Updates from the State Senate - June 10, 2020

The photo above was taken in Shawano County. 


Robert Cowles


Serving Wisconsin's 2nd Senate District







2-1-1 Wisconsin


COVID-19 has disrupted Wisconsinitesí 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,


Over the past few months, Iíve used this email list to do my best to keep you informed, while trying to not overwhelm you, about the status of the COVID-19 outbreak and the stateís response to these unusual times. Iíve heard from some of you about how this information has helped you in your daily lives, whether that was through online resources to help children adjust to school cancellations, links to different resources to assist with the economic hardship faced by businesses and farms, or simply by providing information when that isnít always easy to find.


In accordance with state law during an election year, today is my last day that I am able to distribute any pieces of information in quantities of fifty or more. Given this limitation applies both digitally and in print, this will be my last e-newsletter of the year. I will continue to provide the latest information available on my Facebook and Twitter pages, so please consider following me there. I wish everyone the best as we enter the summer months, and I hope that you all have the opportunity to enjoy the nice weather while it lasts.



Congratulations to High School Graduates


Itís that time of year where young adults throughout Northeast Wisconsin will celebrate the end of their K-12 career, and unfortunately they meet this culminating point as they enter an uncertain world. While I normally have the pleasure of attending a number of commencements, a lot has changed this year as in-person ceremonies have been either delayed or cancelled.


Even though the ceremonies are different for 2020, the achievement is still the same. So for the hundreds of graduates in the 2nd Senate District, CONGRATULATIONS, and I canít wait to see what you do next!



Local Companies Are Hiring


Recent economic projections have both given cause for hope and cause for concern. Anecdotally, Iíve heard numerous stories from the 2nd Senate District about residents returning to work and feeling safe doing so thanks to the precautions put in place by management and co-workers. Unfortunately, not everyone is back to work, and others may be looking for a change of pace after the past couple of months.


If you find yourself looking for short-term employment or a long-term career, hundreds of opportunities currently exist in and around the 2nd Senate District. With listings in banking, retail, healthcare, manufacturing, nonprofits, childcare, auto repair, and more, youíre bound to find something that interests you. A number of websites exist to help connect you to your next chapter, including the:



Overview of Personal Protective Equipment


One of the most important aspects of the medical care communityís response to COVID-19 has been personal protective equipment, abbreviated as PPE. While working with patients that have or may have COVID-19, given that thereís no vaccine, PPE is the only line of defense protecting doctors, nurses, and first responders from catching the virus themselves. Not only would infections potentially impact their long-term health and wellbeing, but also, even without major health impacts, this critical workforce would be depleted.


But PPE hasnít only been for healthcare workers, as weíve seen the use of masks surge among the public and in workplaces, and weíve also witnessed some residents choose to use other PPE such as gloves while in stores or out in other public places. Thereís no question that PPE has been a major topic of discussion lately and has made its way into many of our daily lives. Thatís why I wanted to take a moment to give an overview of PPE in Wisconsin and to try and answer some questions Iíve heard from constituents and some that Iíve had myself.


There are generally five main types of PPE that are categorized into this broader term when referring to COVID-19, including face shields, goggles, N95 masks, gowns, and paper or surgical masks. Obviously, other types of PPE exist, including gloves and shoe covers, among other things, but these items arenít commonly tracked as theyíre more common in a medical practice for all conditions, where the five specifically tied to COVID-19 are less frequently utilized in a typical healthcare setting.


Shortages of PPE were a key issue near the beginning of the outbreak in Wisconsin. At times, half of the stateís 133 hospitals had a seven day or less supply of any of the five key types of PPE. That led to several efforts on a state level, with local and federal partners, to help alleviate the backlog.


First, according to the most recent data which goes through May 8th, the Strategic National Stockpile has provided, at the stateís request:

  • 202,800 eye and face shields;

  • 1,022,400 N95 masks;

  • 4,479,400 gowns, and;

  • 8,025,600 surgical masks.


The state also set up a website for donations of PPE and medical supplies. While certain donations were publicized on the Department of Military Affairsí communication channels, including one from Thrivent in Appleton, the total amount of PPE received through this website is unknown.


