The interior of the Wisconsin state Capitol dome in Madison. (Photo by Christina Lieffring)
The interior of the Wisconsin state Capitol dome in Madison. (Photo by Christina Lieffring)

Proposals would end face mask safeguards, micromanage vaccine distribution, and leave unchecked the coronavirus spread affecting prison inmates and guards.

Three weeks into the legislative session, the Wisconsin Legislature has failed to pass any COVID-19 relief bills. Instead new bills were introduced by Republicans in the Assembly and Senate that offer anything but relief. And the lawmakers may even take a backward step by voting to strike down the statewide face mask safeguards.

Senate Republicans and Gov. Tony Evers reached an agreement on a pared-down version of the Assembly Republicans’ first COVID-19 bill. The revised version of Assembly Bill 1 (AB1) passed the Senate and is back in the Assembly for what’s called concurrence,  but no action has been taken because Assembly members don’t like how the Senate removed controversial items that would have restricted local health officers’ ability to protect their communities, and local school boards who want to safely conduct classes online.

“I sincerely hope Assembly Republicans decide to pass the bipartisan compromise COVID-19 response bill without any changes when we meet next week,” said Minority Leader Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) in an emailed statement. “As it stands now, AB1 has overwhelming bipartisan support and will provide resources and relief as quickly as possible as Wisconsin continues to combat the COVID-19 virus. I urge my Republican colleagues in the Assembly to follow the lead of their Senate counterparts on this bill and not further delay helping the people of our state.”

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos took aim at the compromised bill in his response to Gov. Tony Evers’ State of the State address. 

“We [negotiated with Evers] with our Senate colleagues because we wanted to find common ground. It seems, unfortunately that some would think the only way to find common ground is to cave to the governor’s demands,” Vos. “We will continue to work to a consensus as equals but we will never compromise our conservative ideals in the name of political expediency.”

Instead of trying to reach some kind of common ground, Republicans put forward a slew of bills that revive some of the poison pills in the Assembly’s original bill, which healthcare officials have warned could exacerbate the spread of the COVID-19. While the proposals would allow the Legislature to micromanage the state’s COVID-19 response, none of them offer relief to families and businesses affected by the pandemic, nor do they take any measures to reduce community spread.

“It seems clear that some Republican legislators are more interested in playing politics than they are in fighting the COVID-19 virus,” Hintz said. “We need all hands on deck to support Wisconsin’s public health response, including a clear, consistent message from state leaders that COVID-19 is real, that we must take our public health efforts seriously, and that vaccination will be key to Wisconsin’s recovery from the pandemic. I hope my colleagues on these bills have a change of heart, and decide to start helping–rather than hurting–our efforts to combat this dangerous virus.”

Backward steps

Even before the poison pill proposals are adopted, the measure most likely to pass the Legislature this week is a resolution co-signed by over two dozen Republican members of the Assembly and Senate to terminate Gov. Evers’ renewed emergency order and mask mandate despite ongoing evidence on the efficacy of masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Last week, the Senate Committee on Human Services, Children, and Families held a hearing on five COVID-19 bills, four of which were controversial parts of the original Assembly bill that had been struck by the Senate:

  • Senate Bill 4 would bar health officials from requiring people to take the COVID-19 vaccine.
  • Senate Bill 5 would bar employers from requiring the COVID-19 vaccine as a condition for employment.
  • Senate Bill 6 would require school boards to agree to virtual learning by a two-thirds vote and only allow them to implement virtual learning for 14 days at a time. Even during that 14-day period, school districts would be required to offer a full-time, in-person learning option for all students.
  • Senate Bill 7 would forbid public health officials from closing or restricting gatherings at houses of worship.
  • Senate Bill 8 would forbid the Department of Health from prioritizing prisoners for vaccination. 

All five bills passed through the committee and are now waiting to be scheduled for a Senate floor session.

Here we go again

Senate Bill 8, which would bar allowing prisoners in a vaccine priority group, is being promoted by lawmakers in Wisconsin and across the country. 

The State Disaster Medical Advisory Committee (SDMAC), a volunteer committee of medical officials and experts, voted unanimously Thursday morning to send its recommendations for vaccine group 1B—which includes prisoners along with other groups living in congregate settings—to the Department of Health Services for final approval. 

During the discussion, Ann Lewandowski, founder of Wisconsin Immunization Neighborhood and co-chair of the vaccine subcommittee, pointed out that, while controversial, removing prisoners from the list could violate the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits, “cruel and unusual punishment.” Under that definition, prisoners have a right to access healthcare. Since they, by definition, live in a congregate environment, separating them from other members of that group would raise legal questions. 

