By LeAnn R. Ralph
MADISON — As of July 7, the total number of COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin was 32,556, with nearly 17,000 of those cases occurring since Memorial Day.
“We cannot continue … we cannot go backwards … and we cannot give up,” said Governor Tony Evers at an online televised news conference July 7.
“No party or bar is worth it,” he said.
In the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wisconsin had 15,500 cases, and then in the six weeks since Memorial Day, those cases more than doubled, said Wisconsin Department of Health Services Secretary-Designee Andrea Palm.
Out of the total number of cases, 24 percent were people in their 20s, and out of the cases occurring in June, 20 percent were from mass gatherings, such as bars, restaurants or parties, Palm said.
Mass gatherings are not safe, she said, adding that wearing masks and practicing social distancing and good hand hygiene can help mitigate the risk.
The state Supreme Court’s decision in mid-May to overturn the Safer At Home order “hamstrung our ability to respond to the pandemic,” Governor Evers said.
“Public health is everyone’s issue,” he said.
Staying at home is the best way to keep from contracting the virus and to keep from spreading it to others, Governor Evers said.
“We need young people to step up,” he said.
No one is immune to the virus, and one case can lead to 12 “in the blink of an eye,” Governor Evers said.
“It’s not just YOU,” he said, noting that when people spread the virus they also are putting health care workers at risk, essential workers at risk, such as those who work at grocery stores and gas stations, and also are putting at risk the older people with whom they come in contact.
“We need to take care of one another” and “take responsibility for our behavior,” Governor Evers said.
People should wear masks when they are in public, should keep a social distance of six feet from others and should wash their hands and use hand sanitizer, he said.
And if anyone is out and about with a group of other people, they should get tested for COVID-19, Governor Evers said.
Testing is the key to isolating and boxing-in the virus, he said.
Wisconsin has 80 labs that can conduct coronavirus testing with a daily capacity of a little over 19,000 tests, Palm noted.
As of July 7, 805 people in Wisconsin have died from COVID-19, she said.
The conclusion Palm drew from the more than doubling of the cases since Memorial Day is that, “staying at home worked.”
“We need to work together to overcome the pandemic,” she said.
A variety of news outlets called into the news conference to ask questions over the telephone.
A reporter from WBAY in Green Bay asked if Governor Evers planned to issue a statewide mask mandate.
Since the Supreme Court ended the Safer at Home order, administration officials do not know if they have the authority to issue a statewide mask mandate, Governor Evers said.
The Republicans in the state Legislature could come into session and continue the Health Emergency declaration “right now,” he said.
The Supreme Court made the situation much more complex, but masks are critical to getting the virus under control, Governor Evers said, adding that with the likelihood of Republicans in the Legislature taking a mask order to the Supreme Court, it is unlikely a mask order will be issued.
A reporter from CBS58 out of Milwaukee asked about Governor Evers’ reaction to Betsy DeVos’s statement that if schools are not fully operational in the fall, they are failing the taxpayers and the students.
DeVos is the current United States Secretary of Education.
Local school districts will make the decisions that are best for them, and some will have virtual classes and some will have in-person instruction, Governor Evers said.
In-person instruction is preferable, but school districts in Wisconsin will have all of the options on the table. A district that offers a hybrid is not failing in their responsibilities to the students and the taxpayers, he said.
Later on, a reporter from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel asked if there are outbreaks among schools this fall, would the governor plan on closing schools again statewide.
Depending on how well the virus is being managed in a particular area, individual school districts, or individual schools in the district, or even classrooms may need to “take a pause,” Governor Evers said.
School districts, or schools, or classrooms, may need to “self-quarantine for 14 days,” rather than a statewide shut-down, he said.
A reporter from the Associated Press asked about the governor’s reaction to federal guidelines stating that if international students at universities are not taking classes in person, then they must go back to their home countries.
UW-Madison, for example, is planning to have some classes only be online, Governor Evers said.
There might be another COVID-19 surge in the fall, and “I think it’s a mistake to limit the international students,” he said.
Harvard and MIT have filed a federal lawsuit that challenges the new rules denying visas to international students if their university classes meet online this fall.
A reporter from Spectrum News wanted to know why there has been a plateau in COVID-19 hospitalizations even though there has been a surge in cases.
Dr. Ryan Westergaard, Chief Medical Officer of the Bureau of Communicable Diseases, highlighted the range of illness that COVID-19 causes.
Children exhibit few symptoms with COVID-19, while people in their 60s, 70s and 80s have a greater than 10 percent mortality rate, he said.
The range of illness “is uncommon for a respiratory virus,” Dr. Westergaard said.
The surge in cases among younger people means they are not expected to be as sick and are not expected to require as much hospitalization, he said, adding that asymptomatic people will be spreading the virus silently.
