Office of Emergency Management briefs Milwaukee County supervisors

By: - March 25, 2020 6:53 pm
Office of Emergency Management logo (courtesy of Milwaukee County website)

Office of Emergency Management logo (courtesy of Milwaukee County website)

Milwaukee County’s Board of Supervisors held its first ever online meeting on Tuesday, March 24, to review the latest developments as the coronavirus pandemic spreads across Wisconsin.

This first meeting, which was also live streamed, is a milestone for a couple reasons. For one, it served as a practice run for online monthly board meetings. It also offered the county supervisors an opportunity to hear a thorough briefing by Christine Westrich, director of the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management (MCOEM), on the COVID-19 situation locally.

In response to the spread of the virus in Milwaukee, the emergency management office has gathered health experts from various local communities, and is also in communication with leaders in the criminal justice system. Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm, Westrich said, is “working very, very closely with all of our police chiefs about what enforcement looks like,” specifically, when it comes to the ‘Safer at Home’ order, which went into effect statewide on Wednesday morning.

Public-health and law-enforcement responses to the pandemic are being organized under what Westrich describes as a “unified operations center,” independent of a smaller, county-focused emergency operation center. Every city and village within Milwaukee County’s borders currently has an emergency operations center. The emergency management office is also communicating with, and working alongside, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

If you live in Milwaukee and received an emergency alert yesterday warning of the order, it was the emergency management office’s work. “The response on social media has been very good,” says Westrich. “People heed and comply more readily when they do receive these types of alerts on their cellular device. We find that is actually very successful.”

A wide variety of organizations are in communication with the emergency management office, including groups that are calling senior citizens at county senior centers to check on them, Meals On Wheels and advocates for the homeless.

Westrich has also been in talks involving the status of General Mitchell International Airport in the coming weeks. Although the airport remains open, along with Timmerman Airport and the National Guard’s aerial refueling unit, Westrich says airport officials report a significant reduction in airline traffic. Many concession stands are closed but a few remain open, “their footprint is getting smaller,” says Westrich.

With much of the county and state shutting down, a big concern is the economic impact COVID-19. Milwaukee County remains responsible for about 12.5% of the total cost of the COVID-19 response.

County supervisors, like many people across the planet, have a lot of questions about how to proceed. Supv. Sequanna Taylor (Dist. 2) asked about the availability of personal protective equipment in the county for bus drivers and other essential workers. Dr. Ben Weston, the emergency management office’s medical director, said that protective gear is in short supply worldwide, and is being prioritized to medical workers, police personnel and others on the “front line.”

Weston suggests that future creative solutions to the problem might include donations of gloves and masks from shuttered tattoo parlors and nail salons. Another possibility involves companies specializing in 3D printing to begin producing masks.

“We have disasters all the time that put strains on PPE [personal protective equipment], whether it’s a tornado, hurricane or whatever it is,” says Weston. “But those are in a very defined geographic area, so everyone can pitch in. There’s state stockpiles, there’s national strategic stockpiles, and those usually fill those gaps without a problem. This is obviously different because everybody is in the same situation.”

Taylor has called on Evers to suspend rent, mortgage and utility payments. “In these challenging times, when people are focused on following government directives to protect their health, worried for their family’s safety, and anxious about their financial security, no one should have to worry about losing the roof over their heads,” said Taylor. “Everyone deserves to know that they are safe and secure in their homes and won’t end up on the street due to foreclosure, or failure to pay rent or utility bills, especially when we are asked to stay home to protect the safety and health of everyone in our community.” Taylor is circulating an on-line petition, which gained more than 600 signatures in one day.

Another issue that came up at the Milwaukee County Board meeting is hazard pay, a term often used in military combat situations. Supvs. Taylor and Supreme Moore Omokunde (Dist. 10) wondered if essential workers, including bus drivers and grocery workers qualify. Westrich explained that these groups, at least right now, are not getting any additional pay. Hazard pay for correctional officers and police personnel are addressed in their collective bargaining agreements, explained Milwaukee County Corporation Counsel Margaret Daun.

Increasing the number of hospital beds is also a growing concern. Westrich says numerous options are being considered, from hotels to other large buildings. Adding up the hotels that have offered space Westrich says, “that might be about 80 beds.” Right now the number of extra beds which have been located stands at around 300, with a state search team attempting to locate a 1,000-bed location.

The Office of Emergency Management is also considering the Franklin Sports Center as a possible location for patient overflow, a proposal that drew the ire of county supervisors from the area who said they were not consulted about the idea. Westrich noted it was a new concept, and there is not a well  developed plan.

She also touched on the authority local health officers may gain as COVID-19 spreads through the community, under state statute 252. “The sub-chapters within that Wisconsin statute are very robust, and they have very broad authority,” explained Westrich. “They can issue quarantine orders, they can get police powers to any health officer or coordinator that is staffed under them. And that applies to even, say, the City of Greenfield. They can empower their health officer staff to have police powers and be quarantine guards. That being said, I am very confident that here locally, we would do everything we could to keep our current measures in place.”

President Donald Trump has said he might want to end the quarantine measures to kick-start the economy again. But Daun noted that the president’s ability to order an end to state-level shelter-in-place measures would be very limited, if not totally ineffective.

Particularly when it comes to the continuation of a declared state of emergency, “the federal government literally has no control,” she said. “Even if the state emergency declaration were to expire,” she explained, Milwaukee County’s declared emergency would continue as long as the county executive and local health officers felt necessary. Daun says the president, “does not have, legally, a direct line of authority to command governors, local chief executives or local health officials to declare the emergency over.”

Researchers are continuously gathering fresh data and information on COVID-19, including who it affects and how. In Milwaukee County there have been 268 confirmed cases at the time of this writing, a figure that dwarfs numbers in every other county with reported positive cases.

The majority of the people who have tested positive are between the ages of 40 and 49, at 58 cases. There are 41 cases among people between the ages of 20 and 29, and 47 cases among those  from 50 to 59 years old. Four children between the ages of 10 and 19 have tested positive, and 22 elderly people between the ages of 70-79 along with  four who are 80 or older. People who worked in the Milwaukee transit system and the police department have recently tested positive.

Four deaths have been reported in the county, among the seven reported so far statewide.

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.