Milwaukee issues mask advisory; omicron variant concerns grow

The City of Milwaukee Health Department issued on Tuesday, Nov. 30 a mask advisory. This is in anticipation of future identification of the omicron COVID-19 variant in Milwaukee – and due to the burden of positive COVID-19 cases remaining in the extreme transmission category.

"This advisory is to wear a mask at all times indoors in a public setting," said Kirsten Johnson, Milwaukee Health Commissioner.

This advisory applies to all individuals in the city of Milwaukee over the age of two years who are able to medically tolerate wearing a mask – regardless of vaccination status. it comes after Wisconsin surpassed on Tuesday 9,000 deaths from COVID-19. Milwaukee health officials say Wisconsin has the fourth worst rate of COVID-19 positivity at this time.

"The entire western part of our state has zero ICU beds available," said Dr. Ben Weston from the Medical College of Wisconsin.

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Is a mask mandate in Milwaukee's future? The health commissioner said there would have to be a significant spike in cases for that to be considered. Right now, the biggest concern is the omicron variant. Health leaders say the variant has many mutations that make it different from others.

"What we do not yet know is the severity of the variant. Is it more or less likely than the delta variant to put you in the hospital? We also don’t yet know the ability of the variant to evade the immune response particularly how effective our vaccines will be against it," Weston said.

This is why health officials are pushing for everyone to get the COVID-19 vaccine and booster as soon as possible.

Right now, there are no known cases of the omicron variant in Milwaukee County.

What do we know about omicron?

By Sunday, U.N. health agency issued a statement on omicron that boiled down to: We don't know much yet.

It said it wasn't clear whether omicron is more transmissible — more easily spread between people — compared to other variants like the highly transmissible delta variant. It said it wasn't clear if infection with omicron causes more severe disease, even as it cited data from South Africa showing rising rates of hospitalization there — but that could just be because more people are getting infected with COVID-19, not specifically omicron.

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From just over 200 new confirmed cases per day in recent weeks, South Africa saw the number of new daily cases rocket to more than 3,200 on Saturday, most in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province.

"There is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with omicron are different from those from other variants," WHO said. It said there's no evidence — yet — that COVID vaccines, tests and treatments are any less effective against the new version.

Associated Press contributed to this report.

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