Receiving the supplies is only the first step, as moving from a federal warehouse to a state warehouse isnít must of an improvement. With the help of dozens of National Guard members, both on land and air, the supplies were often distributed within days of being received to healthcare providers and local governments throughout the state. The dissemination was guided by provider requests through a website run by the State Emergency Operations Center.


In addition to their PPE distribution duties, the National Guard has also been involved in assisting with the collection of used N95 masks and taking them to decontamination facilities where they can be cleaned and safely reused up to twenty times. This procedure reduces waste and helps to alleviate shortages of supplies.


While these efforts by the state undoubtedly made an impact, they must also be measured with the impact made by local companies and good samaritans during the outbreak. Iíve shared nearly a dozen stories in previous e-newsletters about individuals making masks for long-term care facilities and individuals, and some companies switching production lines to create or decontaminate PPE.


I wanted to share one more example. Novolex in Shawano didnít just sit back during the COVID-19 outbreak, they stepped up to see how they could help. The plant is now producing well over a million medical-use gowns each month to help protect workers on the front-lines caring for patients. Some of these gowns have been used locally, while others are being distributed around the nation by the Department of Defense for facilities most in-need. Novolex is also taking strong steps to ensure the safety of their employees. Currently, they have 105 employees in Shawano, and they are looking to hire more. Thanks to Novolex for all that they do in Shawano and around the country! Read more about their efforts on the Shawano Leaderís website.


With the public and private efforts made over the past few months, the shortage of PPE in hospitals has nearly been eliminated. In the two regions covering the 2nd Senate District data made available by the Wisconsin Hospital Association shows that of the 23 hospitals in the 15 counties, only 1 hospital reports a seven day or less supply of face shields, googles, and surgical masks. There are also 2 hospitals that report a shortage of N95 masks and gowns.


While the goal is for no hospitals to experience these shortages, the numbers now indicate a substantial improvement from the situation we were facing even just a few weeks ago. Looking ahead, the state will continue to provide assistance to healthcare providers, first responders, and communities to fully alleviate supply shortages. As I noted in last weekís e-newsletter, among the investments from the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund, $150 million will be spent to acquire and distribute PPE throughout the state.


Committing to assist with PPE acquisition and distribution typically isnít the stateís role, but when demand surges, the collection and purchasing power of the state is greater than that of many providers, particularly rural providers. As I started by saying, PPE is the last line of defense to protect the healthcare workers and first responders that put their lives on the line to help us. Ensuring theyíre properly outfitted and ready to combat this virus as it emerges in patients is the least we can do.



Details on New Farm Assistance Now Available


Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, many farmers throughout our state had already been dealing with tight revenue margins and shrinking markets. The pandemic only worsened the circumstances for many agricultural producers in Northeast Wisconsin as they start the growing season with sizable financial outputs and declining revenues.


In last weekís overview of the Coronavirus Relief Fund spending plan, I briefly gave the minimal details we knew about the $50 million allocated for farm assistance. Fortunately, after an announcement last Friday, Iím pleased that we have more information that I can pass along about this important program for some Northeast Wisconsin residents.


In the Wisconsin Farm Support Program, farmers may be eligible for a direct payment between $1,000 and $3,500. Eligible farmers must have a 2019 gross income between $35,000 and $5,000,000, among other eligibility criteria listed online. Applications open next Monday, June 15th, and run through June 29th. Interested parties can learn more about eligibility and apply at the Wisconsin Department of Revenueís website. Farmers with limited internet access can also apply by calling (608) 266-2772.


The economic toll from COVID-19 is tough, but Wisconsin is tougher. This crisis wasnít a making of farmersí own fruition, but instead a once-in-a-generation pandemic thatís had widespread impacts. This program isnít perfect, and thereís no guarantee that everyone who applies will receive assistance, nor can the payments fully cover the lost opportunities and continued expenses. But every little bit helps. I strongly encourage any farmer who may quality and whoís felt impacts from the Coronavirus to consider these options and not let these programs pass them by



Progress Being Made on COVID-19 Testing


A little over a month ago, I provided an overview on the status of COVID-19 testing in Wisconsin and the roadblocks that the state faced in ramping-up testing efforts. If you want to review that information, please check-out the May 4th edition of the Updates from the State Senate e-newsletter.