Another reporter asked if officials are expecting an increase in deaths in the coming weeks with the increase in cases of COVID-19.
The epidemic is growing, and transmission is being driven by asymptomatic carriers, Dr. Westergaard said.
There is a risk the virus will gain a foothold and will be widespread. It is important to find the chains of infection and stop the spread with quarantine. If the virus spreads to older people, then there will be an increase in deaths, he said.
A reporter with Fox6 out of Milwaukee noted the doubling of cases and asked if Governor Evers had the power, would the state issue another Safer at Home order today?
Governor Evers said he would not advocate issuing another Safer at Home order but he would advocate for people to wear to masks in public.
A reporter with WisPolitics wondered what Wisconsin would look like today if the Safer at Home order had not been shut down prematurely by the state Supreme Court.
“We were in a good place,” Governor Evers said, in reference to slowing down the spread of the virus.
Safer at Home was effective, and if it had been allowed to expire May 26 as planned, we would have saved more lives and had fewer cases of COVID-19, he said.
Slowing the spread of the virus with Safer at Home was tied to reopening the state in phases with the Badger Bounce-Back Plan.
A reporter from WISN TV out of Milwaukee said that since the Supreme Court made statewide orders impossible, does the governor have plans to declare another emergency with the hope it would survive a Supreme Court challenge.
Governor Evers reiterated state officials are “looking at all the options” and noted he had received a telephone call from a business leader in the state asking that masks be mandated in public.
Governor Evers said the business leader had told him the state’s economy relies on getting the virus under control.
If a statewide mask order is issued, there is a 100 percent chance the Republicans in the state Legislature will challenge it, and there is almost a 100 percent chance the state Supreme Court would overturn the order, Governor Evers said.
“He said, ‘do it anyway,’” the governor said.
One reporter said many county fairs have been cancelled while others are still being held and wanted to know the Department of Health Services recommendations.
Palm said she is cautioning against fairs, barbecues, house parties or anything that draws a number of people together.
The virus is highly contagious, and while the risk can be mitigated by wearing a mask, until there is a vaccine, “all we’ve got is each other,” she said.
“Mass gatherings are risky,” Palm said, again noting that masks, social distancing and good hand hygiene can mitigate some of the risk.
A reporter from Urban Milwaukee noted the spikes in COVID-19 cases in Arizona and Florida and asked how Wisconsin compares.
The trends are in the same direction, Dr. Westergaard said.
The only difference is the magnitude. While Wisconsin is seeing increases of 600 cases per day, Arizona and Florida are seeing many thousands of new cases, he said.
“But we are going in the wrong direction,” Dr. Westergaard said.
Wisconsin has the same risk factors as other states causing spikes in cases, such as crowded bars and restaurants, and “the state is set” to continue to see increases “unless we turn it around,” he said.
A reporter from the Wisconsin State Journal asked if the state would support local orders, such as Dane County’s recent local order for people to wear masks in public.
While the state “has been hamstrung by a chaotic decision from the Supreme Court,” local orders would be supported, Governor Evers said.
Another concern the governor expressed was that while local health officers are working very hard to try to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, they are being harassed.
“It saddens me,” he said.
Local health officers are making decisions and giving recommendations based on science, and the issue of mitigating COVID-19 is being politicized and the health officers are being harassed, Governor Evers said.
“We’re better than that … this is not a political issue. The virus does not care if you are Republican or Democrat,” he said.
Another reporter noted that contact tracers also are being cursed when they call, and then the people they are calling hang up on them.
What steps are the state taking to deal with the politicization? he asked.
“The virus is the bad guy,” Palm said.
The pandemic has caused anxiety, and tensions and emotions are high, she said, noting that there are resources listed on the DHS website to help people deal with the anxiety.
“We should demonize the virus and not each other,” Palm said.
A reporter from the Wisconsin Examiner noted that 43 state Legislators had signed a letter saying they were not in support of any kind of aid to states during the pandemic, and then three of them obtained money through the Paycheck Protection Plan for their businesses or organizations.
The reporter wanted to know if the governor supported Congress passing legislation to provide aid to states to replace lost revenue and asked for his reaction to Legislators opposing aid but accepting aid for their businesses.
The pandemic has hurt local revenue, such as the revenue received from sales tax, Governor Evers said, adding that he would support aid to the states.
As for the allegations that state Legislators had obtained PPP for their businesses, the governor said he did not know anything about the allegations and was not able to respond.
According to an article published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel July 6, Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos received between $150,000 and $350,000 in April for his popcorn business under a federal program meant to help small businesses that are struggling during the pandemic.
The biggest challenge right now, Governor Evers concluded, is how to convince people to take the virus seriously.
“We have to continue to be careful,” he said.