“If we include any other congregant setting, by Constitutional rights we would have to include prisoners,” Lewandowski said.

Hearing but not listening

Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin) has already held hearings for two bills he wrote that would micromanage the vaccine rollout–in many cases requiring DHS to do what it’s already doing– and even undo the work SDMAC has done on vaccine group 1B, which is only days away from being approved by DHS.

During an interview on WKOW-TV’s Capital City Sunday, Sanfelippo blamed DHS for the lack of vaccine coming from the federal government.

“We have even to date we have 300,000 more vaccines the federal government has allocated to us that we haven’t even asked for yet,” Sanfelippo said. 

This is incorrect, and Sanfelippo should know because DHS Assistant Deputy Secretary Lisa Olson testified for over four hours at a hearing of the Assembly Health Committee, which he chairs. Olson and other experts testified that the federal government determines how much vaccine states receive. Evers earlier this month joined seven other states in requesting the federal government make more vaccine doses available. 

Sanfelippo on that program also talked about the number of vaccines that have been distributed to the state but have not been administered. Left unsaid is that a federal program for vaccinating long term care facility residents and employees required states to set aside doses, which accounts for a bulk of the unadministered doses. 

One of Sanfelippo’s bills requires DHS to allow vaccination of long term care facility residents and employees, but that program started before the bill was introduced. The first phase of the program, which focused on nursing homes, rolled out in late December. Earlier this month DHS told vaccinators once they have enough doses they should move on to the second phase, which is focused on assisted living facilities.

Several other provisions in Sanfelippo’s bills also ignore the testimony from the Health Committee’s hearing. 

Assembly Bill 4, authored by Sanfelippo, would allow pharmacy technicians and pharmacy students to administer the COVID-19 vaccine, which could be helpful if Wisconsin received enough doses of the vaccine from the federal government.

During her testimony, Olson said that DHS had approved over 1,200 entities across the state to administer the vaccine; the issue was that the state had not received enough doses of the vaccine nor details on how much they would receive week to week. This made it difficult for her department to say when those vaccinators would actually get their hands on the vaccine. 

“We are eager to receive more vaccines in Wisconsin,” Olson said. “The question mark for us is when. We have the system, we have the infrastructure in place. We are ready to go.”

Sanfelippo’s vaccine micromanaging bill, Assembly Bill 5, contains several provisions that would require DHS to do things Olson said the department is already doing and undo work that has already been done. 

The bill requires DHS to lower the age for vaccine prioritization to 60 for group 1B. The SDMAC initially recommended the age be set at 70 for 1B based on epidemiological data, but because surrounding states lowered the age limit to 65, the committee decided to mirror that. The committee was concerned that further lowering the eligibility age meant Group 1B would become too large, and those who are truly vulnerable–those 70 and older–could be delayed in receiving the vaccine.

The bill would scrap the committee’s recommendations and require DHS to authorize vaccination priority to emergency first responders, corrections officers, and workers in food or agriculture, grocery stores, public transit, child care and education, who are already in the proposed 1B group. The bill added workers in the postal service and  manufacturing but did not say how many people that would add to the 1B group.

It excluded non-frontline healthcare workers, which were added to ensure hospital systems continue to run smoothly, and mink husbandry, which was added due to the biosecurity concerns. Mink are able to contract and transmit COVID-19 with humans and experts are concerned that the virus could mutate within the mink population and create new variants. 

The bill left out populations the committee included because they are vulnerable to contracting the virus, such as recipients of family care and IRIS, a program for adults with disabilities and the frail elderly. These excluded populations include people who have multiple comorbidities, and people living in congregate settings, such as homeless or domestic violence shelters, halfway houses and prisons. Prisons in particular have been hotbeds of infection, with about half the prison population having contracted COVID-19 according to Department of Corrections data.  

The bill would also require DHS to create a platform for the general public to register for the vaccine–which Olson already said DHS would launch in February–and present a plan to the Senate and Assembly health committees for administration to the general public by March 15. Health officials have said that unless the supply of vaccines increases, that goal was unrealistic. 

President Joe Biden announced he wants 100 million vaccines administered during his first 100 days in office as part of a $1.9 trillion recovery plan that includes provisions to hire more public health workers for contact tracing and vaccine outreach. 

The Assembly Health Committee has an executive session scheduled for 9 a.m. on Tuesday for Sanfelippo’s two bills, which will be livestreamed on Wiseye.org.