Gov. Tony Evers released a multifaceted proposal to tackle the surging coronavirus pandemic Tuesday as Wisconsin announced a daily record 92 deaths from the coronavirus and health officials cautioned that even when a vaccine becomes available, it will be months before most people receive it.
The Legislature has not met since April to address the pandemic, and there are few signs that Republicans are on board with what Evers put forward Tuesday.
Republicans have fought Evers nearly every step of the way over his pandemic response, including suing him over his safer-at-home order this spring and the statewide mask mandate. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos outlined Republican priorities two hours after Evers put out his proposal. He did not release any specific bills but pledged to find common ground with Evers, even as he discounted much of what Evers put forward as “more of the same.”
Evers’ proposal and Vos’ response came as the state reported 7,090 more positive COVID-19 cases and 92 more deaths. That crushed the previous high of 66 deaths set just last week. There have been 2,741 deaths from COVID-19 to date in Wisconsin and nearly 324,000 cases.
State hospitals hit a new high Tuesday with 2,277 patients and many hospitals at or near capacity.
The bill put forward by Evers would prohibit evictions and foreclosures through 2021; continue the suspension of a one-week waiting period before people can collect unemployment; allow workers, including in health care, to claim worker’s compensation benefits related to COVID-19 if they contract the illness at work; and waive student tests and school report card requirements for the current year.
Other parts of the bill Evers made public Tuesday require insurers to cover telehealth services that would be covered if they were provided in person and ensure that health plans provide coverage for COVID-19 testing, diagnosis, treatment, prescriptions and vaccines.
Vos said Tuesday he was open to coming into session next month to vote on virus-related legislation but didn’t say specifically what. Republicans said in court filings in April that they were working on proposals to combat the virus, but they have yet to release any bills.
Even if Vos and Evers found agreement, it’s not clear where the GOP-controlled Senate stands. Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, who was elected to the position less than two weeks ago, did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
Vos said he thought Republicans could find agreement with Evers on some ideas but repeatedly declined to “negotiate in public.” He raised concerns about relying on state funding rather than federal money and said Republicans want to prioritize areas such as increasing contact tracers, providing more resources for health care providers and additional assistance for businesses.
Evers and Republican legislative leaders have been unable to work together on a virus response. Republicans have fought Evers in court over his efforts to curtail the virus through a safer-at-home order, mask mandate and limits on how many people can gather indoors at bars, restaurants and other places.
Also Tuesday, with two COVID-19 vaccines racing toward approval, state health department leaders cautioned that even if doses start to be distributed by the end of the year, they will be targeted to health care workers and people in nursing homes. It will be months before others receive it, said Stephanie Schauer, manager of the state’s public health immunization program.
“It will start small and it will grow over time,” Schauer said. “This is a massive vaccination effort, and we’re going to need all hands on deck.”
People wondering when they will be in line to get vaccinated should “stay tuned” for further information, said Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy secretary of the state health department. In the meantime, she stressed that everyone should continue to take precautions to protect themselves, including wearing a mask, avoiding crowds and keeping a distance from others.
On Tuesday, Dane County banned indoor gatherings of any size and limited outdoor gatherings to no more than 10 people. The order, scheduled to run until Dec. 16, doesn’t apply to people living in the same household. It does cover in-person games, sports, competitions, group exercise classes, meetings, trainings, movies, events and conferences.
Coronavirus cases are also surging in the state’s prisons.
The state Department of Corrections reported 808 new COVID-19 cases among inmates Monday, bringing the number of active cases to 2,063.
A plan developed in the 1990s to combat the threat of bioterrorism has been modified to prepare local health care providers to administer the first COVID-19 immunizations.
Beloit Health System EMS Coordinator Jodi Moyer and Nursing Officer Sharon Cox said the health system is well positioned to receive a vaccine.
“We are ready for a vaccine whenever it comes,” Cox said. “We are dedicated to the community, and we’ve worked hard to keep them safe.”
Moyer said the Point of Dispensing, or POD, vaccine administration plan was tweaked to add social distancing safety precautions for staff and patients. The health system received a template plan from the state before it made modifications and sent the plan to the Rock County Public Health Department.
“Honestly, it was a very simple way to update our guidelines,” Moyer said. “The difference is we would have social distancing components for people as they wait to receive the vaccine.”
Cox said the health system will rely on infrastructure already in place to give flu shots and continue COVID-19 testing alongside any vaccine that becomes available. Vaccinations could be given at the Beloit Memorial Hospital campus or at alternate care sites similar to COVID-19 testing locations in Rock County and across the state.
