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Virus deaths hit new high in Wisconsin, Evers releases bill

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Tony Evers released legislation Tuesday in response to the surging pandemic as Wisconsin announced a daily record of 92 deaths from the coronavirus and health officials cautioned that even when a vaccine becomes available it will be months before most people receive it.

The Legislature has not met since April to deal with the pandemic and there are few signs that Republicans are on board with the plans Evers put forward Tuesday.

Republicans have fought Evers nearly every step of the way over his virus response, including suing him over his “safer at home” order this spring and the statewide mask mandate. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos listed Republican priorities two hours after Evers put out his proposal. He did not release any specific bills but pledged to find common ground with Evers, even as he discounted much of what Evers put forward as “more of the same.”

Evers’ proposal, and the Vos response, came as the state reported 7,090 more positive COVID-19 cases and 92 more deaths. That crushed the previous high of 66 set just last week. There have been 2,741 deaths from COVID-19 to date in Wisconsin and nearly 324,000 cases.

State hospitals hit a new high with 2,277 patients on Tuesday, and many hospitals are at or near capacity.

The bill put forward by Evers would prohibit evictions and foreclosures through 2021; continue the suspension of a mandatory waiting period that had required laid-off people to wait a week before collecting unemployment; allow workers, including in healthcare, to claim worker’s compensation benefits related to COVID-19 if they contract the illness at work; and waive student tests and school report-card requirements for the current year.

Other parts of the bill Evers made public Tuesday would require insurers to cover telehealth services that would be covered in person and ensure that health plans provide coverage for COVID-19 testing, diagnosis, treatment, prescriptions and vaccines.

Vos said Tuesday that he was open to coming into session next month to vote on virus-related legislation, but didn’t say specifically what. Republicans said in court filings in April that they were working on proposals to combat the virus but have yet to release any bills.

Even if Vos and Evers found agreement, it’s not clear where the GOP-controlled Senate stands. Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, who was elected to the position less than two weeks ago, did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

Vos said he thought Republicans could find agreement with Evers on some ideas, but repeatedly declined to “negotiate in public.” He raised concerns about relying on state funding rather than federal money, and said Republicans want to pursue priorities such as contact tracing, providing more resources for health care and additional assistance for businesses.

Evers and Republican legislative leaders have been unable to work together on a virus response. Republicans have also fought Evers in court over his attempts to curtail the virus through a “safer at home” order, mask mandate and limits on how many people can gather indoors at bars, restaurants and other places.

Also on Tuesday, with two COVID-19 vaccines racing toward approval, state health department leaders cautioned that even if a vaccine starts to be distributed by the end of the year, it will first be offered to healthcare workers and people in nursing homes. It will be months before others receive it, said Stephanie Schauer, manager of the state’s public health immunization program.

“It will start small and it will grow over time,” Schauer said. “This is a massive vaccination effort and we’re going to need all hands on deck.”

People wondering when they will be in line to get vaccinated should “stay tuned” for further information, said Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy secretary of the state health department. But in the meantime, she stressed that everyone should continue to take precautions to protect themselves, including wearing a mask, avoiding crowds and keeping a distance from others.

On Tuesday, Dane County banned indoor gatherings of any size and limited outdoor gatherings to no more than 10 people. The order, scheduled to run until Dec. 16, doesn’t apply to people from the same household. It does cover in-person games, sports, competitions, group-exercise classes, meetings, trainings, movies, events and conferences.

Coronavirus cases are also surging in the state’s prisons.

The state Department of Corrections reported 808 new COVID-19 cases among inmates Monday, bringing the number of active cases to 2,063.

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