'Reality check:' Health officials stress continued COVID-19 safety

A vaccine for COVID-19 could be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for emergency use by the end of the week.

For a lot of people, the vaccine represents hope. But Milwaukee leaders say that hope may be having some unintended consequences.

Since Thanksgiving, on average fewer people are getting tested for COVID-19 each day in Milwaukee County. The lines are getting shorter at the Miller Park drive-thru testing site, but that isn't necessarily a good thing.

"I want to, too, give us a reality check. In that, we are still months away from larger, general scale vaccinations," said Marlaina Jackson, interim Milwaukee health commissioner.

Two weeks ago, Milwaukee County was averaging around 7,000 tests per day. Now, the average is around 4,400.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett

"The testing numbers are going down, but we're not seeing a corresponding decrease in the percentage of people testing positive. That means, unfortunately, that this disease, this pandemic is still in full throttle," Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said.

Currently, around 14% of daily tests are coming back positive for COVID-19. Health officials say that that is the most reliable indicator that things are getting worse.

"This is likely the beginning effects of Thanksgiving gatherings that we are starting to see and likely the tip of a larger iceberg to come," said Dr. Ben Weston with the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management.

City and county leaders say it is hard to measure the true impact of Thanksgiving when fewer people are getting tested for COVID-19. They worry that excitement over a vaccine is getting in the way of stopping the virus right now.

"There might be a natural tendency to let our guard down, to say 'oh, oh, we got this covered' because the vaccine is coming," Barrett said. "We also should know, and people should know, that even in a best-case scenario getting this vaccine out to as many people who need it is essentially a half year-project."

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Milwaukee health officials are still working with the state to finalize a vaccine distribution plan. At this point, the city does not know how many doses it will get from the state's first shipment.

As for testing, a new site will soon open for essential employees at the Mitchell Park Pavillion. Both city and county leaders say that testing is an important tool to control the virus.

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