Gov. Tony Evers on Tuesday unveiled his plan for spending $1 billion in federal funds to combat COVID-19 in Wisconsin.
The money will be used to fund ongoing virus testing efforts, conduct contact tracing, purchase supplies, provide resources and prepare for a surge. The spending plan comes a day after Evers dropped plans to work with the state Legislature to pass a new statewide rule to slow the spread of the virus.
There is no statewide safer-at-home order after the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck it down last week, leaving a patchwork of local restrictions.
“Regardless of the political overtones of the past week, we still know what we need to do to box in this virus and help keep people safe,” Evers said in a statement. “Our statewide approach to containing the spread of COVID-19 will continue with robust testing and contact tracing efforts in all corners of Wisconsin, resources that ensure our critical workers have the equipment they need to do their jobs safely, and direct investments in local communities and health providers. Wisconsin’s Safer At Home order may have ended, but our all-out war on this virus has not.”
About $260 million in federal money will be used to expand testing, including providing free tests at hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, local public health departments and elsewhere.
Another $50 million will go to local public health departments to hire additional staff to track down people who have come into contact with those who tested positive. The remaining money will be used to hire staff at the state level and purchase equipment.
An additional $150 million is being used to pay for personal protective equipment, such as masks, gloves and gowns. The state was also spending $40 million on ventilators and holding $445 million in reserve and to prepare for an expected surge in cases over the summer and fall.
As of Tuesday, there were 467 deaths from COVID-19 and nearly 13,000 confirmed cases, the state Department of Health Services reported.
Also Tuesday, the state Department of Workforce Development reported that since mid-March, interest has exploded in a state program that helps small businesses keep people employed even as work drops.
More than 14,000 workers have signed up to receive partial unemployment benefits funded by the federal government under the Work-Share program. There are now 342 Work-Share plans in place compared with 20 before the pandemic.
“This is a really great program that I’m almost evangelic about when I talk about it,” U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, who is also a small business owner, told The Associated Press.
Pocan said still too few businesses know about the program and its benefits, but he predicted that its use will spike as loans paid to businesses under the federal Paycheck Protection Program run out in early June.
Work-Share allows employers to retain workers during slow business periods by reducing their hours and allowing them to file for partial unemployment benefits. The workers can retain employer-provided benefits. It is open to full-time, part-time, salaried and exempt employees.
The Legislature changed the program in a coronavirus relief bill to make it easier for more people to qualify.
The minimum number of workers covered under any plan was reduced from 20 to two. The maximum reduction in work hours covered under the program was also increased from 50% to 60%. And once the employer’s plan is approved, the federal government pays for all unemployment benefits through year-end.
Pocan said the program will be especially useful for restaurants, bars and entertainment facilities that won’t open up all at once but that might be able to employ people at reduced hours. More than 550,000 workers in Wisconsin have filed for unemployment since mid-March.
When is a coach a coach—year-round or just during the sports season?
Janesville School Board member Kevin Murray hopes to settle that philosophical question and its financial repercussions at Tuesday’s school board meeting.
At issue is pay for the Janesville School District’s spring coaching staff.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Tony Evers ordered all schools closed through the end of the school year. Shortly thereafter, the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association suspended and then eventually canceled spring sports.
The school district paid its track and field coaches for the week or so of practices they oversaw before the season was suspended. The remaining coaches did not receive any pay.
Murray wants the board to overturn that decision.
The school district has 47 spring coaches at the middle and high schools, Assistant Superintendent Scott Garner wrote in an email to The Gazette. Paying them all would cost $178,700.
Not being paid for not working seems to make sense, but Murray argues that the coaches are—and have been—working year-round.
Even now, coaches are working virtually with their athletes, he said.
“I know for sure that coach (Victor) Herbst, who is the head of Craig’s baseball team, works year-round with those kids,” Murray said. “He’s at open gyms; he’s at conferences; he has direct contact with students all year-round making sure they’re behaving, making sure they’re getting good grades, making sure they’re showing up.”
Milton, Elkhorn, Lake Geneva Badger, Evansville, Brodhead/Juda, Beloit Turner, Clinton, Edgerton and Whitewater are paying their spring head coaches. Orfordville-Parkview is giving its coaches 80% of their pay. Big Foot is paying 50% and Delavan-Darien, 10%.
Janesville school officials have said that because no spring sports are taking place, spring coaches are not getting paid. Coaches with teaching contracts are being paid for teaching.
When asked previously why the district was not following the example of other school districts, Janesville officials told The Gazette, “While we cannot speak to how other districts determine how to use their limited funds, we must balance our commitment to support employees for the work that they do, while remaining fiscally responsible to our local taxpayers.”
The district likely will face budget cuts for the 2020-21 school year, district officials told the school board last week. The pandemic is expected to reduce state revenue, and because schools are the largest expense in the state budget, the impact of COVID-19 could be significant, officials have said.
David J. Adams
Peggy Ann Bell
Sylvia Jean Holloway
Barbara Schoff Wheelock
Andrew Lee York
Rock County’s safer-at-home order will be lifted Thursday.
Beginning at 8 a.m. Thursday, the order will be replaced with the first phase in a “phased reopening plan,” county Health Officer Marie-Noel Sandoval said in a press conference Tuesday.
County epidemiologist Nick Zupan said the data show Rock County is ready to advance into phase 1 of the recovery plan.
County Administrator Josh Smith said the decision to open Thursday—five days earlier than planned—was made after a conversation Monday with chamber of commerce representatives from Beloit, Janesville and Milton; local municipal administrators; nonprofit representatives; public health staff; hospital executives; and business owners.
Deciding to open Thursday was about county officials wanting to keep their word, Smith said.
