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Republican Senator doubts masks are effective, questions hospitalization data

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MADISON (WKOW) -- State Senator Chris Kapenga doesn’t believe masks are making a difference in the fight against COVID-19 despite top scientists and health professionals saying wearing a mask is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of the virus.

The Republican Senator from Delafield argues he doesn’t see a significant decrease in the number of cases across the state after Gov. Tony Evers issued a statewide mask order on July 30.

“We went from no mask to a mask and there’s no significant decrease in cases,” Kapenga said. “I just call it a placebo effect that (masks) make us feel good about ourselves.”

His comments come after President Trump, who was known for not wearing a mask, tested positive for COVID-19 and was hospitalized. The head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr. Robert Redfield, also called face coverings, “the most powerful public health tool” the nation has against COVID-19 and might even provide better protection against it than a vaccine.

Kapenga's comments contradict GOP leaders who oppose the statewide mask order but still encourage mask wearing.

"We need everyone to work together to contain the virus. Follow CDC guidelines, wear a mask, wash your hands, and maintain social distancing," Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said in a statement released earlier in the week. Wisconsin ranks one of the worst in the county for coronavirus cases,

Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers continue to support a lawsuit seeking to strike down Gov. Evers statewide mask mandate. Speaker Vos and Senator Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald filed a brief on behalf of the legislature in support of a lawsuit that would eliminate the mask order. GOP leaders want the courts to revoke the mask mandate, yet, they refuse to take action by voting down the order through the legislative process.

Kapenga said while he believes Evers order is illegal and the legislature should strike it down, he thinks it would send the wrong message to the public that in fact, the order is legal.

"I don't want to have to do it where we start setting a precedent by making it look like the governor's order is legal, that's the problem I have,” Kapenga said.

If the order was struck down, Kapenga also supports not requiring schools to wear masks.

Democratic lawmakers wrote a letter to GOP leadership criticizing them for the lawsuit and not passing any legislation for months during the pandemic.

"Our state is in crisis, worsened by your inaction and by your desire to file lawsuits instead of passing bills that will make a difference in the lives of your constituents," Senator Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point) said.

"We’ve found ourselves on the unenviable list of states forced to open a field hospital to handle the record-breaking surge of new cases of COVID-19. It is time to come off the sidelines and take action."

In August, Kapenga called Evers mask order a “scare tactic” noting as long as our hospitals are not overwhelmed he didn't think there was a need for Evers to issue one. That’s not the case now.

Health care workers are overwhelmed and hospitalizations have nearly tripled in the last month, according to the State Department of Health Services dashboard. 

When asked if he supports the governor's decision to open a field hospital, as some health care facilities are overflowing with patients, Kapenga said he doesn’t trust data showing hospitals are in need.

“ICU beds are coming up close to capacity, but I don’t know if 80 percent of the ICU beds non-COVID? Are there people in ICU beds who don’t necessarily need to be there?” Kapenga said. “I have concerns that there's not good data out there and I can't make a good public policy decision when I'm only given 10 percent of the information.” 

DHS does share data on hospitalizations and how close they are near capacity which as of Saturday was at 84 percent.

The Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm said multiple hospitals, in the Fox Valley, Green Bay, and Wausau, are at capacity for the number of patients they can treat.

"To be clear things will get worse before they get better and our current surge will lead to even more hospitalizations," Palm said.

Palm also noted that health care facilities are also suffering from staffing shortages as health care workers are getting sick on the job and have to quarantine after testing positive.

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Emilee Fannon

Capital Bureau Chief

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