'em," said Fells. "People are getting mad and angry. Somebody is going to get hurt out here."

She may not be too far off.

Jay Labecki, who works for the health department, said people have cursed at him and threatened to hurt him.

"I understand the emergency need of these, but the compassion for others to have them, they all want more than we have available," said Labecki.

While the city did run out of free N95s on Tuesday, it said it will have a fresh batch to hand out from Thursday.

According to Labecki, some walk-ups he turned away cut holes in the mask boxes and took packs of masks while staff was preoccupied.

Other staff, who've been working at the testing sites for months, said it was the "craziest" day at the Northwest health center they've experienced. There were long lines for both testing and masks, as well as a steady flow of walk-ups for masks.

The N95s — which offer more protection than cloth or surgical masks, according to the FDA — are in high demand amid the surge of Omicron cases, record numbers for the state.

More masks may also be needed soon if the City votes for a mask mandate for indoor public spaces.

On a County/City Covid-1`9 Update Zoom call on Tuesday, Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson said he's "interested in having a conversation about a mask mandate, if it's done the right way."

He said he'd lean on health experts as to what conditions should be met to justify a mandate and for how long., but he didn't offer specifics as to what those conditions would be.

Johnson said masks are important, but he also said the best tool to fight Covid-19 is vaccination.

"Our numbers are too low, with vaccination in this city, we need to encourage more people to go and get vaccinated," he said.

The Common Council is set to vote on a mandate on January 18.

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