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Evers To Extend Mask Mandate To January As COVID-19 Strains Hospitals

Jack Hurbanis
Signs outside Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in downtown Milwaukee remind entrants of the mask mandate.

Updated Thursday at 7:17 a.m. CST 

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers said Wednesday that he will extend an order requiring masks to be worn inside public places amid a dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases that is putting increasing pressure on the state's hospitals.

Evers said he will extend his statewide mask mandate and reissue an order extending the state’s public health emergency before the end of this week. Both orders would remain in effect into January.

Republicans have fought Evers nearly every step of the way over his virus response, including suing over his safer-at-home order last spring and an initial statewide mask mandate. On Wednesday, Evers called on Republicans to stop pursuing the legal challenge and to publicly support his efforts.

Evers said, "Our current public emergency and our face coverings order are being challenged in the Wisconsin Supreme Court. 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 coverings order."

He said the seven-day average of positive new cases is now more than triple what it was two months ago. “It’s time folks. We do not get any do-overs here,” Evers said. “Enough games. We need you to join the cause and we need you to start today.”

Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm said controlling the spread of COVID-19 is necessary, as some hospital staffers are missing work because they are sick or in quarantine. She said one-third of Wisconsin hospitals are reporting a current critical staffing shortage and 41% expect a critical staffing shortage within a week.

"They’re working extra shifts in over-capacity hospitals and ICUs that are stretched to the breaking point. They are caring for patients with complex needs and they are saving lives, but they are also seeing intense loss of life. But this is an emergency we cannot solve through health care workers and our hospital system. It is up to each of us to solve it by taking steps to stop the spread in the first place," Palm said.

Every hospital in two regions of the state has activated its surge plan, and although some hospitals have beds set aside, those beds are unused because there is no available staff to care for patients, she said. In addition, a children's hospital is caring for adult patients and intensive care units are filling up.

“A strained hospital system puts everyone at risk, whether or not you have COVID-19,” she said.

She said hospitals have reported that nine ICUs were at 100% capacity over the past week; there are zero ICU beds available in one part of the state and only nine available in another region.

Wisconsin added 7,989 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, bringing the state total to 331,837 since the pandemic started. Palm said the seven-day average for new cases is 6,563 — up from 1,575 two months ago. An additional 52 deaths were reported Wednesday. bringing the state's COVID-19 death toll to 2,793.

“As scary as this picture is, it is going to keep getting worse before it gets better, and it’s only going to get better if we take action to make it better,” Palm said. “Please, stay home. Do not gather for holiday celebrations — it is not worth the risk.” She urged people to wear masks and socially distance if they must make essential trips.

Evers' announcement comes a day after the state reported a daily record 92 deaths from the coronavirus. Evers also has released a proposal to that would prohibit evictions and foreclosures through 2021, continue the suspension of a one-week waiting period before people can collect unemployment benefits and allow workers, including in healthcare, to claim worker’s compensation benefits related to COVID-19 if they contract the illness at work.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has outlined Republican priorities but did not release any specific bills. Vos said Tuesday that he was open to coming into session next month to vote on virus-related legislation, but he didn’t release specifics.

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