'Here & Now' Highlights: Kelsey Florek, Jamaal Smith, Tamarine Cornelius

Here's what guests on the Feb. 4, 2022 episode had to say about sequencing variants of COVID-19, a record rise in violent crime in Milwaukee and the stalled extension of the enhanced Child Tax Credit.

By Frederica Freyberg | Here & Now

February 7, 2022

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From left to right, a split screen with Frederica Freyberg and Jamaal Smith seated in different locations

Frederica Freyberg and Jamaal Smith (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

Wisconsin health officials announce a new omicron subvariant has been found in the state and a genomic scientist with the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene said as they find new strains, it helps inform public health response. Violent crime in Milwaukee surged with the pandemic and the city health department’s Office of Violence Prevention stressed that it’s an “all hand on deck” effort to curb the problem. An expanded Child Tax Credit is part of a larger bill now stalled in Congress and an analyst from the Wisconsin Budget Project said the extra money received by families lifted tens of thousands of children in the state out of poverty.

Kelsey Florek
Genomics scientist, Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene

  • A new omicron subvariant has surfaced in Wisconsin, thought to be one-and-a-half times more transmissible than the original strain that causes COVID-19. The state hygiene lab sequences 500 samples a week on the lookout for known and emerging variants.
  • Florek: “The covid virus is still relatively new. It’s only been around for obviously a few years here, and we’ve been really trying to better understand what some of these mutations could mean as far as what types of effects these mutations could have downstream. We’re getting closer and closer to being able to identify certain markers that we need to be concerned about. But there’s still a lot of science that needs to be done to better understand these markers and going forward know what these mutations might have in store for us.”
  • If the new omicron variant is more contagious, a question arises: What does that mean for the possibility of another surge at a time when the most recent spike is on the decline?
  • Florek: “It has been reported to be more transmissible. But what we’ve seen so far, at least with the evidence, is that there seems to be some cross-reaction happening between the two viruses. So even though it’s more contagious, it seems like it’s still largely very similar to the omicron variant we just recently saw the peak of in terms of virulence and our cause for concern.”


Jamaal Smith
Violence prevention manager, City of Milwaukee Office of Violence Prevention

  • Violent crime is on the rise across the country and in Wisconsin. In Milwaukee, after a mass shooting that killed six people on Jan. 23, the county Medical Examiner said the city is on pace to see 300 homicides in 2022 after a record 197 homicides in 2021.
  • Smith: “Prior to the pandemic, Milwaukee was on a four-year historic decline, with even 2018 and 2019 seeing less than 100 homicides. Now once the covid pandemic hit,. we certainly saw this astronomical rise of violence. We saw a number of guns that were in our communities. We saw people who were feeling pain from the pandemic in possession of a weapon that inflicts pain on others as well as themselves. So when we really look at the impact of violence that’s happening within the city of Milwaukee, it’s really just a reflection of the amount of pain, the anguish, the frustration and anger that exists from the emotional turmoil of the covid pandemic, as well as a lot of generational and current trauma that many people have experienced. It’s just been exacerbated throughout this pandemic. So that’s why we unfortunately see this historic rise within the city.”
  • There is political finger-pointing over the rise in violent crime, which people who work to stem it say doesn’t help. As for the circumstances on the ground for such violence prevention workers – it hurts.
  • Smith: “It’s maddening. It’s frustrating and it’s hurtful, because not only as someone who works in the Office of Violence Prevention, but as a husband and a father, right? That concerns me as well in terms of the protection of my wife and my son, in addition to my family members, as well as other people in the community. So, it’s really understanding the fact that there’s so much pain existing in our city. … Having arguments and focusing on this from a political aspect, this is not what we need right now. We really need to create those spaces or focus on developing an ecosystem of collaboration that helps address prevention from a public health lens. We want to see better in the city. Everybody in the city wants better in the city. If that’s the case and we are all concerned about the health and the safety and the sanctity of the city, Milwaukee, then all of us are responsible to see that that happens.”


Tamarine Cornelius
Analyst, Wisconsin Budget Project

  • The U.S. Senate has not taken action on the $2 trillion spending bill passed in the U.S. House called the Build Back Better Act and proposed by President Joe Biden. In that bill, the continuation of the enhanced Child Tax Credit given to families over most of the last half of 2021. That credit provided up to $3,600 annually for younger children and $3,000 for older children in a household. In Wisconsin, more than one million children were recipients of the expanded tax credit.
  • Cornelius: “At least one senator has expressed concern that families might not be making wise decisions with how that money is spent. There’s two responses to that. One is that families know best what they need to support themselves and how to spend their budgets, and to suggest otherwise, I think, is just incredibly out of touch with the decisions that parents make every day and tradeoffs for the well-being of their families. The second part is that we know how families spend their money from the tax credit. The top three things that they spend their money on: Number one is food, so groceries. Number two is utilities — literally keeping the lights on or heat on. And number three is rent, which is keeping a roof over their families’ heads. So what we see is that a lot of these tax credit payments went to support very basic needs to strengthen families.”
  • National studies have shown that approximately 3.7 million children were lifted out of poverty in December 2021 because of the enhanced Child Tax Credit with an estimated decline in child poverty of nearly 30%.
  • Cornelius: “In Wisconsin, that translates to lifting about 45,000 kids out of poverty. That’s enough to fit every fill, every seat in American Family Field with a little left over. … It’s especially important for kids of color — because of historic and current discrimination in the labor market and in the health care system and education systems — often have lower wages and are more likely to live in poverty. So for those kids it has a special, an especially intense effect on those kids.”


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