Updates from the State Senate - May 4, 2020

The photo above was taken at the Gresham Depot Museum.


Robert Cowles


Serving Wisconsin's 2nd Senate District







2-1-1 Wisconsin


COVID-19 has disrupted Wisconsinites’ lives in many different ways, but almost everyone has had to adjust due to this outbreak. For some, this change has caused troubles with putting food on the table, accessing broadband, or a new need for mental health services.


If you find yourself looking for assistance to navigate these disruptions or others caused by COVID-19, 2-1-1 Wisconsin is here to help. Text COVID19 to 211-211, call 2-1-1, or visit 2-1-1 Wisconsin online to learn more.



Dear Friends and Neighbors,


As the situation around COVID-19 in Wisconsin continues to develop, I’m writing today with an overview of COVID-19 testing in Wisconsin plus some additional updates and a few reminders that you may find useful. As always, I hope this email finds you well, and I hope you find this information to be helpful as we all navigate these trying times.



Changes Made to ‘Safer at Home’ Order


Recently, new changes to Governor Evers and Department of Health Services Secretary-designee Andrea Palm’s ‘Safer at Home’ order went into effect that will provide more flexibility for some businesses. An update made last week to the ‘Safer at Home’ order also clarifies some other business operations, and I’ll briefly go over these changes here.


Retail and Service Business Operations


The most important change allows so-called ‘non-essential businesses’ in the retail sector to expand their actions from ‘minimal basic operations’ to now include deliveries, mailings, and curbside pick-ups. This includes arts and crafts stores, which may now expand operations for materials necessary to make face masks and other personal protective equipment and pet grooming businesses that may now reopen with curbside animal drop-off and certain other limitations. Additionally, lawn care and landscaping businesses may now perform aesthetic or optional outdoor work including with one person per site.


For parents looking for ways to occupy their children’s time and for all residents looking to get through this outbreak and spring showers, public libraries may now provide curb-side pick-up. Golf courses, which were previously closed, may now open, but tee times and scheduling must be done online or over the phone and clubhouses and pro shops may not open except for golfers to use the restrooms. Residents looking to get outside and stay active in other ways now have more options too, with kayak and boat rental businesses among others that may resume operations with some limitations.


I support relaxing these restrictions, and it’s my hope that we continue to see further steps to safely loosen restrictions soon.


Manufacturing and Retail Business Processes


For businesses that are open, particularly in manufacturing, the order also requires that they must increase cleaning and adopt practices that prevent workers that may have COVID-19 from showing up to work. In retail establishments, the order dictates that stores must limit the number of people inside, and large stores must offer at least two hours per week dedicated to shopping for vulnerable populations; something that many stores throughout the state have already done.


You can read Emergency Order #28, the extension of the ‘Safer at Home’ order, along with a frequently asked questions document about the order on Governor Evers’ website. Emergency Order #28 was also expanded on by Emergency Order #34, which you can read here.


State Parks


Another recent action by the Governor’s Administration will reopen 34 of the 40 State Parks and Forests last Friday, May 1st. This includes High Cliff State Park just outside the 2nd Senate District in the Fox Valley which was one of the properties impacted by a closure announced in April.


As the days get longer and temperatures get warmer, and with the general inland fishing season underway, there’s no question that Wisconsinites want to get out of their house and safely enjoy some time outdoors. I am pleased to see that comments I made to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Secretary after the closures were announced were accepted. I requested a phone meeting with the Secretary as I heard input from many Wisconsinites regarding the state parks closure. I was very happy to see the advocacy pay off as the announcement came to reopen these properties.


Residents looking to enjoy time in the State Park System will notice some changes to park operations, including the reinstatement of admission fees. In addition, some parks have restricted hours, predetermined capacity limits at some properties including High Cliff, and other restrictions to limit the potential for the virus to spread in State Parks.


Sunshine and fresh air aren’t only important for our physical health, but also our mental wellbeing. This decision isn’t only in the best interest of Wisconsin residents, but it is also the latest sign that Wisconsin is beginning to move towards a reasonable, yet timely loosening of restrictions. Learn more about the reopening of these State Parks and the restrictions being kept in place on the DNR’s website. Also keep in mind, local governments may close public parks and open spaces under their operation at their own discretion if areas become overcrowded.



Brown County Now Offering Community Testing


The Brown County Health Department has expanded their COVID-19 testing site at the Resch Center to serve ALL community members starting today. If you live or work in Brown County and have symptoms of COVID-19, you can visit their website to register for an appointment to receive a free test and get your results in a matter of days. Thank you to Brown County, the Wisconsin National Guard, and local healthcare providers for your combined efforts to make this crucial service available!



