Gov. Tony Evers called on Republican lawmakers to mend their differences with him on emergency legislation as the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic prompted more than 1.5 million calls last week to the Wisconsin unemployment insurance office.
The development comes as workers filed more than 115,000 initial unemployment claims last week and as Evers and Republicans have so far been unsuccessful in coming to an agreement on emergency legislation to aid in the response to outbreak.
“We are headed into the worst of this, folks,” Evers said during a Monday media call. “I’m sure many of us would like to wake up from this nightmare tomorrow morning and say it never happened. But the responsible thing is to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”
So far, the state Department of Health Services has confirmed 1,221 positive cases of COVID-19 and at least 14 deaths.
Evers has the authority to spend $1.9 billion in federal stimulus funding on his own but said he still wants legislation to give state agencies more flexibility in handling the crisis.
“There’s extraordinary needs,” Evers said. “The Department of Health Services needs to have the ability to have more flexibility in how they can respond. We need legislative assistance in that area.”
Evers is already using his authority to try to purchase 10,000 ventilators and 1 million protective face masks. Last week Evers proposed a $700 million legislative package meant to address health care needs related to the outbreak, extend the statewide public health emergency indefinitely and boost health care staffing. The legislation would also waive the state’s voter identification requirement for the April 7 election, extend the online registration deadline and waive the requirement that witnesses sign absentee ballot envelopes.
In a joint letter to Evers, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, balked at the cost of the package and urged Evers to act on his own for now to procure necessary supplies. They said the state could transfer funds between accounts to pay for supplies until federal funding arrives within the next month. But an Evers spokeswoman said state officials don’t yet know whether they’ll be reimbursed fully by the federal government.
Wisconsin law gives Evers broad authority to spend federal funds and create additional federally funded positions without the Legislature acting.
An Evers spokeswoman said the governor would soon introduce a second bill dealing with more issues the state will need to sort out in light of COVID-19.
Evers said he hopes Republican leaders will come into session “as soon as possible.” In light of the enormous surge in unemployment claims, Evers said an immediate change he’s seeking is for the Legislature to waive Wisconsin’s one-week waiting period to receive unemployment benefits.
In a statement, Fitzgerald said he expects the Senate will vote in virtual session on emergency legislation “in the next couple weeks.”
“Despite the disagreement over the weekend, we’re continuing to make progress on a bill,” Fitzgerald said.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said legislative action will need to be taken, including a request for an emergency waiver from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to allow for flexibilities to health care providers.
Waiving the one-week requirement to receive unemployment benefits may be gaining bipartisan traction. Last week, Sen. Andre Jacque, R-De Pere, introduced a bill to waive the one-week requirement for 52 weeks during a declared state of emergency.
Wisconsin’s Department of Workforce Development, the agency that oversees unemployment insurance claims, is working to accommodate the explosion in calls, which are averaging 160 per second. The agency has already expanded its capacity to be able to handle 690 simultaneous calls and has increased staff at the unemployment call center from 57 to 92. Evers said the agency needs at least 80 additional staff to help triage calls.
In addition, the state is also working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to establish voluntary isolation centers and field hospitals around the state to reduce the spread of the disease.
Expanded testing ability
Earlier Monday, Evers announced several businesses are partnering with the Wisconsin Clinical Lab Network to increase the state’s capacity to test people for the novel coronavirus.
Fitchburg-based Promega, Madison-based Exact Sciences and UW Health, and the Marshfield Health Clinic System will work with the laboratory network to share knowledge, resources and technology to boost the state’s ability to test patients for the new virus.
They join the Wisconsin State Lab of Hygiene and the Milwaukee Public Health Lab, which were leading efforts to test in the state.
The Wisconsin Clinical Lab Network has been completing about 1,500 to 2,000 tests for the virus per day, according to Evers’ office, and expects to be able to double the capacity soon while continuing to expand.
“Wisconsin is extremely fortunate to have these industry leaders in our own backyard,” Evers said. “They are exhibiting the right kind of leadership that all Wisconsinites deserve: stepping up with innovation, cutting down superficial barriers, and doing all they can to help keep Wisconsin communities healthy.”
Tests will only be conducted with an order from a doctor, and the labs themselves are not serving as testing sites.
Despite the increase in testing capacity in Wisconsin, the national supply of chemicals and other materials used in tests remains “extremely fragile,” said Andrea Palm, secretary of the state Department of Health Services.
Meanwhile, Palm said, the state’s hospitals have about 1,215 ventilators, up from an earlier estimate 10 days ago of 620. The new estimate is based on better information from hospitals, she said.
The state’s “safer at home” restrictions appear to be having an impact on the outbreak, though the true picture won’t begin to be known for another week or two, said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, a medical officer for the state health department.
Palm said last week that without strict social distancing, the state would likely have 22,000 cases of COVID-19, including 440 to 1,500 deaths, by April 8. That was based on cases doubling every three to four days, Westergaard said.
“We’re beating that a little bit,” he said Monday. “We’re seeing a slower curve.”
April 7 election
Evers on Monday also said he still has no plans to change the date of the April 7 election, which features a presidential primary but also a contest for state Supreme Court and hundreds of local offices, including many whose terms expire in April.
The number of absentee ballot requests to local officials has continued to surge as voters seek to avoid the polls on Election Day to mitigate the risk of contracting the virus.
As of Monday, local election officials have received 883,293 absentee ballot requests, a record for a spring election. A federal judge could rule later this week on three lawsuits seeking to expand absentee voting, delay the election and allow voters to submit an absentee ballot without a witness.
The city of Madison filed a brief in the federal case Monday urging the court to delay the election for at least three weeks and provide that all office holders remain in their posts until their successors are elected to address possible local government vacancies if the election were delayed. They also said the court should consider ordering a full paper mail-in election.
Because there are already numerous polling place vacancies, some Madison voters may not have a place to vote on election day, according to the brief.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court is also considering whether to take a case involving clerks in Dane and Milwaukee counties advising absentee voters they can declare themselves indefinitely confined and thus avoid the legal requirement to provide a photo ID.
Dane County argued Monday the county is following guidance from the Wisconsin Elections Commission, which gridlocked Sunday over whether to investigate the matter. The court allowed the Legislature to file a brief Monday arguing in favor of enforcing the voter ID requirement.
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