Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and GOP state leaders have yet to schedule a meeting on how to handle the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, despite both parties agreeing earlier this month that such a conversation was needed to address rising cases across Wisconsin.
Speaking with reporters on Thursday, Evers said he has not heard back from Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, regarding meeting about a plan on how the state can address the outbreak, which has killed more than 1,700 Wisconsinites and infected more than 180,000.
Last week, Evers called on Fitzgerald and Vos to work with him to take meaningful action to curb the virus.
“I think both leaders do want to meet at some point in time,” Evers said. “I’m guessing the national election is playing a role in that, but I have not heard and I am waiting on them to put some plans in place on paper so we can talk about that.”
Evers’ letter, which asked Republicans to come to the table with a clear plan of action, came a week after both Vos and Fitzgerald sent a letter on Oct. 7 requesting “a meeting with the governor as soon as possible.” Their offices did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
The Legislature has sent a single package of bills to Evers’ desk, back in April, which allowed the state to secure roughly $2 billion in federal aid to address the pandemic. Both parties agreed at the time that more measures would be needed, but Republicans, who control the Assembly and Senate, have not called for a session in more than six months.
“Everything was uncertain at that time so we said, ‘Let’s give him the money, let’s give him flexibility and he can do what he thinks is best’ and that’s where it’s left,” Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, who sits on the powerful state budget committee, told WisconsinEye on Thursday. “We don’t need to come in because we gave him all the flexibility that he needs.”
Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin, told WisconsinEye earlier this week that “there isn’t a lot that we can do as politicians, but we need to sit back, let the medical community figure this out, give them the resources they need to do it and let them do it.”
Republicans, who in May successfully sued to strike down the governor’s stay-at-home order, have criticized Evers for taking unilateral steps to sidestep the Legislature and pass statewide orders. Evers, however, has said those steps have been necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19 and has encouraged Republicans to convene on further measures.
The state Department of Health Services reported 3,413 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday and a total of 180,100 since the pandemic began. The state also reported 22 new deaths, bringing the total to 1,703. The daily average of new cases is now 3,396.
“To those who say this pandemic has been blown out of proportion or there isn’t a real risk, folks, that is flat out wrong,” Evers said.
Asked whether his administration needs to change its messaging as cases climb, Evers said the real problem is mixed messages from local, state and national leaders who downplay the seriousness of the pandemic. On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, who tested positive for the coronavirus earlier this month, said the state has been “snookered into this mass hysteria that isn’t even close to the real risk.”
Evers also cited efforts by Republican leaders to challenge statewide mandates such as the mask order currently in effect.
“That sends a message to the people of Wisconsin that Republicans don’t care about this. I don’t believe that for a minute,” Evers said. “For the most part, I think it is a bipartisan effort. They do want you to be safe, they do want you to stay healthy. … I encourage them to speak up, too, this is not a one-man-band here. This is an important issue in the state of Wisconsin.”
State health officials estimated that, without the precautions taken by the state to reduce transmission of the disease, matters could be as much as 10% to 20% worse.
“There is no doubt that the way you stop the spread of this virus is reducing contact between people,” Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm said. “These are tried and true, tested and proven public health interventions.”
Despite those efforts, the state has become a national COVID-19 hotspot and, on Thursday, Wisconsin had the highest case rate in the country, according to the COVID Tracking Project.
Public Health Madison and Dane County officials said Wednesday they were moving to a “crisis model“ of contact tracing, meaning they may not be able to interview everyone who tests positive and notify those exposed as before.
People who test positive for the coronavirus will continue to be notified, by their health care provider or testing center, and told to isolate, but the county health department may not be able to interview them to learn about their activities and the people they may have exposed, meaning those contacts can’t be notified.
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