Overview of COVID-19 Testing in Wisconsin


Along with the extension of the ‘Safer at Home’ order outlined above, the Governor announced his ‘Badger Bounce Back’ plan to safely ‘reopen’ the State. While I support the idea of safely reopen our economy, I also have concerns that the ‘Badger Bounce Back’ plan has too much ambiguity to be adequately followed and implemented.


I believe that a plan to reopen Wisconsin needs to weigh the health and economic status in the state, and further that a plan must be specific, measurable, achievable, and timely. Today, I want to give an overview of the status of COVID-19 testing in Wisconsin and how testing must play a key role in getting Wisconsin on a track back to normal.


As you’ve likely heard news stories about antibody, or serology testing, done with a blood sample, please note that all of this information here only relates to acute diagnosis testing, done with a nasal swab. Acute testing is the only diagnostic test that actually tells patients whether they currently have COVID-19. Antibody tests only provide information on whether you’ve had, but recovered from COVID-19.


Status of Diagnostic Testing in Wisconsin


As of May 4th, 88,703 tests for COVID-19 have been completed in Wisconsin. If you presume only one tests was administered per person, the number of tests would represent 1.52% of our state’s population. Of those tests, 8,236 have been positive for COVID-19, or 9.28% of total tests completed. Thanks to the expansion of public-private partnerships, Wisconsin’s lab testing capacity has continued to grow, now exceeding the capability to process over 11,000 tests per day by 51 different labs. The increased capacity has also meant that many tests can be processed in just a few hours, instead of the days that patients had to wait to receive results just a few weeks ago.


However, this creates the first distinction that I’d like to note: capacity is not testing. While Wisconsin has taken and important first step to help us safely reopen by growing the state’s ability to ‘process’ tests, Wisconsin has not dramatically increased actual testing on a daily basis. The chart below shows Wisconsin’s capacity for testing versus the number of tests that have been completed daily since the Public Health Emergency began.



Indicated on the chart above is Health Alert (HA) #5, which is meant to be a turning point in the state’s approach to testing. Released by the state Department of Health Services (DHS), Health Alerts are communications released to medical providers throughout the state that provide guidance on responding to different health ailments. In an earlier HA, #3, the Department recommended only testing hospitalized patients with symptoms of COVID-19, health care workers who are symptomatic, and nursing home residents in facilities with outbreaks.


HA #5 represents a dramatic expansion of testing guidance, DHS is now recommending and asking providers to test everyone who is symptomatic for COVID-19, not just hospitalized patients. While this guidance should have resulted in a substantial increase in testing, as you can see on the chart, we’ve fallen woefully short and aren’t testing many more people on a daily basis than Wisconsin was testing before the expanded guidance. Additionally, we’re falling well short of our capacity or the ability to ‘process’ tests.


Problems Preventing the Expansion of Testing


There are a number of impediments that have caused issues with the expansion of testing in Wisconsin, many of which are unfortunately out of the control of the state government. The biggest roadblock continues to be supplies. Testing supplies, primarily nasal swabs and reagents (the chemical used to run the tests), are in short supply nation and world-wide. As distribution chains for these supplies are often international, not domestic, it’s difficult to easily obtain more individual components necessary to test or completed test kits.


Once complete test kits are available, there can often be distribution issues. Some providers report no shortages in kits, and UW Health even chooses to test everyone receiving an essential procedure. But in more rural areas, providers note that lower prioritization and less purchasing power leads to an inability to get kits or all the testing supplies contained in a kit. The State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC), a cooperative effort between state agencies to respond to emergencies and housed at the Department of Military Affairs (DMA), has established a distribution system to help alleviate concerns, and DHS through another health alert, HA #6, has created a site for provider requests.


Overall, these issues and others preventing the state from dramatically increasing testing in Wisconsin has begun to be alleviated, but there’s still work to be done.


Cost of Testing


The cost of a COVID-19 test should be free to a patient due to federal and state law changes that ensures government plans, including Medicare and Medicaid, and private plans that otherwise cover infectious disease testing offer COVID-19 testing coverage with no copays, no deductibles, and no other insurance charges. Federal changes have also provided funding for hospitals to perform COVID-19 testing to uninsured patients at no cost.


While tests should be provided for free to patients that have had a test requested by a provider, testing costs may otherwise range from about $70 to about $150, with only a portion of the cost being covered by the patient if they’re insured. This leaves a portion of the costs that have to be covered by the health care system.


