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WISCONSIN – With hospitals running out of bed capacity, Governor Tony Evers said Wednesday that he plans to extend the COVID-19 public health emergency and the mask order through at least Jan. 15.

Evers issued the orders in September and set them to expire on Nov. 21. However, he said he plans to issue new orders that sunset in mid-January.

“We cannot afford to stop or have a gap in some of the only mitigation efforts we still have in place,” Evers said during a media briefing held Wednesday. “So today, I’m announcing that I’ll be declaring a new state of emergency this week and extending our public health emergency until January of next year.”

State Supreme Court hears challenges to executive orders

The public health emergency and face-covering orders have been contraversial with the business community and are currently being challenged in the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

The justices struck down the stay-at-home order in a 4-3 decision in May. But on Monday, they met on whether they should uphold Evers’ policies that are currently in place to slow the spread of the virus, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The Republican-controlled Legislature didn’t agree to extend the emergency declaration. Evers argued that he could issue multiple emergency declarations due to the threat the pandemic poses over time.

“As many of you also know, our current public health emergency and our face coverings order is being challenged in Wisconsin Supreme Court,” Evers said. “Republicans in the Legislature support this effort. That’s why today I’m also once again calling on Republicans to withdraw their support for this lawsuit and to publicly support our new public health emergency and face conference order.”

Meanwhile, the rhetoric around how to slow the spread of COVID-19 has shifted within the Republican Party.

In a press conference held Monday, State Republicans announced a plan to roll out several key policy initiatives. House Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said he and his Assembly Republican colleagues plan to put a package of ideas together.

A package could include building a robust testing system, doubling the number of contact tracers, ensuring efficient distribution of a COVID vaccine, helping the health care industry, requiring reform for the unemployment insurance program, and helping small businesses.

“We have to get on the same team; the virus is the enemy, not each other. Wisconsin needs some bipartisan answers,” said Speaker Vos. “These proposals are from our constituents, stakeholder groups, and lawmakers. We look forward to discussing these legislative initiatives with our Senate colleagues and the governor.”

Spike in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations cause the crisis to grow

The decision to continue the orders comes on the heels of another record-setting number of daily cases and hospitalization rates. On Wednesday, Wisconsin recorded 7,989 new COVID-19 cases, 92 deaths, and 2,277 more people hospitalized.

“I warned last week that the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) estimates that if we continue on the path we’re on, Wisconsin could see 5,000 deaths by the end of this calendar year.

Without a vaccine, the only mitigation tools residents have to slow the spread of the virus are wearing face coverings, social distancing, not being around people they don’t live with, and washing their hands.

But several pharmaceutical companies plan to seek approval for their vaccine candidates from the FDA. State health officials said yesterday that a limited supply of vaccines could be available to healthcare workers in January.

IHME projects that about 64 percent of Wisconsin residents say they always wear a mask in public, but the target health officials want to see is 95 percent. This would reduce the rate of transmission by 30 percent.

Hospitals running out of beds

The hospitalization rate is also expected to peak in early December, but the impact of the recent surge in cases requiring hospitalization has stressed out hospital resources.

“A strained hospital system puts everyone at risk, whether or not you have COVID-19,” said Andrea Palm, secretary-designee of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. “Hospital staff are out sick, unable to come to work because they have tested positive for COVID-19 or because they are in quarantine.”

One-third of the hospitals in Wisconsin report a current critical staffing shortage; 41 percent expect to have a critical staffing shortage within a week; multiple hospitals in every region have activated their surge plans. In two regions, every single hospital has activated their surge plan, Palm said.

Immediate bed availability for southeast Wisconsin on Nov. 18 SOURCE: Wisconsin Hospital Association.

“Some have surgical beds set aside, but they are going unused because there is no surgical staff available to staff them,” she said.

This has led hospital administrators to delay non-emergency procedures, and a children’s hospital is accepting adult patients.

“We are filling our intensive care units; nine of our hospitals are at 100 percent capacity,” she said. “There are zero ICU beds available in one region of our state.

“This is not how it’s supposed to be.”

Individuals who test positive for the COVID-19 virus are reminded to:

  • Stay home and isolate for a minimum of 10 days after symptom onset. 
  • If you did not have symptoms and were tested, remain isolated for ten days from the date of testing. 
  • You can return to work or school on day 11 if free of fever and see an improvement in other symptoms for 24 hours. 
  • Notify your employer or school if you are positive. 
  • Notify your close contacts and ask them to quarantine for 14 days from the last day of contact with you.

The rising number of positive cases means that the Racine Health Department may not notify employers of positive cases among employees.

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Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for Patch.com, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.

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