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Wisconsin grapples with explosion of new Covid cases amid political in-fighting

Covid-19 roundup: FDA rules mean no vaccine by Election Day, Trump calls that a "political hit job."
Image: FILE PHOTO: People line up to get COVID-19 tests in Milwaukee
Drivers line up to take Covid-19 tests distributed by the Wisconsin National Guard in Milwaukee on Oct. 2.Alex Wroblewski / Reuters

Wisconsin is now one of the nation’s new Covid-19 hot spots with an explosion of new cases, but the response to the pandemic has been stymied by political trench warfare between the Democratic governor and the Republicans who control the state Legislature.

In the last two weeks, as Gov. Tony Evers has battled GOP lawmakers, the state’s coronavirus cases jumped by 50 percent and the 33,403 new infections in that time is more than any other state besides Texas and California, the latest NBC News figures revealed Wednesday.

Adjusted for population, Wisconsin’s new case rate of nearly 20 percent is the highest in the nation just after North and South Dakota, the figures show.

“Wisconsin has become the poster child for how things can go wrong,” Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told NBC News.

The pandemic has been pounding cities like Green Bay, where the hospital was close to being overwhelmed with new cases and where President Donald Trump was supposed to hold a campaign rally on Saturday before he, too, came down with Covid-19.

Evers on Wednesday gave the order to activate a 530-bed field hospital. This came a day after Evers warned the state’s hospital system was “on the brink” of collapsing and after he issued a statewide order that put new limits on indoor public gatherings.

“We hoped this day wouldn’t come, but unfortunately, Wisconsin is in a much different, more dire place today and our healthcare systems are beginning to become overwhelmed by the surge of COVID-19 cases,” Evers said Wednesday.

But just like Evers’ earlier mask mandate, his crowd capacity limit order is likely to be challenged in court by conservative groups allied with the Republican legislative leaders — Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald.

"We believe we can overcome that challenge just like we believe we can overcome the challenges on the present mask order," Evers said.

Evers’ lawyers, however, would be defending the new order before a state Supreme Court that sided with conservatives back in April and revoked the governor’s stay-at-home order, a decision that public health experts say helped lay the groundwork for the surge in new cases the state is seeing now.

NBC News has reached out to Vos and Fitzgerald for comment. In April, Vos accused Evers of acting like “a king” when he tried to extend his initial stay-at-home order.

“Basically what he does is he sits down in his office with his minions, reaching out to very few people,” Vos said on a local political radio show. “They then make a decision, they come and tell us like it’s an edict, like we’re subjects of a king.”

And Vos has kept up with the "king" theme, accusing Evers of ruling "by fiat" in a recent statement.

"No one branch of government can rule outside the letter of the law and go unchecked, even during a pandemic," Vos declared.

In other coronavirus developments:

  • New federal Food and Drug Administration guidelines make it unlikely that a new Covid-19 vaccine will be unveiled before Election Day, as President Donald Trump has promised. "The new guidance is a 'balance' of speed and safety," the FDA's vaccine regulator, Dr. Peter Marks, said. "With close to 1,000 or more people dying a day, there has to be balance." "Just another political hit job!" a disappointed Trump tweeted.
  • Nearly a dozen states have rolled out an app designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus that uses Bluetooth sensors in smartphones to determine possible exposure. “What it’s trying to do is to break the chain of transmission as best as we can,” said Larry Breen of NearForm, a software company that has helped various governments build their apps.
  • Hundreds of Orthodox Jews protested after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered new restrictions in some Brooklyn neighborhoods to combat a sudden rise in Covid-19 cases. "In the hotspot ZIP codes the positivity rate is 5.1%," Cuomo tweeted. "We are taking quick action to respond to the clusters & stop the spread."
  • Bars will reopen across Texas on Oct. 14 for the first time since June, but only at 50 percent capacity. "We can contain the spread of Covid," Gov. Greg Abbott said. With 811,588 infections, Texas was closing in on California (840,255) for most confirmed cases in the country. It has also recorded 16,616 coronavirus deaths. Only New York (34,086) has had more.

Wisconsin political watchers said the seeds of today’s Covid-19 response calamity were sown back in 2018 when Evers narrowly defeated the Republican incumbent, Scott Walker, and Democrats made big gains in statewide races. The GOP was able to keep control thanks to a legislative map that had been redrawn to protect their majorities in the Legislature.

“Much of the problem stems from the terrible relationship between Evers and the Republican legislative leaders,” Burden said.

Vos and Fitzgerald “began changing policies and picking away at the governor’s powers” after Evers unseated Walker, Burden said. This happened during the lame-duck session before Evers took office.

“The governor will say that the spike is due to Republicans holding up his efforts to fight the pandemic,” Burden said. “The Republicans will say the governor’s efforts to impose things like mask mandates set a bad precedent and they have to limit his power, even though they might agree that wearing masks is a good idea. But if he (Evers) has no ability to take unilateral action, he has no ability at all.”

Vos and Fitzgerald don’t have a strategy for fighting the pandemic, but they have one for thwarting Evers, added Dennis Dresang, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

And the playbook they are using against Evers is the same that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., used against Trump’s predecessor as president, Barack Obama.

“Do everything possible to keep the governor from having any success, regardless of the issue,” Dresang said in an email to NBC News.

Vos and Fitzgerald “have avoided ownership of their efforts to thwart the efforts of Governor Evers to combat the spread of the virus,” Dresang added. “The state Supreme Court agreed that the law seems to limit the authority of the governor to declare a public health emergency, but went on to point out that the obvious remedy is for the Legislature to act. Vos and Fitzgerald have, however, refused to allow the Legislature to take action and instead have returned to court to stop Evers.”

This strategy, Dresang said, “puts the courts in the position of ‘bad guys’ and instead of the Legislature.”

Both Vos and Fitgerald backed the former governor, Walker, in 2016 during his failed run for president.

“They are now enthusiastic Trump supporters,” Burden said. “So some of this is a proxy war.”

This week, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published an editorial blasting Vos and Fitzgerald for not working with Evers and making the coronavirus crisis worse in Wisconsin.

Trump, who returned to the Oval Office on Wednesday despite still being infected with Covid-19, pushed for states to quickly reopen in late April after the nation was in lockdown for barely a month. The result was a sudden spike in new cases across the South and Sun Belt.

Midwestern states like Wisconsin and the Dakotas began seeing a sudden rise in new cases in August when schools and college campuses began reopening and after “super-spreader” events like the 10-day biker festival in Sturgis, South Dakota, where thousands of people partied and there was little to no mask-wearing or social-distancing.

Currently, the U.S. leads the world in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases with more than 7.5 million and more than 212,000 deaths, according to NBC News’ tally.

While Trump continues to insist that his administration has done a “phenomenal job,” the U.S. now accounts for a fifth of the world’s 1 million-plus deaths and about a fifth of the world’s confirmed coronavirus cases, according to the Johns Hopkins University Covid dashboard.