Role of Testing for ‘Reopening’ Wisconsin


Over the past two weeks, Wisconsin has tested an average of 2,686 people per day. This is important because, under Governor Evers ‘Badger Bounce Back’ plan mentioned above, he’s looking to ramp up testing to 85,000 per week, average about 12,000 tests per day. That’s more than a four-fold increase from our current testing rates!


Increased testing is only part of the plan, as the plan also sets four benchmarks to enter the three different phases of the reopening plan. One of those benchmarks requires a 14-day decline in the total number of new positive cases. While this was left open-ended in the plan, further elaboration in a press conference from DHS showed that they’re looking at the total number of new positive cases as a percentage of total new tests. I’ve included a second chart below with the daily number of cases that are positive as a percentage of total tests.



As you can see by this chart, even as Wisconsin started to see a downward trend mid-last week in total cases that are positive as an overall percentage of tests, there has been a recent spike in cases as a percentage of total tests over the past few days. This leads to my overall concern with the ‘Badger Bounce Back’ plan. While we need to have a safe and reliable reopening of the remaining businesses that are closed, it also needs to be specific, measurable, achievable, and timely as I laid out above. However, I worry that the Governor’s criteria are not specific, measurable, or achievable given the issues we’ve had with acquiring tests, performing actual tests and given the ambiguities in the plan (for example, if there’s an outlier day or series of days, can we discount those days and continue our trend).


My Idea to Expand Community Testing


In closing, I wanted to share an idea I expressed support for in a letter to the DHS Secretary that would make COVID-19 testing more readily accessible in Wisconsin. Iowa, with a smaller population than Wisconsin, has begun testing more residents per day than Wisconsin thanks to their TestIowa website.


This new tool allows residents to have questions answered about their symptoms, express concerns about potential sources of exposure, and, if a health professional deems it necessary, the site provides participants with a unique barcode along with a time and location for drive-through testing options.


Giving residents easy and safe access to testing should be one of our top priorities. That’s why I’m hoping to see Wisconsin take steps like Iowa to offer a new and easy testing option that can help us to find, isolate, and track more COVID-19 cases sooner, creating an easier and safer reopening.



Checking Your Symptoms and Getting a Test


The symptoms of COVID-19 may appear within two days or even two weeks after exposure to the illness, and range from a cough and shortness of breath to fever, chills, muscle pain, headaches, sore throat, and a loss of taste of smell, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While the symptoms and the severity of the symptoms varies by individual with COVID-19, new state Department of Health Services’ (DHS) guidance encourages anyone that is symptomatic to seek a test.


However, DHS also advises that anyone who’s symptomatic should not head to their doctor’s office or walk-in clinic right away, but instead that they should call their health care provider to ask for the next steps to avoid unintentionally spreading the illness. If you’re symptomatic, you can also use DHS’s new Wisconsin Health Connect website where you can enter your symptoms and hear from a RN with advice on your next steps.



Advocating for Brown County


I’ve heard from constituents asking particular questions with regards to the outbreak in Brown County. While details and updates are being modified daily, I’ve been in conversations with local and federal officials and the Governor’s Office to advocate for as much assistance as the state can provide in addressing this outbreak.


I fully anticipate having additional details on this topic in my next e-newsletter.



Virtual Learning Opportunities


Looking to pass some time while at home with your kids? Try some of these new interactive and educational websites.


First, the state Department of Children and Families (DCF) has created an online library with dozens of resources for engaged learning. The library even includes some virtual ‘field trips’ where you can visit farms, museums, and zoos from the comfort of your kitchen table or living room. Find these different resources on DCF's website.


The Wisconsin Maritime Museum is also looking to bring their exhibits to your home with their new Online Resource Portal. On their website, you can explore their virtual ‘field trips’, find downloadable lesson plans, live-stream programs, and discover more activities that are bound to keep your kids anchored down and entertained for quite a while. Check out these activities on the Maritime Museum's website.


Finally, PBS Wisconsin is continuing their collaboration with the state Department of Public Instruction to make at home learning just a little easier through all-day interactive educational programming for students of all ages. Their new weekday programming will help to ensure students can combine their distance learning with fun, interactive shows that build on their thirst for knowledge. Learn more and see the daily lineup on PBS Wisconsin’s website.



Ways You Can Help Out


Wisconsin residents have largely come together to combat the spread of COVID-19 and are practicing appropriate prevention steps to protect themselves, their families, and their neighbors. While those prevention steps are the most important thing to limit the impact of COVID-19 in our communities and to help us get through the outbreak sooner, there are other steps you can take to help your neighbors and community in these trying times.

