Last Thursday, Governor Tony Evers announced that he would be extending the Safer at Home order for another thirty days. Despite COVID-19 infection, hospitalization, and death rates having remained level or declining for some time now after a peak in early April, the governor called for the extension earlier than necessary – the original order was set to last until this coming Friday – and for far longer than we can reasonably forecast would be needed.
Now, having just had their Easter and Passover celebrations disrupted, people across the state are now faced with the potential of having to shelter in place through Memorial Day.
Compounding the challenges facing Wisconsin, however, has been Gov. Evers’s failure to communicate and adequately manage expectations throughout this crisis. With decisions often coming out of the blue, with little or no consultation with elected officials, hospitals, or community and business leaders, it has created an environment of anxiety, crippling uncertainty, and a feeling of powerlessness for families and businesses alike. The great shame of it all is how unnecessary and avoidable that part has been.
Around the country, President Donald Trump and many other state governors have been holding frequent briefings in which they provide detailed explanations and status updates on a daily basis.
I recently had the opportunity to view one of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s public briefings. I understood why his daily press conferences have become appointment viewing, not just for New Yorkers, but for many around the nation looking for competent executive leadership through this crisis.
I was amazed at the granular level of data Gov. Cuomo was offering each day about the spread of the disease, with comprehensive updates about the state’s current resources and needs, as well as a clear articulation of what challenges the state was facing and what everyone’s goals needed to be. Here was a leader reassuring his people through his commanding knowledge of every facet of his government’s response to the outbreak, able to thoroughly engage in back-and-forth with reporters asking him to justify every choice and policy decision. He candidly takes ownership of bad news and announces any new orders or policy changes directly to his people watching in their homes, a modern version of President Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats, which were another masterclass in leadership during a difficult period.
While Gov. Cuomo has perhaps received the most attention, many other governors, Republican and Democrat alike, have demonstrated incredible leadership through this crisis, projecting calm, authoritative leadership.
Unfortunately, their impressive performances stand in stark contrast to the typical showings Wisconsin experiences during Gov. Evers’s infrequent press briefings, which replace detail, data, and relentless transparency with platitudes, clumsy reasoning, and affected folksiness. Whereas Gov. Cuomo takes accountability for his policies by thoroughly explaining the process and data that drive every decision, our governor prefers to issue his diktats via press release or delegating responsibility for one emergency order after another to Department of Health Services Secretary-designee Andrea Palm. Governor Evers expects the entire state to take his commands on faith and to trust him without question.
We need to start questioning, however.
About a month ago, the US Centers for Disease Control offered modeling that suggested that millions of Americans were at risk and that we faced potentially hundreds of thousands of fatalities across the nation.
On March 12, Governor Evers declared a public health emergency declaration and imposed his Safer at Home order a few days later. His administration sought to justify these actions by asserting that Wisconsin would experience as many as 22,000 cases of COVID-19 and 1,500 related deaths by April 8, but without making their underlying model widely available until quite some time later. In light of such worrisome predictions, being overly protective and imposing a statewide shutdown seemed prudent.
Thankfully, none of these worst-case scenarios have materialized. With the benefit of actual experiential data, Dr. Anthony Fauci recently revised the United States’ estimate down to about 60,000 deaths – a significant drop. The CDC’s website offers transparency into which models the government is relying on and how they have performed or been tweaked, which allows the public to understand the effects that the social distancing measures have had and, more importantly, to understand what they can expect and need to do moving forward.
By contrast, the Evers administration has yet to publicly reevaluate and adjust their predictions by offering any new modeling. Instead, they simply subtract the actual numbers from their projected worst-case scenario data and claim those as “lives saved,” without reflecting on whether the models were valid in the first place and using the opportunity to critically reexamine the assumptions underlying their projections moving forward.
Nevertheless, with more than a week remaining on the original order, and despite data that at least suggested hope and the need for careful monitoring, the administration has opted to extend the statewide shutdown order by a full month.
The astronomer Carl Sagan famously said that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” With the government asking the state to remain paralyzed based on their say-so, the administration has an obligation to provide clear evidence of why Wisconsin needs to continue the shutdown, as well as objective and prospective targets against which to measure our progress.
Instead we are left to make our own inferences from the data available and ask, “Do we really need another 30-day lockdown?”
I do not believe we do, and here’s why: whereas we originally had to rely on modeling and broad assumptions, we now have the benefit of empirical real-world data to evaluate and act upon. This allows us to shift from blunt responses like statewide shutdowns across multiple sectors of our economy to being able to act with surgical precision in how we work to contain the spread of the virus. We are able to better track the distribution of cases now, and we can identify “hotspots” and trends in closer to real time. The gives us the flexibility to adopt more stringent precautions when and where necessary, while avoiding unnecessarily burdening populations in areas that are not facing significant risks.
Part of the reason originally given for the shutdown was the need to prevent a “surge” in our hospital system, in order to ensure that care could be provided to those needing it most. Consequently, Gov. Evers has proposed creating thousands of additional beds in temporary hospitals in State Fair Park and the Alliant Energy Center.
However, current data on resource use and availability for Wisconsin hospitals shows that we are only using a fraction of our capacity and that between a quarter and a third of existing hospital beds are going unused right now. Moreover, national models, including the widely-cited Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) model, indicate that our peak hospital resource demand passed over 10 days ago.
At the same time, while many patients around the state and nation are facing delays or obstacles in receiving vital treatments like cancer therapy, transplants, and back surgeries, hospitals across Wisconsin are furloughing workers due to moratoriums on elective and non-essential surgeries. This inefficient use of resources will, unfortunately, continue as long as Wisconsin relies on the blunderbuss response of statewide shutdowns as the primary tool for reducing the spread of the virus.
As of April 20th, Wisconsin has only had 4,500 confirmed cases of COVID-19— a number that is, thankfully, far lower than the 22,000 infections the Evers administration had projected by April 8th. There is no question that Wisconsinites’ extensive efforts to contain the virus are responsible for those lower numbers. But that also proves that the people of Wisconsin are able and willing to be partners with the government by taking the necessary care to fight the outbreak.
A closer analysis of the statewide COVID-19 data reveals that 10% of Wisconsin’s counties represent nearly 70% of those cases. So, while Wisconsinites have shown their readiness to do their part and sacrifice for the greater good when asked, that also requires a good faith effort by the government to not ask its citizens for more than is reasonably needed.
That means carefully prioritizing and reevaluating the need for restrictions, empowering people with data and information, and freeing Wisconsinites to continue their concerted efforts to contain the spread of the virus while being able to get their lives and livelihoods back on track. That’s a true Wisconsin solution.
Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin) represents the 15th Assembly District.