Evers urges lawmakers to convene as state readies for surge in patients

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    Gov. Tony Evers answers questions at a DHS media briefing aired on YouTube Monday, March 30, 2020. (YouTube screengrab)

    As the state braces for an expected surge in COVID-19 patients, Gov. Tony Evers reiterated his call Monday for the state Legislature to return to session, but stopped short of pinning down a date.

    The state is still preparing for a sharp influx of patients, both those who need acute care and those who have symptoms and need to be isolated to avoid spreading the illness, said Evers and state Department of Health Services (DHS) Secretary-designee Andrea Palm. Wisconsin is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to set up field hospitals to accommodate the overflow if existing hospitals fill to capacity.

    “We are headed into the worst of this and the need is only going to get greater,” Evers said.

    As of Monday afternoon, DHS reported more than 1,200 people with confirmed infections from the novel coronavirus, including 14 fatalities. (Individual counties’ reports total more, but the additional deaths hadn’t been reported to the state as of 12:30 p.m., the DHS’s daily cutoff time for updating its numbers.)

    In the meantime, the administration has asked state agencies to submit information about their anticipated needs in personnel and resources to meet the fallout from the pandemic.

    Legislative Fiscal Bureau Director Bob Lang, in a memo to legislative leaders, estimated that “based on its 2019 population, the state of Wisconsin could receive an estimated $2,258 million in federal funds” from the new $2 trillion COVID-19 relief legislation signed by President Donald Trump last week. 

    While that will be “a great first step” for the state, Evers said, “even with these federal dollars we will still need solutions at the state and local level” to combat the effects of the disease on the community and the economy as well as on patients.

    Those solutions include “greater flexibility for DHS to act rapidly and ensure folks are getting the care they need without any unnecessary barriers, such as preauthorization requirements,” Evers said.

    The administration has drafted a proposed joint resolution to extend the public health emergency declared March 12 past the 60-day limit currently provided for under state law. A separate preliminary draft bill includes a wide range of provisions, addressing funding, election laws, workplace regulations and other items during the emergency.

    Evers said Monday that among the top priorities is the Department of Workforce Development (DWD), which last week logged 115,000 new preliminary unemployment insurance applications and 1.5 million telephone calls to the state unemployment insurance call center — an increase of more than 6,200% over the average weekly call volume.

    DWD has already increased its phone capacity to allow up to 690 calls at one time and increased staff from 57 to 92 to serve jobless pay applicants, but the department needs at least 80 more staff to field and triage calls, Evers said at a DHS medial briefing on the COVID-19 crisis.

    Asked when he’d like the legislature to come into session, Evers declined to set a specific date beyond “as soon as possible.”

    “We continue to work with the Legislature to make them understand the needs that exist at the state level, to make sure that we serve the people of Wisconsin in the best way possible,” Evers said. “Waiting weeks and weeks, I don’t think serves that purpose, but we will continue to brief legislators and staff members. Hopefully we’ll get there in the near future.”

    Erik Gunn
    Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.