Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Republican legislative leaders plan to meet online Friday to discuss potential COVID-19 legislation, the first time since May the two sides will have met as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spiral out of control.
Underscoring the urgency of the meeting, on Thursday the Wisconsin Hospital Association warned the state’s COVID-19 crisis is on the brink of “catastrophe.”
An Evers spokesperson confirmed the governor will meet with Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and incoming Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg. Additional details were not available.
The state Department of Health Services reported 83 new COVID-19-related deaths and more than 6,600 cases Thursday, bringing the total to 2,876 deaths and more than 338,000 infections since the pandemic began.
Also on Thursday, Eric Borgerding, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Hospital Association, sent a letter to Evers and Republican and Democratic leaders in the Assembly and Senate urging them to act soon on COVID-19 response measures.
“A crisis of this magnitude caused by a virus that is so clearly raging across all of Wisconsin demands a unified and substantial response,” Borgerding wrote. “Your joint leadership is critical to improve this situation, allowing everyone to get back to our way of life sooner.”
In the letter, Borgerding asked state leaders to implement a statewide mask mandate, take steps to affirm local governments’ authority to pass similar rules and consider legislation to restrict some business activity.
Borgerding also asked for assistance to address hospital staffing shortages, the creation of more alternative care facilities like the one currently operating in West Allis, expanded testing and contact tracing capacity, Medicaid reform and the removal of licensing barriers for out-of-state health care workers.
“With few tools available right now to curb spread other than increasingly urgent public appeals, our COVID numbers are growing rapidly and predict, quite accurately so far, a health care crisis in Wisconsin that without significant, swift, and unified action will become a catastrophe,” Borgerding said in the letter.
“This is hard to fathom for many across the state, but for those fighting this ever-growing battle in our hospitals, the data simply illustrate the human tragedy playing out in front of them every day.”
Evers announced Wednesday he plans to extend the state’s emergency declaration and accompanying mask mandate, which was set to expire Saturday, through mid-January. However, the state’s current declaration and mask order is before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, following a Republican-backed lawsuit that contends the governor’s actions in recent months to mitigate the spread of the virus are an unconstitutional overreach of power.
In response to the Wisconsin Hospital Association’s letter, Vos said in a statement that, “because my Assembly Republican colleagues and I are in continuous contact with WHA, local healthcare providers and public health officials, the issues brought forward in the letter do not come as a surprise. I look forward to partnering with WHA to address these important concerns.”
“I join the call for unity in Wisconsin and hope my Senate colleagues and the governor can join me in putting aside partisan differences to find bipartisan answers,” Vos said.
As of Tuesday, state Republicans had not drafted any bills aimed at addressing the pandemic. Vos has said Republicans would like to see more testing, a doubling of the number of contact tracers, assistance for small businesses and unemployment insurance reform. Vos also said he would explore legislation to prevent liability lawsuits against businesses, schools and local governments operating during the pandemic.
Evers unveiled a $541 million package of COVID-19-related measures earlier this week aimed at making unemployment insurance more accessible, prohibiting evictions and waiving school assessments through the end of next year, among other measures.
Vos indicated this week that legislation may not come together until December, or possibly early next year, while Evers has asked for immediate action.
The Legislature passed a single COVID-19 package back in April and has not convened in the seven months since.
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