  • Donate nonperishable goods to a local food bank

  • If you have disposal income, look to buy local, and be flexible (such as ordering online or curbside pickup, or purchasing a gift card)

  • Donate blood to the Red Cross or other local blood banks if you’re healthy (for Red Cross blood donations, call 1-800-RedCross or visit their website)

  • Order takeout or delivery from a local restaurant (visit the Wisconsin Restaurant Association’s website or the Green Bay Press-Gazette’s website to find a takeout or delivery option near you)

  • Look to support your fellow community members while maintaining social distancing by checking-in on your neighbors, particularly the elderly or those living along, or by being more creative as they were in Freedom and Little Chute where teachers hosted parades to greet their students

  • Check-in on your neighbors, particularly the elderly or those living alone

  • Offer to assist an elderly or immunocompromised neighbor with their grocery shopping

  • Donate personal protective equipment in quantities of 50 items or more to doctors, nurses, and first responders to reduce their risk during the fight against COVID-19 by using this new state website



Funding Opportunities for Businesses


The impact from COVID-19 has been hard for many in our business community, but there are resources available to help. I’ve highlighted many of the different state and federal programs available for businesses in past e-newsletters, including the Paycheck Protection Program which was reauthorized with additional federal funding recently. More details are available on that program on the Treasury Department’s website, and details on other state and federal resources are available on the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation’s website.


While these programs are all good avenues to explore if you’re a business owner, some local programs have also been established to help businesses in these trying times. Both Outagamie County, in collaboration with the Fox Valley Regional Partnership, and the City of Green Bay have joined other local governments from across the state in establishing small business loan programs to provide a safety net until Main Street is back to normal. Nicolet Bank is also continuing to show their dedication to our community’s small businesses through a micro-grant program for their business customers. Finally, the Greater Green Bay Chamber of Commerce has announced a grant program to help small businesses in Brown County, even if they’re not members.


Learn more about Green Bay’s loan program here, Outagamie County’s loan program here, Nicolet Bank’s micro-grant program here, and the Greater Green Bay Chamber’s grant program here.



Water Quality Awareness


As business owners and employees start returning or preparing to return to work, please keep in mind that stagnant flow in water pipes can lead to the growth of bacteria and pathogens like Legionella. While municipal water quality is closely monitored by dedicated officials, this piping distribution system for service to some buildings does pose a risk for water quality once it leaves the treatment facility.


To avoid potentially contaminated water coming out of your facet in a building that hasn’t been used in a few weeks, remember to flush your water by letting it run on both hot and cold for a minute or two before using the water out of the faucet. Learn more about the risks and flushing process on NBC15’s website.



Consumer Protection Tips


After seeing a recent spike in scam activity relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and the federal Better Business Bureau (BBB) hosted a webinar recently to help increase awareness among consumers and businesses about some of these scams. The webinar addressed issues including fake stimulus checks, fraudulent health products, false charities, phone call, text and email scams, and more.


If you’re interested in learning more about how to protect yourself from these scams, you can watch last week’s webinar here. Additionally, I’d like to remind everyone that DATCP is encouraging consumers to report suspected price gouging, false marketing claims, fraud, scams, and other consumer complaints related to COVID-19 to DATCP’s Consumer Protection Hotline at (800) 422-7128 or DATCPHotline@wisconsin.gov, or file a complaint online.



Until Next Time


My staff and I continue to remain available to assist with questions you may have involving state government during this difficult time. While we may not always have the answer right away, we’ll do our best to assist with your questions and concerns involving COVID-19 or other issues related to state government.


To find the most up-to-date information on the Governor’s actions, including the ‘Safer at Home’ order, along with each state agency’s role in this outbreak, I’d encourage you to visit this website. To find the most up-to-date numbers on confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Wisconsin, visit the Department of Health Services’ website. You can also find the information I’ve shared in my last six e-newsletters on COVID-19 by visiting my website.


And as always, please feel free to contact my office with any questions or concerns you may have, and be sure to connect with me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for regular updates on Coronavirus and more from around the 2nd Senate District and in the State Capitol.


Thanks for reading!



Senator Robert Cowles
Proudly Serving Wisconsin's 2nd Senate District




Mailing Address: P.O. Box 7882, Madison, WI 53707-7882 | Office: 118 South, State Capitol

Office: (608) 266-0484 | District: (920) 448-5092 | Sen.Cowles@legis.wisconsin.gov




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