Vice Presidential Debate
Vice President Mike Pence looks at Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., as she answers a question during the vice presidential debate Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, at Kingsbury Hall on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, Pool)

Harris says Medicaid expansion needed to cover all the new pre-existing conditions. VP opposes even though he did the same as governor.

Less than 24 hours after Vice President Mike Pence told a debate audience the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic was going well, Wisconsin reported more than 3,000 new COVID-19 infections in a single day, the first time the state has hit a milestone that was unthinkable just over a month ago.

The state Department of Health Services reported 3,132 new cases on Thursday, one day after the Gov. Tony Evers announced the state would open an overflow medical facility at State Fair Park to take pressure off hospitals that set another new daily record for total beds in use by COVID-19 patients (907) and number of patients needing life-saving treatment in an intensive care unit (228).

The surge of cases in Wisconsin and elsewhere ensured the pandemic would be an early and divisive debate topic between Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris, the California Democrat running with former Vice President Joe Biden.

During Wednesday night’s debate in Salt Lake City, Utah, Harris said Pence and Trump hid the danger of the virus from Americans after learning about it in January. More than 210,000 Americans have died from the virus so far.

“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” Harris said during her opening remarks to an audience wearing masks and seated distantly from each other.

The Biden administration would implement a national strategy for contact tracing and COVID-19 testing that would better control the virus, she said, noting testing would be free for all Americans.

Pence said the president has acted effectively to contain the virus, despite the fact COVID-19 infection and death rates in the US are higher than most other developed countries. Trump’s suspension of travel from China after he learned about the virus saved many lives, Pence said, before blaming that nation for coronavirus cases in the US.

“First and foremost, China is to blame for the coronavirus,” Pence said. “And President Trump is not happy about it. He’s made that very clear.” 

Trump has often singled out China for the spread of coronavirus, calling the illness the “Chinese virus.” Critics have charged his administration with using that as an excuse to detract from the fact the US has a high number of cases and deaths relative to other developed nations. 

The president has continued to downplay risks associated with COVID-19 and has rarely worn masks at public events, including campaign stops. He had planned campaign stops in Janesville and Green Bay on Saturday but cancelled them after he tested positive for the virus and was hospitalized on Friday. Since his release from the hospital on Monday, Trump again has downplayed the seriousness of the virus.

The president’s actions to discount the impact of COVID-19 undermine their efforts to slow the spread of the contagious virus, health officers in Wisconsin told UpNorthNews. Citizens across the state who support the president often follow his actions and statements, health officers said, and many are reluctant to take part in such behaviors shown to help prevent spread as wearing face masks, practicing social distancing, and refraining from attending gatherings. 

“I don’t understand why anyone from any political party, why their stance would be not caring about their neighbors,” Pierce County Health Department Officer AZ Snyder said. “Wearing a mask seems like such a small ask to protect those around you. I don’t understand why people wouldn’t be willing to do that, to do what they can to make sure they and their family stay safe and to get this virus under control.”

County health department directors said they have received pushback to their recommendations to curb the spread of COVID-19 in the form of verbal harassment, protests outside their homes and even death threats. At least four have resigned from their since the start of September, citing resistance to measures to control the virus from citizens and local government officials.

Thursday’s 3,132 new cases made up nearly 19% of 16,565 total tests processed. An additional nine deaths brought the Wisconsin death toll from the coronavirus outbreak to 1,424.

During the debate, Harris advocated for Medicaid expansion, which health care experts say would improve health care access, reduce hospitals’ costs, and reduce private health insurance premiums for coverage offered through the health insurance exchange established by the Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare.

Pence responded by calling the ACA “a disaster,” but he used it to expand Medicaid while he was governor of Indiana, and his version included regulations making it more difficult to qualify for the program. The Trump administration is now seeking to dismantle the ACA through the Supreme Court. 

Republicans in Wisconsin have rejected the extra federal Medicaid dollars for the past decade—making the state one of only 12 not to expand health insurance coverage and forcing Wisconsin taxpayers to spend an estimated $2 billion over the next 10 years for Medicaid expansion that will happen in other states.

As many Wisconsin residents have resisted wearing masks in public and practicing social distancing, the virus continues to surge. The number of COVID-19 cases has grown significantly since the state Supreme Court overturned an extension of the safer-at-home order on May 12 and has surged since the start of September with the start of a new school year.

The number of state residents testing positive for COVID-19 has risen dramatically in recent weeks, with new daily cases of the virus frequently topping 2,000. On Wednesday another 2,319 positive cases were reported, along with another 16 deaths. Since March, 138,698 Wisconsin residents have tested positive for the virus and 1,415 have died.

As coronavirus cases increased, the number of people requiring medical treatment grew too. On Sept. 2 COVID-19-related hospitalizations totaled 287 statewide, less than one third of Thursday’s total. On Wednesday Gov. Tony Evers announced the opening of an alternate medical site to treat COVID-19 patients at State Fair Park in West Allis because some hospitals, especially those in the eastern part of the state, have reached capacity.

That followed action the previous day by the governor to slow virus spread, when he issued an emergency order restricting bars, restaurants, and stores to 25% of their occupancy levels, a move that prompted criticism by Republicans. Schools, health care facilities, churches, political rally spots and other locations are exempted from the order.

In addition, late last month Evers extended a mandatory mask order after first issuing it on July 30 because of concerns about growing COVID-19 cases in the state. 

Wisconsin Republicans criticized Evers’ order to limit occupancy levels in some businesses, saying that action could put owners already struggling during the pandemic out of business. On Friday Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos filed a brief on behalf of the state Legislature opposing Evers’ extension of the statewide mask mandate.