By Senator Lena C. Taylor
Local media recently reported that a number of Milwaukee area residents/families who tested positive or had a family member succumb to COVID-19, have not been contacted by the Milwaukee Health Department to begin the process of contact tracing. Understanding the critical role that these steps play in reducing community spread, it is extremely frustrating to that the City of Milwaukee is not better positioned to capture this information.
Further, it is absolutely unacceptable that the Milwaukee Health Department has yet to perform even the most basic contact tracing on the city’s first casualty, Mr. Lawrence Riley. The retired Milwaukee firefighter and well-known community member, passed away 40 days ago. It is impossible to believe that not one of the 19 city workers or additional staff offered by the state, has made their way around to talking to a single member of his family. The Riley family has said that not a single family member has received a call or message from the Milwaukee Health Department.
Compounding the frustration is the city’s attempt to partially blame the victims or their families for their failures. The assertion that contact tracing hasn’t happened because people don’t answer a phone call, when city workers are trying to call them, isn’t a good enough excuse. The Health Department opines that residents don’t answer phone calls when the phone number shows up private or unknown. The department states it tries to call potentially impacted people three times, over the course of several days. While I’m assuming there is a record of contact attempts, I would like to see what was done in the Riley contact tracing situation. I am hopeful that the Milwaukee Common Council will request that information because we have been quick to blame members of the African American community for not taking COVID-19 seriously enough.
However, outreach efforts to the impacted communities have been lacking. The need for credible messengers to engage residents has been limited. Social media has not been fully engaged, nor has alternate forms of communication, to convey the disparate impact on communities of color. We need to put the information where residents can best access it. We need to think out of the box in reaching out to impacted communities. We should increase the number of contact attempts from three to six, use robocalls or make home visits. Bottom line, what we’ve been doing isn’t working. When we haven’t begun contact tracing on the first Milwaukeean who died on March 19, and now it is May, Milwaukee we have a problem.”