“This is about having absolute organization of something that can be really chaotic,” Cox said. “We are ready and will adapt as the situation evolves.”
Mercyhealth is in the process of rolling out a plan to administer vaccines once they are available, spokeswoman Trish Reed said. She said it was too early to disclose details.
SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital-Janesville is also in the planning stages for vaccine administration and will offer vaccines when they are available, spokeswoman Erica Mathis said.
The Rock County Public Health Department has enrolled with the state so it can administer the vaccine “if absolutely necessary,” department spokeswoman Jessica Turner told The Gazette in an email.
Administering the vaccine is not the health department’s primary plan, Turner said. Rather, its role is to ensure everyone in the community has access to the vaccine when it is available.
Health department officials are working with federal, state and local partners to put plans in place. Officials are making sure appropriate providers are registering with the state and making adequate plans, Turner said.
“There are still some unknowns that make planning difficult, but we are putting together the best plans that we can with the available information,” she said.
The department is following guidance from the state Department of Health Services and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Turner said.
Historically, the health department has provided some vaccines for uninsured or underinsured people. Residents are typically encouraged to contact health providers to get vaccinated for other vaccine-preventable diseases.
On Tuesday, state officials shed more light on how a COVID-19 vaccine will be distributed.
Two COVID-19 vaccines are currently in development by pharmaceutical companies Moderna and Pfizer. Both have been at least 90% effective in trials, and both require two shots within a 21- to 28-day period, said Stephanie Schauer, manager for the state Division of Public Health Immunization Program.
Both companies must apply for emergency approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration before mass production can begin, and it could be months until the first phase of vaccinations is administered to frontline health care workers, first responders and long-term care facility residents.
Schauer said the first phase of vaccine distribution could start by the end of the year, but that is only if a vaccine receives FDA approval.
“The amount is going to be limited in scope, but we will see that build over time,” Schauer said, noting that the first round of doses sent to Wisconsin could number in the hundreds of thousands.
A vaccine could be available to the wider public by mid-2021 and be administered through health systems, state vaccination sites and pharmacies, Schauer said.
The state will rely on its immunization registry that is used to distribute more than $50 million worth of vaccines annually, Schauer said.
“An order would be placed in the registry, sent on to the CDC, and the number of doses would be shipped directly to the vaccinator,” she said. “It would not involve the state but the end user, as we typically do day in and day out. It’s building on an infrastructure that has really been tried and tested.”
Although the vaccine developments and planning are promising, Department of Health Services officials urge the public to continue to wear masks and practice social distancing and proper hand hygiene.
Adams Publishing Group reporter Ashley McCallum contributed to this story.
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Angry calls to the Rock County Clerk’s Office over the past week prompted Clerk Lisa Tollefson to ask the sheriff’s office for protection.
The calls started Nov. 10, the day after Eric Trump, the son of President Donald Trump, tweeted a link to a claim that the presidential election results in Rock County were wrong, Tollefson said.
Joe Biden won the county, but on election night, The Associated Press inadvertently transposed the vote totals, showing Trump with Biden’s total and vice versa.
The error was soon corrected, but at least one national news outlet posted the incorrect information for a short time.
“Since that tweet, we have been getting some very angry callers at our office, some of them yelling at us that we have the results wrong on our website,” Tollefson said when questioned by a Gazette reporter Tuesday.
Tollefson said she and her staff tried to explain what happened, but that didn’t seem to make any difference to the callers.
The fact-checking organization Politifact looked into the claim and concluded: “This claim is baseless. Rock County votes were accurately recorded.”
None of the calls included threats.
“They kind of went to the line but didn’t cross it,” said Tollefson, a Democrat.
The angry tones were also concerning, she said, and it was enough for her to become concerned for the safety of her staff and her family.
“Tollefson was concerned for retaliation from all of this,” a sheriff’s office report states.
Tollefson’s small staff handled most of the calls.
Tollefson said sometimes the callers were so loud that she could hear them on her staff members’ phones in the office that adjoins hers.
“The staff, I think, was more upset than I was,” she said
Staff members came to her Thursday, and she took those concerns to deputies the next morning.
“We explained what was happening, and they thought it would be a good idea for us to have some extra coverage,” Tollefson said.
A deputy was assigned to Tollefson’s office in the Rock County Courthouse in Janesville, and deputies were tasked with monitoring video feeds from the same area.
Deputies also were ordered to increase patrols in the area of Tollefson’s home in the town of Harmony.
The calls peaked Thursday and have since become fewer, Tollefson said Tuesday. She did not count the number of calls.
Tollefson, who has been county clerk for five years and was a town clerk before that, said she had never experienced anything like those calls.