Things can change quickly, though, and Iím happy to report that when it comes to testing, Wisconsin has changed for the better. Robust testing efforts are crucial for one primary reason: finding more cases of COVID-19 allows the provider to ask for those patients to isolate sooner, reducing the risk of spread and helping to control and minimize the outbreak. With this in mind, I wanted to provide a quick update on the status of COVID-19 testing.


As of this Monday, June 8th, 354,291 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 6.1% of our stateís population. Of those tests, 21,038 have been positive for COVID-19, or 5.9% of total tests completed. Thanks to the expansion of public-private partnerships, Wisconsinís lab testing capacity has continued to grow, now exceeding the capability to process over 15,500 tests per day by more than 50 labs.


However, this creates a distinction that Iíd like to reiterate: capacity is not testing. The number of tests completed is not always near the amount of tests that the state believes could be processed. However, since the last update, the state has taken numerous steps to both increase daily testing and maintain a high capacity to run tests. The chart below shows Wisconsinís capacity for testing versus the number of tests that have been completed daily since the Public Health Emergency began.



As you can see, thereís been a wide degree of variability in the number of daily tests completed over the past two weeks, as daily reported tests have ranged anywhere from about 3,600 to 16,500. However, if you look at the daily average in the fourteen-day period from May 26th to June 8th, 10,381 tests have been completed on a daily basis. Thatís quite an improvement from my last e-newsletter where I reported an average of 2,686 daily tests over a two-week period.


The number of tests certainly isnít the only important metric. While more tests may lead to more positive results, state and federal health officials generally look towards the percentage positive metric to determine progress on controlling the outbreak. This statistic is created by taking the total positive tests on a daily basis divided by the total tests completed. Over the past two weeks, the daily percentage positive has averaged 3.73%, as seen in the chart below. That compares to the average from the last e-newsletter which was 9.88%. Again, a remarkable improvement.



As you can see, tests are much more available than they once were, and with a state investment from the Coronavirus Relief Fund of $260 million in testing, options should remain robust for as long as demand exists. If youíre looking to receive a COVID-19 test, options exist near you at no cost. Learn more about drive-through testing options on the Department of Health Servicesí (DHS) website, or contact your local provider for a more convenient option if necessary. Additionally, for testing numbers on both a statewide basis and on a county level updated around 2pm daily, please visit DHSís website.


Even as weíve seen testing increase and as weíve been finding new cases, hospitalizations have continued to drop. Around the time that the last e-newsletter on testing was sent, in our area, around 70 to 80 or more cases resulted in hospitalization at any given time. Now, weíre down to about two dozen cases as of today. Hospitalizations are also a lagging indicator, as testing can be done upon symptoms emerging where hospitalizations come days, sometimes weeks after the diagnosis may be confirmed.


Finally, I wanted to briefly mention antibody testing as the other testing option thatís been discussed in the media. Unlike acute diagnostic testing options which were discussed above that actually diagnose or determine if you have COVID-19, antibody, or serology testing can determine if youíve had but recovered from the virus. Questions about the accuracy of any given antibody test have been raised, with some estimates as high as 50% failure rates. Thatís why some providers that conduct antibody tests have chosen to group tests together from one person, as more tests can give more certainty when a result is provided.


While antibody testing hasnít emerged as a widespread effort, public health officials do note that it can have merit in determining the extent of potential Ďherd immunityí, or the percentage of the population that have a reduced risk of reinfection. As an alternative to antibody testing, health officials have discussed potentially sampling wastewater at a treatment plant to determine the extent of the antibodies in waste.


Another example of why antibody testing has merit is for determining potential plasma donors. Plasma with antibodies has shown some promise as a treatment for patients COVID-19, leading some, including the Community Blood Center in Appleton to conduct antibody testing in potential plasma donors. By identifying those whoíve had or may have had COVID-19 and confirming that they have the right antibodies, the Community Blood Center can prepare a supply of plasma that can be used to help future patients battling COVID-19. Learn more about this effort on the Community Blood Centerís website.



