Every resident and worker in all 373 Wisconsin nursing homes will receive a free coronavirus test as part of a plan to expand testing to everyone who needs one, Gov. Tony Evers announced Monday.
Evers announced the expanded testing ahead of his first meeting with Republican and Democratic legislative leaders to discuss the next steps in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as pressure builds to more rapidly reopen the state's economy despite the continued spread of the disease. Evers’ late-afternoon meeting with lawmakers comes the day before the Wisconsin Supreme Court was scheduled to hear oral arguments in a case brought by the Republican legislative leaders seeking to block Evers’ “safer at home” order that is slated to run until May 26.
“The basic question to be answered is, what is their plan,” Evers said of the meeting with Republicans. “It doesn’t have anything to do with the court case or getting in front of the court case.”
Republican legislative leaders did not immediately reply to messages seeking comment on their meeting with Evers.
Evers’ plan for a phased reopening Wisconsin, mirroring federal guidelines, relies on expanded testing; more contact tracing; increased personal protective equipment and a steady decline in cases.
The Evers plan calls for ramping up testing to 85,000 people per week. He said the state has the capacity to provide that many tests. Expanding testing to every nursing home resident and worker was one of several new steps announced Monday to increasing testing availability to meet capacity.
Evers said state health officials started contacting nursing homes on Monday to coordinate supplies in advance of testing more than 10,000 residents and staff each week.
Nursing homes, in Wisconsin and nationally, have been hot spots for outbreaks of COVID-19. As of last Wednesday, there were 93 public health investigations in long-term care facilities in Wisconsin, with 25 facilities having more than five confirmed cases, the state health department said.
Other steps Evers announced to expand testing include using the National Guard and local health agencies to test workers and families associated with outbreaks at businesses; increasing from 10 to 25 the number of National Guard units to help with setting up testing sites to respond to outbreaks; and increasing free drive-through testing sites at communities throughout the state.
As of Monday, more than 8,200 people tested positive for COVID-19 in Wisconsin and 340 people died, according to the state Department of Health Services. The actual number of infections is thought to be far higher, though, because many people have not been tested and studies suggest that people can be infected without feeling sick.
Evers’ reopening plan calls for a loosening of restrictions after a 14-day downward trend in positive cases as a percentage of total tests. There has been no clear trend over the past seven days. Positive cases were 9.9% of all tests on Monday, which was down from 11.1% the day before.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
Evers and Republicans have said they want to work together on the state's virus response plan, but Republicans have been increasingly critical of Evers' approach to the COVID-19 crisis. Republicans, along with the state chamber of commerce, have been pushing for a more rapid reopening of the state, including possibly easing restrictions more rapidly in areas not as affected by the virus.
Evers has loosened numerous restrictions in recent days, after he extended the order. Last week, 34 state parks that had been closed for three weeks were allowed to reopen and Evers also permitted businesses able to offer contact-less curbside services to reopen. However, bars and restaurants remain closed other than for carry out or delivery, and all schools are closed through the remainder of the academic year.
The meeting Monday was to include Evers; Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos; Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald; Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz; and Democratic Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley.
Meanwhile Monday, two residents of Waukesha County, a Republican stronghold, filed a new lawsuit asking the state Supreme Court to block Evers' order. They argue the order's travel restrictions, nine-person limit on religious gatherings and ban on public or private gatherings infringe on religious freedom and political speech.
“No one doubts the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic, or that it poses life-and-death risks to Wisconsin's citizens, especially those who are elderly or otherwise infirm,” the lawsuit said. “But the actions Respondents have taken to combat those risks, no doubt in good faith, have gone too far, needlessly infringing our most basic constitutional liberties.”
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