Gov. Tony Evers on Tuesday unveiled his plan for spending $1 billion in federal funds to combat COVID-19 in Wisconsin.
The money will be used to fund ongoing virus testing efforts, conduct contact tracing, purchase supplies, provide resources and prepare for a surge. The spending plan comes a day after Evers dropped plans to work with the state Legislature to pass a new statewide rule to slow the spread of the virus.
There is no statewide safer-at-home order after the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck it down last week, leaving a patchwork of local restrictions.
"Regardless of the political overtones of the past week, we still know what we need to do to box in this virus and help keep people safe,” Evers said in a statement. “Our statewide approach to containing the spread of COVID-19 will continue with robust testing and contact tracing efforts in all corners of Wisconsin, resources that ensure our critical workers have the equipment they need to do their jobs safely, and direct investments in local communities and health providers. Wisconsin’s safer-at-home order may have ended, but our all-out war on this virus has not.”
About $260 million in federal money will be used to expand testing, including providing free tests at hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, local public health departments and elsewhere.
Another $50 million will go to local public health departments to hire additional staff to track down people who have come into contact with those who tested positive. The remaining money will be used to hire staff at the state level and purchase equipment.
An additional $150 million is being used to pay for personal protective equipment, such as masks, gloves and gowns. The state was also spending $40 million on ventilators and holding $445 million in reserve and to prepare for an expected surge in cases over the summer and fall.
As of Tuesday, there were 467 deaths due to COVID-19 and nearly 13,000 confirmed cases, the state Department of Health Services reported.
Also on Tuesday, the state Department of Workforce Development reported that since mid-March, interest has exploded in a state program that helps small businesses keep people employed even as work drops.
More than 14,000 workers have signed up to receive partial unemployment benefits funded by the federal government under the Work-Share program. There are now 342 Work-Share plans in place compared with 20 before the pandemic.
“This is a really great program that I’m almost evangelic about when I talk about it,” U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, who is also a small business owner, told The Associated Press.
Pocan said still too few businesses know about the program and its benefits, but he predicted that its use will spike as loans paid to businesses under the federal paycheck protection program run out in early June.
Work-Share allows employers to retain workers during slow business periods by reducing their hours and allowing them to file for partial unemployment benefits. The workers can retain employer-provided benefits. It is open to full-time, part-time, salaried and exempt employees.
The Legislature changed the program in a coronavirus relief bill to make it easier for more people to qualify.
The minimum number of workers covered under any plan was reduced from 20 to two. The maximum reduction in work hours covered under the program was also increased from 50% to 60%. And once the employer's plan is approved, the federal government pays for all unemployment benefits through year-end.
Pocan said the program will be especially useful for restaurants, bars and entertainment facilities that won't open up all at once, but that may be able to employ people for fewer hours. More than 550,000 workers in Wisconsin have filed for unemployment since mid-March.
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