With COVID-19 continuing to soar in Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers warned Wisconsin residents on Thursday that they need to stay home as much as possible.
A little more than six months ago, he clothed the same preventive measure in an executive order that carried the weight of law. But since the state Supreme Court stripped the administration’s power to do that in May, Evers has had to fall back on persuading people to pay attention and comply voluntarily.
“As a result of that decision by the Supreme Court, we lost most if not all of our ability to mitigate against this virus,” Evers told reporters Thursday, in the second COVID-19 media briefing that he and the state Department of Health Services (DHS) held this week. “And so we are spending our time making sure that our partners and communities — whether it’s business partners, whether it’s other partners — all get the word out that we need to have compliance.”
Evers added: “At the end of the day, we don’t want people to die. We don’t want people to have recently become positive COVID-19 patients. And the only way we can do that is if we have people taking individual responsibility to wear masks, don’t go into places where there’s a bunch of people without masks in a small area, do hand washing — all the things that are pretty simple.”
Those necessary yet mundane weapons face a virus that has raged out of control in Wisconsin over the last month.
“COVID-19 is a highly infectious disease, and it is spreading in our state,” said DHS Secretary-designee Andrea Palm. “It is stretching our hospital capacity, and it is overwhelming our public health infrastructure. We must take action.”
Wisconsin set new records this week: 27 newly reported COVID-19 deaths on Wednesday, and 2,887 new cases confirmed on Thursday, along with 21 more deaths. Altogether the state has now confirmed 125,161 cases since the start of the pandemic, and deaths now stand at 1,348.
And while the latest surge started in early September on college campuses with students returning, it’s now gone far beyond that.
“Yes, we have campus spread,” Evers told reporters. “But we have community spread at the same time.”
In a recent conversation with Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, “she said we are one of the two states that have both of those things happening at the same time,” Evers said.
Evers lamented the weekend rallies that were being planned by President Donald Trump’s campaign: “I encourage him with all the strength I have to make sure that people that are there wear a mask or don’t let them in.” Hours later, Trump disclosed overnight that he and First Lady Melania Trump had both tested positive for COVID-19 and were isolating, with planned rallies in Green Bay and Janesville being canceled.
As hospitalizations for the illness surge along with the number of cases, Evers and Palm reinstated an order issued in the early weeks of the pandemic, allowing health care providers who are licensed in other states to practice in Wisconsin without getting a separate Wisconsin license. Palm said it was necessary due to “surging hospitalizations and staffing shortages.”
The strain on the healthcare system is especially acute in the Fox Valley and northeastern Wisconsin. At Thursday’s briefing, Dr. Imran Andrabi, president and CEO of ThedaCare, a hospital and healthcare network serving that part of the state, described how swiftly the pandemic had spread in the last month.
“Four weeks ago, I had 13 COVID patients in our hospitals. Today I have 64,” he said. In ThedaCare’s seven hospitals throughout the region, 95% of the beds are occupied, he added — not just with COVID-19 patients, but with people who have all the other conditions and illnesses that demand attention at any other time.
ThedaCare has 6,800 employees, according to the company’s website, and on Thursday, 250 could not come to work because of the illness — “not because they are getting infected while they are at work,” Andrabi said, but because they had been exposed in their community on their off hours.
“If everybody is not masking, you get infected, or you get exposed to something in the community, and then they cannot come back to work and take care of people,” the hospital CEO said. “It’s not just the number of beds that are available. It’s also the people that actually serve the people in that bed.”
Giving up on the GOP
Even with the latest COVID-19 surge, Evers made it clear that he has all but given up on the willingness of Republican leaders in the Legislature — who brought the lawsuit that led to the high court’s 4-3 ruling on May 13 ending the state’s Safer at Home order — to support any statewide restrictions.
Evers acknowledged that he has not directly asked them recently to consider any new measures. But by their reactions to the mandate that he is still relying on — the requirement for everyone who can to wear face masks in public — he doesn’t expect them to have changed their position.
After the governor’s first mask order Aug. 1, and again after a new one on Sept. 22, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) said the Senate’s Republican majority was ready to come into session to override the mandate.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) has declined to join the demand either time, but he predicted “legal challenges from citizen groups” after the first order and called the new mandate “illegal.”
Fulfilling Vos’s prediction, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) — which has frequently sided with the Republicans on legal challenges to Evers’ authority — sued to block the mandate in late August. On Monday, Oct. 5, a Polk County judge will hold a hearing on WILL’s motion for a temporary injunction to block both the original and the new mask orders and any subsequent health emergency declarations as a result of COVID-19.
Neither Vos nor Fitzgerald are listed as parties in the WILL lawsuit, but Evers, in his comments Thursday, made no such distinction.
“They’ve made it very clear,” the governor said of the legislative Republicans. “We’re in court right now with them — they’re trying to take away the most recent mask order.”
Many Republican lawmakers have declared their opposition to requiring masks, “so there’s nothing new in that world,” Evers said. “I’ll be glad to work with them — if they’ve changed their mind. I don’t think they have.”
Appealing to local leaders
Viewing the Legislature’s majority as an unwilling partner, the administration is instead reaching out to local communities. On Wednesday and again on Thursday, Evers and Palm held conference calls with local elected officials as well as business leaders around the state.
“We’re asking these leaders to take action to help stop the spread in our state by implementing policies in their communities and their workplaces,” said Palm. Along with those discussions, DHS rolled out an expansion of the data published on its website and a new guide to mitigation strategies for local communities.
Depending on the severity of local COVID-19 spread, the guide suggests that local authorities institute a range of policies. Where viral transmission and the burden of the disease on community resources are high or very high, the guide suggests a number of “very high mitigation” responses, such as closing bars and restaurants to indoor customers and barring all indoor gatherings beyond the immediate household, among several other measures. Where illness is less active and its burden lower, they may be able to shift to moderate- or low-mitigation strategies.
“We commit to providing these tools and we need local leaders to commit to taking action,” Palm said.
Business leaders on the calls also were reminded about guidance documents from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. (WEDC) on how to keep workplaces safe for employees.
“By doing that they help that business stay economically strong, and they help their communities stay economically strong,” Evers said. He said they also were encouraged “to examine whether there are opportunities for them to take a leadership role in mitigation above and beyond what they’re doing.”
Evers said he told the local business and government officials about White House reports warning of the state’s sharp increase in cases, the “exponential” spread of the virus and the way the spread had gone beyond the bounds of college and university campuses where it had erupted in early September.
“I’m just hopeful that our conversations around the importance of this will bear fruit and that the leaders at the local level and regional level can help not only their employees but the people living in their parts of the state [see] that this is serious stuff.”