Gov. Evers requests presidential disaster declaration in response to COVID-19 pandemic

MADISON – Gov. Tony Evers asked President Donald Trump on Tuesday, March 31 to issue a major disaster declaration for Wisconsin due to the coronavirus pandemic, as the state opened voluntary isolation centers, unemployment claims hit a daily high and the state’s health secretary warned that Medicaid enrollments were going to skyrocket.

Evers said he hoped the emergency declaration, which also would cover Wisconsin’s federally recognized tribes, would allow the states to access critical programs to support its response, including community disaster loans, public assistance, direct assistance and crisis counseling.

“The response to this outbreak has caused multiple deaths, exhausted many of our resources, resulted in record unemployment claims, and taken a toll on the community infrastructure that is in place to protect the public,” Evers said. “We need federal assistance to help rebuild those critical safety nets and ensure they remain strong.”

Evers on Tuesday also announced that voluntary isolation centers would be opening Wednesday in Milwaukee and Madison. The centers will house people confirmed to have the virus or who are showing symptoms and want to isolate themselves. They would need a referral from a doctor or public health official to be admitted.

The move was made to take pressure off of hospitals when a surge in patients comes, said Wisconsin Department of Health Services Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk. The state has not reported how many COVID-19 patients are currently hospitalized. Van Dijk said the state was working to update its data system to collect those numbers and report them “in days to come.”

“We have not heard concerns from any hospital that they are reaching capacity at this point in time,” she said.

As of Tuesday, Wisconsin had had more than 1,350 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and at least 25 deaths, based on state and local health department reports.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems are among those particularly susceptible to more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The number of initial claims for unemployment benefits topped 24,600 on Monday, making it the highest daily total during the outbreak. Since March 15, there have been nearly 222,000 claims, which is 17-times higher than the same period a year ago.

Also Tuesday, Wisconsin Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm warned lawmakers that swift action would be needed to bolster the Medicaid program which serves more than 1 million poor, elderly and disabled people.

“The pandemic is likely to significantly increase Medicaid expenditures (through June 2021),” Palm wrote to the co-chairs of the Legislature’s budget committee. “Medicaid members will require more health care services, and the pandemic’s effects on the nation’s economy will likely drive up Medicaid enrollment.”

Evers and Republicans who control the Legislature are discussing a state aid package to complement an estimated $2.2 billion coming the state’s way as part of the federal stimulus. Republicans have said they wanted to understand that before convening the Legislature. Preparations were proceeding for lawmakers to virtually meet as soon as next week.

Palm told lawmakers that December projections were for Medicaid costs to exceed the budget by $40 million over the next two years. But now, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, Palm said those estimates were “obsolete.”

She said the department was working with the Legislature on federal waivers for more flexible requirements for health care providers during the outbreak related to reimbursement, allowable settings, certification and other topics. The state will also receive an estimated $150 million every three months from the federal government to help offset Medicaid costs that come with the expected increase in enrollment, Palm said.

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