Wisconsin can begin the process of reopening its economy when the state sees the number of positive COVID-19 tests, the number of infections of COVID-19 or conventional influenza, and the percentage of COVID-19 tests that are positive each decline for 14 days straight, state officials said Monday.
Additionally, the state hospital system must be free from patient overload and able to resume treating non-COVID-19 patients who are not in crisis; the number of healthcare workers infected with COVID-19 must be on the decline; and COVID-19 testing must be widely available along with extensive contact-tracing resources, Gov. Tony Evers and Andrea Palm, the secretary-designee of the state Department of Health Services (DHS), said at a media briefing.
As those goals are achieved, the state can begin a phased reopening that would allow children to return to schools and childcare centers, expand public gatherings and permit some businesses to open with rules for physical distancing in the workplace, Evers and Palm said as they introduced the state’s newest emergency order in response to the pandemic.
“All of these efforts are critically important to ensure that we can reopen our economy as soon as we safely and responsibly can, and to make sure our workers and our businesses are preparing to be open as soon as it is safe,” Evers told reporters.
Fleshing out details
The state’s “Badger Bounce Back” strategy announced Monday fleshes out details of the plan that Evers and Palm sketched on Thursday, April 16, when they extended the state Safer at Home order through Memorial Day.
“We are committed to opening up the state without opening ourselves up to a resurgence of the virus,” Palm said.
The Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. (WEDC) will offer advice and guidance to business owners on how to prepare their operations to be able to follow the necessary physical distancing requirements and other safety precautions to operate during the phase-in period, said Missy Hughes, CEO and secretary-designee for the agency.
“The Badger Bounce Back plan charges businesses with the task of preparing for the new challenges ahead — the challenge of serving customers safely, of making sure our workforce is secure and protected, and being part of the community that moves ahead,” Hughes said. “When we can be confident that we have kept our employees and our neighbors, our friends and our families safe, companies and entrepreneurs, innovators, farmers, chefs, waitresses, barbers, shopkeepers will all be ready to come back to work and our economy will truly return.”
Hughes said that 43,000 businesses in the state have been able to get $8.3 billion in credit through federal programs, while the WEDC is also working to provide grants to very small businesses that have suffered losses due to the COVID-19 outbreak and resulting shutdown.
Expanded testing and tracing
The state has made progress toward one of the objectives outlined last week — expanding testing for the novel coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 illness, Evers and Palm said.
As of Monday the state now has 36 labs able to analyze COVID-19 tests, said Palm. Companies, agencies and organizations including Exact Sciences, Epic Systems, the Marshfield Clinic Health system, the State Laboratory of Hygiene, the Wisconsin Clinical Lab Network and the City of Milwaukee Public Health Lab have been involved in helping the expansion.
The state has the capacity to run 7,239 tests a day and its capacity is expanding, working toward a goal of being able to conduct up to 85,000 tests a week. With unused testing capacity, the state is calling on healthcare providers to order tests for any patient whom they believe might benefit.
The state has procured supplies for more than 250,000 tests to be done in the coming weeks, along with another 10,000 tests from the Marshfield Clinic and a promise of 20,000 a week from Exact Sciences, Evers said, while continuing to seek more testing supplies from “every place we can.”
Evers disputed Vice President Mike Pence’s statement that the states now have enough testing supplies, however.
The Wisconsin National Guard has been deployed to collect samples for testing at locations around the state, including the House of Corrections in Milwaukee as well as at Milwaukee health clinics.
More widespread testing will provide “a better understanding of the prevalence of COVID-19 in our communities across the state,” Palm said.
The state also is working to hire up to 1,000 more healthcare workers to conduct contact tracing so that other potential infections can be identified.
Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer for the DHS communicable diseases bureau, said that it has become clearer to doctors and scientists that COVID-19 is much more easily transmitted early in the progression of the illness, making thorough contact tracing all the more important.
The state also continues to need personal protective equipment (PPE) to ensure health workers and people doing contact tracing are safe, among others. “We are pressing on every lever that we have to increase our access to PPE across the state,” said Palm.
Until the supply is sufficient, she added, the state has been working on methods for enabling the re-use of PPE by sanitizing it.
The state’s opening up strategy draws on White House and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines released on April 16, along with other documents from the American Enterprise Institute and the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.
Once the state is adequately testing, tracking, and tracking the spread of COVID-19 and has seen the 14-day consistent reduction in infections and in the number and percentage of positive tests, the state can begin a three-phase process of relaxing gathering rules, allowing up to 10 people to gather at once.
Restaurants will be permitted to open providing they observe physical distancing and other safety practices — with particular care to protect vulnerable populations, including elderly and immuno-compromised people.
Schools and childcare facilities will be allowed to open, and non-essential businesses will be able to partially open, while restrictions on essential retail businesses will be reduced.
The second phase allows taverns to open, non-essential businesses to open completely, and colleges and universities to consider reopening.
Evers said a May 1 start date for opening bars that has been proposed by the Tavern League of Wisconsin “seems like a tough row to hoe.” The time table for each phase, he added, would depend on how successful the state was at meeting the criteria set forth for reduced infections and positive COVID-19 tests, and it’s too soon to attempt to project it with any certainty.
“The virus has never given us a timeline,” Evers said.
Throughout the media briefing, the governor several times dismissed the premises of questions about protests by people critical of the state’s Safer at Home order and its extension.
About the protests, Evers said: “I cherish the First Amendment and I understand that people of goodwill will have disagreements, and this may be one place where we do disagree. But I respect their ability to use the First Amendment to express that, and I encourage them to stay physically distant from each other so they can remain safe also.”
Asked about statements by some sheriffs that they would not enforce the order — including in Racine and Shawano counties — he responded similarly.
“The idea that there’s this mass group of people that need to be arrested — that’s just not Wisconsin,” Evers said. “Most people get it. They may not like it, but they are taking this order seriously. They see that it saves lives. The bottom line is that we’re working very well with sheriff’s departments across the state to make sure they have the equipment to do the job that they need to do.”
In a joint statement Monday afternoon, Republican legislative leaders dismissed the Evers administration’s plan. The statement included factual errors while ignoring widespread recommendations from public health authorities.
“Instead of listening to the resounding outcry from the people of the state, Governor Evers is now making it harder to reopen Wisconsin,” stated Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau). “He claims to be following the CDC guidelines, but instead is expanding on them, saying we need to hire 1000 new contact tracers when positive cases aren’t significantly increasing. The governor also wants to postpone reopening until we increase testing when we are currently using only around 20% of our testing capacity. These are not criteria for reopening, they’re roadblocks.”
In fact, DHS data shows that the number of infections has been rising by about 150 to 190 cases per day, doubling about every two weeks, according to calculations posted by professor Brian Yandell, interim director of the American Family Insurance Data Science Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As of Monday afternoon, DHS reported 4,499 people with positive tests for the infection, including 230 people who have died.
DHS projections prior to the state’s social distancing measures suggested, based on the growth rate of the disease, that infections could balloon to 22,000 in the state with deaths ranging as high as 1,500.
Additionally, public health experts have said widespread testing and tracing are critical to ensuring, in the absence of a vaccine, that the spread of COVID-19 is contained. Among those experts is Dr. Anthony Fauci, the National Institutes of Health infectious disease specialist who has been the public face of U.S. scientific work to curb COVID-19. A week ago Fauci told the Associated Press that the nation should only open up once it can detect and trace new cases of the illness.