“On the one hand, we have said that we want to use the data to indicate when we’re ready to go into phase 1, and the data shows that as of now we should be ready. From a credibility standpoint, we didn’t want to sit on it and wait until the 26th,” Smith said.
The “quite extensive” plan was created with guidance from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state health department, Zupan said.
The data reference hospital capacity, equipment availability, COVID-19 tests in the county and other factors to determine when to proceed through the phases in the plan.
Smith said county residents will have to trust each other.
“We know we cannot live under orders forever and that soon we’re going to have to begin to trust each other to make the right decisions on physical distancing and other measures to keep us all safe,” Smith said.
The plan gives recommendations for different sectors of the community but does not mandate that residents stay home. Beginning Thursday, residents cannot be punished for not following the recommendations.
The plan offers general guidance such as washing hands and social distancing and gives advice for schools, churches, health care centers and businesses.
Under phase 1 of the plan, most businesses or public spaces are allowed to reopen with 25% capacity limits and should practice physical distancing, implement protective measures and use best business practices.
This includes restaurants, bars, gyms, libraries, churches and other businesses.
“We have goals with benchmarks,” Sandoval said. “We have a guide based on progress and setbacks. This is to take baby steps. You know, we have to be able to walk before we can run.”
Other events, such as garage sales, should have 10 people or fewer under phase 1. Visiting senior centers and holding large events such as fairs are not recommended.
K-12 schools are to follow recommendations from the state Department of Public Instruction in phase 1.
The Janesville Emergency Operations Center’s safety team released guidelines for business owners and residents Tuesday afternoon. In a news release, the city said it “strongly encourages” business owners and residents to follow the guidelines.
If the number of cases spikes or begins climbing, a stay-at-home order could be reinstated. However, Smith said the county would prefer to use other measures or tools instead of an order.
In a separate conference call Tuesday, Smith said the county expects the number of COVID-19 cases to peak in June. He said the peak timeline moves from week to week and can be hard to pinpoint exactly.
While the virus is still active, the state and county safer-at-home orders gave the county time to plan how to return to normalcy, Sandoval said Tuesday.
“It’s a new virus. There’s still many unknowns about it, and I did want to point out it hasn’t gone away,” she said. “It isn’t less contagious or lethal. There’s no vaccine, and there is treatment. And so the state stay-at-home order bought us some time to ensure we had the capacity and capability to care for those most adversely affected.”
The county order helped with planning, but now residents have the responsibility of maneuvering appropriately and reopening by following the Rock Recovery plan, Smith said.
“It’s up to all of us now to do the right thing and take responsibility for our own actions, not so much just to keep ourselves safe but to keep our friends, neighbors and those who are at risk safe.”
Rock County can expect to see more COVID-19 cases as businesses start reopening, a county health official said.
COVID-19 will remain in the community as long as there is no vaccine or treatment, said Nick Zupan, epidemiologist for the Rock County Public Health Department.
Zupan hopes future increases will be gradual and that efforts made in recent months will prevent local health care systems from being overrun, he said.
Rock County’s safer-at-home order will be replaced with the first phase of a “phased reopening plan” to go into effect Thursday morning, county Health Officer Marie-Noel Sandoval said in a press conference Tuesday.
Beginning at 8 a.m. Thursday, communities in Rock County will begin to reopen in accordance with a newly unveiled "Rock Rebound" plan.
It is “reasonable” to assume the county will see an increase in cases as businesses reopen, Zupan said.
“What I am hoping is the increase is not drastic but is gradual and the cases we are seeing are not in vulnerable populations,” Zupan said.
People who are elderly, have ongoing health conditions or have compromised immune systems are considered to be high risk.
There have been 438 cases of COVID-19 in Rock County and 14 deaths.
An additional 74 people have probable cases, meaning they have shown signs of the disease and have not been tested or their tests came back inconclusive.
Projections from the health department show Rock County could see a peak of 933 cases May 31.
These models, however, are always changing and should be used as an estimate, not a certainty, Zupan said.
Each day, Zupan plugs into the model Rock County’s population and the number of new cases. A formula in the model is used by epidemiologists to predict disease trends.
The formula relies largely on the change in case numbers each day.
Predictions have changed dramatically over the course of the pandemic.
Models in early May predicted Rock County would peak with 3,550 cases in early June.
A spike in cases stemming from an outbreak at the Birds Eye food processing plant in Darien heavily influenced those numbers, Zupan said.
Since the outbreak, the number of local cases has leveled, Zupan said.
The county has a series of benchmarks it is using to guide its recommendations on reopening. The benchmarks are detailed on the county’s online reopening dashboard.
The following benchmarks have been met, according to the health department.
The other six benchmarks are in progress, according to the dashboard.
For example, the county hopes to have fewer than 5% of tests come back positive when averaged out across 14 days. As of now, the 14-day average is 7%.
Rock County has been testing 120 to 240 people each day. The goal is to test more than 240 a day.
The number of health care workers infected has remained steady over the last 14 days. Officials aim for the number to decrease.
One-third of the county’s ICU beds are available, just short of the county’s goal of 35%.
Health officials want to improve the speed of contact tracing for infected people. Tracers are able to reach 50% to 75% of a person’s contacts within 48 hours.
The goal is to contact more than 75% of contacts in that time frame.
There is concern over the ability to isolate infected individuals who might not be able to isolate at home, such as those living with vulnerable individuals.
The county has plans in place to provide isolation and quarantine facilities.
County officials have been working on preparing the Craig Center on the Rock County 4-H Fairgrounds as an isolation center. The county also is in talks with a local hotel to lease space for infected first responders.
Isolation centers, increased testing and diligence from the community have helped Rock County maintain its COVID-19 numbers to a rate that is manageable for health care facilities, Zupan said.
“This is going to be a community-wide effort,” Zupan said.