Work to Continue on the Audit Committee


As a result of Congressional actions over the past few months, Wisconsin has been the recipient of over $3 billion in federal funding, and more funding may be on its way. With this funding comes a lot of opportunities, such as those Iíve outlined in the last e-newsletterís Coronavirus Relief Fund section as an example. This funding can help people and local institutions, such as small businesses, nursing homes, and nonprofits, in their time of need.


But with these opportunities also comes the risk of waste, fraud, abuse, mismanagement, and a lack of transparency. As Co-Chair of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, Iíve had the pleasure of working to serve as an advocate for taxpayers over the past few sessions by helping to create a more efficient state government.


In my role, I work closely with the award-winning experts at the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau to monitor the administration of state programs and allocation of state and federal funding year-round, but in these unusual times, the oversight has now shifted into overdrive.


Typically, the work of the Audit Committee is often finding past faults in ongoing programs. By evaluating several years of operations and data, the Audit Bureau can make recommendations for the agency and the Committee to act, sometimes legislatively and other times through less formal continued follow-up.


However, with the unique nature of these new programs designed to react to Coronavirus, this typical approach wonít be the most effective given that these new programs wonít be around for long. Thatís not to say that thereís not merit behind an analysis once the programs close-out as there are still lessons we can learn from these audits for general administrative improvements, but it is to say that a more proactive approach is needed.


In close consultation with myself and my Co-Chair, Representative Samantha Kerkman (R-Salem), the Audit Bureau has already had dozens of conversations and meetings with key officials in several state agencies, and has examined hundreds of pages of documents from these agencies. One example is the Department of Workforce Developmentís Unemployment Insurance program, where theyíve been actively working alongside agency staff to determine whatís gone wrong in the agency and why some claims take weeks or even months to process and pay.


In another example, weíve already seen the Department of Children and Families propose an administrative budget of about $2.5 million for a childcare provider grant program of about $50 million. Thankfully, careful work by the Joint Finance Committee reduced that administrative portion of the budget, in consultation with the agency, to about $0.5 million, creating more opportunities to provide assistance to childcare providers with less paper pushing costs. While this potential example of waste was caught, most new programs have not required legislative review. As a result, we donít know what administrative expenses have been tallied to this point, but I intend on finding out.


From the audit work on Unemployment Insurance along with the work in other agencies, the information collected and evaluations made have not been finalized and are not public yet. Over the summer, into early next year and beyond, I look forward to continuing to discuss audit findings and working to ensure accountability over every program. I hope youíll follow along with the COVID-19 audit findings as they become available and I share them on my social media pages.



Success of the Work-Share Program


Just yesterday, we learned about a success story that has helped to save jobs made possible due to the Legislatureís response to the Coronavirus outbreak: Act 185. Under this law, we expanded the Work-Share Program from only applying to businesses impacting twenty or more workers in one division to any employer with at least two employees.


This program allows employers to reduce hours evenly among employees and up to 60% of weekly hours when the business is facing difficult times, with the lost hours covered by Unemployment Insurance. Work-Share helps the workers by keeping their pay up even with less hours. In addition, work-share maintains the ability for employees to retain benefits such as insurance. It also helps the employers by allowing them to continue operations, even at a reduced capacity, while maintaining their connections to their valued employees instead of forcing them into the job market.


Prior to the Coronavirus, Wisconsin had used just 20 Work-Share plans which involved about 900 participants. The Department of Workforce Development announced Tuesday that there are now more than 500 Work-Share plans with almost 18,000 worker participants. While a reduction in hours is never welcome news, the success of the Work-Share Program has helped to substantially lessen the blow for over 500 businesses and 18,000 Wisconsinites during these difficult times.



Until Next Time


While this will be the last e-newsletter for a while, my staff and I will remain available throughout the summer and into fall to assist with any questions or concerns you may have involving state government.


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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