By Senator Lena C. Taylor
On March 8, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett held a rare Sunday press conference. Along with the city’s Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik and Congresswoman Gwen Moore, the group wanted to discuss COVID-19 or coronavirus, as many have come to refer to this infectious disease.
Barrett called for everyone to remain calm, seemed confident about the meager testing kits we have on hand and warned residents about trips to Chicago. You see, the neighboring state of Illinois has confirmed 25 COVID-19 cases since March 11. I was struck by the simplicity and brevity of the mayor’s remarks. He said he had checked on the availability of extra hospital beds. We didn’t hear a plan or capability voiced about aggressive testing. In fact, the process described by the city was somewhat restrictive. We were told that Milwaukee has enough testing kits to cover about 200 test per week. This is a city of roughly 600,000 people. When the press conference concluded, I just stared at the television with tons of questions racing through my head.
Did the mayor assemble and meet with as many key stakeholders, as possible? How long ago did those conversations stake place? What is his plan to limit the possibility of community spread of the coronavirus? Could residents have been provided clearer direction and information about what to do if they suspected they may have contracted the disease or come in contact with an infected person? We heard that money was being dispatched to the states within 30 days. How much would Wisconsin be receiving? What would it be earmarked for? In a period of 30 days, hundreds more people could become infected. What’s the strategy to provide critical city services, in the event of a major outbreak? I can’t speak for anyone else, but I had more questions than answers.
Once again, the City of Milwaukee was reacting to a problem. Instead of getting out in front of an issue, we’ve waited for the coronavirus to walk right up to our door. It feels like the lead lateral crisis, just dressed up with a N95 Respirator face mask. Much like water filters, it’s not enough. Some will take solace that Barrett called on Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers to declare a public health emergency. He said the declaration would get us extra gloves, wipes, and those N95 Respirator masks.
Equally, we need to stop reacting and start leading. The writing has been on the walls for weeks, if not months. We were fortunate that Wisconsin had only confirmed one case, until this week. However, we had a front row seat to the toll coronavirus was taking on other states, countries and nations. While they were on the front lines of the battle, we had time to draw up a battle or contingency plan. In listening to the City of Milwaukee’s press conference, it appears we missed another opportunity to effectively lead on another critical public health crisis.