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Citing blocked mitigation measures, Gov. Tony Evers asks for COVID-19 vaccine priority for Wisconsin
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Citing blocked mitigation measures, Gov. Tony Evers asks for COVID-19 vaccine priority for Wisconsin

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Gov. Tony Evers on Thursday asked the federal government to prioritize Wisconsin’s health care workers and at-risk residents when a COVID-19 vaccine is deployed — blaming surging cases partly on a lack of action from the GOP-led state Legislature.

In a letter to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Evers said Wisconsin “uniquely faces substantial barriers to implementing statewide mitigation strategies.” He noted that several efforts have faced legal challenges, including his stay-at-home order, which was struck down by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in May.

“Given this and the outsized impact COVID-19 is having on our state, it is critical that Wisconsin be prioritized for vaccine allocation in quantities sufficient to vaccinate our healthcare workforce and with additional doses to be able to distribute to high-risk populations,” Evers said. The state has an estimated 450,000 health care workers.

In a separate letter to President Donald Trump and the state’s congressional leaders, Evers expressed the need for additional federal funds to prevent a lapse in the state’s pandemic response efforts. Any unused Federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security act funds are set to expire at the end of the month, while Evers estimated the state will need $466 million in the first quarter of next year in order to maintain existing state measures.

The state Department of Health Services reported 60 COVID-19-related deaths Thursday, bringing the total to 3,562 since the pandemic began. The numbers reflect when the deaths are reported and may include fatalities over several previous days or weeks. The state has reported nearly 400,000 infections.

If Wisconsin receives vaccine allocations yet this year, DHS Secretary Andrea Palm said the department is prepared to focus on those working in health care, where significant staffing shortages have become an issue in most counties. Palm said 34% of the state’s hospitals report critical staffing shortages, while another 40% project to face a shortage within the next week.

“We’re certainly gearing up and are ready for that initial allocation, but we do anticipate that it will be obviously far less than what is necessary to vaccinate all of our frontline health care providers,” Palm said.

Legislation

Evers said efforts to reach an agreement with GOP lawmakers on coronavirus-related legislation will continue, despite Senate Republicans indicating this week they do not intend to meet before the end of the year. Assembly Republicans unveiled 50 proposals earlier this week, which include measures that would require schools to offer in-person instruction by the end of January and require most state employees to return to their place of work by the same deadline.

“We’re hopeful to find common ground on a number of them. There are some that are poison pills and there are some that we need more information on,” Evers said. “Hopefully we can find some bipartisan solutions, but at the end of the game, it’s important that the Senate step up and be part of the conversation.”

The Democratic governor also said he will consider calling a special session on pandemic legislation, but acknowledged previous efforts to force lawmakers to convene have not resulted in serious debate or action.

Evers also rejected a proposal from incoming Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, to use some of the state’s surplus medical assistance funds to address pandemic needs.

“That’s not acceptable. That money is set aside for some of our most vulnerable people,” Evers said. “That is not a trad-off I am willing to make.”

Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, described Senate Republicans’ proposal as a “viable and timely solution.”

“If Governor Evers isn’t going to accept our offer to provide additional COVID-19 funding, the governor needs to sit down with leadership and come up with a solution,” she said.

Business aid

Also on Thursday, Evers announced the allocation of additional CARES act funds for restaurants and small businesses, as well as grants for live venues and hospitality businesses.

Evers, along with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., announced the availability of $45 million in funds for restaurants and other small businesses, bringing the state’s total allocation of federal funds to the industry to more than $220 million since the pandemic began.

The state’s dining industry has been one of the hardest hit since the pandemic began, with many limiting in-door seating and expanding delivery and curbside pick-up options.

“We greatly appreciate the changes they’ve made to prioritize the health and safety of our communities, but now with winter coming, we are glad to provide this support at a critical time,” Evers said.

The state Department of Revenue (DOR) estimates restaurants will account for about 95% of the roughly 2,000 businesses to receive funds. Eligible businesses will be able to receive up to $20,000 by the end of the year. Businesses do not have to apply for the grant funds, but rather will be identified and contacted by DOR based on tax records. The state will target businesses with annual revenue of more than $1 million and less than $7 million.

In addition, Evers awarded $15 million in pandemic assistance to 96 live music venues and more than $18 million in grants to 663 businesses in the state’s lodging industry. In Madison, more than 35 hotels and lodging establishments received more than $1.3 million in funds.

Any remaining CARES act funds are set to expire at the end of December. As of Nov. 6, the state had spent, obligated or committed more than $1.9 billion of the roughly $2 billion in federal funds allocated to the state earlier this year. At the time, the state had about $22 million remaining to apply to emerging needs.

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