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Capital City Sunday: Evers reflects on pandemic anniversary, COVID-19’s lasting effects on society

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MADISON (WKOW) -- When asked what he wishes he could've done differently during the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Tony Evers said it would be getting all of the state's leaders on board with protective measures like mask wearing. However, Evers said he doesn't know if that was ever possible.

"It became a political thing and it kind of started with our former president and it morphed into what happened here in Wisconsin," Evers said. "So the regret was, frankly, not being able to convince the Republicans of the importance of mitigation practices."

Evers said he understood the severity of the virus well before declaring his first emergency order on March 12, 2020 because of conversations he'd been having with the state's top health officials.

When Evers did issue the order, there were still fewer than 10 confirmed cases in Wisconsin. One year later, more than 6,500 Wisconsinites have died due to the disease.

Evers has since issued new orders on a rolling 60-day basis. Conservatives have questioned - and filed suit over - Evers's ability to issue consecutive orders for the same public health crisis. The state supreme court has yet to answer that question.

As for whether he will issue another one, including a statewide mask mandate, when the current order expires in early April, Evers said there would need to be an even more significant decline in cases. Currently, the 7-day average of new daily cases is around 350, which is the lowest it has been since last June.

As for one of the pandemic's persistent problems - strain on the unemployment system - Evers said he apologized to anyone still waiting for pay.

"Certainly, they will get [their benefits]. I mean, that situation was not where we would want it to be," Evers said. "Clearly, we had a system we couldn't change on the fly and should've been fixed a long time ago."

Evers and Republican legislative leaders have agreed to begin the process of overhauling the Department of Workforce Development's outdated claims processing system. However, the two parties are split over whether the state should commit up front to spending the $90 million the Evers administration estimates it would take to build out a brand new system over several years.

Another hurdle still facing the state is the legion of students who've struggled to adapt to virtual instruction on their a full or part-time basis.

Evers said because conditions vary from one school district to another, he did not want weigh in on whether any of the state's districts were taking an unreasonably long time returning to at least some form of in-person learning.

"It all depends on the class sizes, the condition of the building, what's happening locally as far as transmission of the diseases," Evers said. "So that's something hard for me to make a judgement if something's taking too long or not."

Evers instead called for districts to start making plans for expanded summer school hours that could help students who've fallen behind.

Lasting lessons from the pandemic

UW-Madison Epidemiologist Ajay Sethi said he first became deeply concerned about what COVID-19 could do in the U.S. when he saw workers in China rapidly build field hospitals over the span of just a few days.

"I was concerned because I said 'that's obviously serious over there and could it actually arrive in the United States?'" Sethi said.

Sethi said when he reflects on the first few weeks of COVID-19's presence in the U.S., one of the first things he wishes were done differently would be public health officials not using influenza as a baseline to explain the new virus to people.

"Unfortunately, that caused a lot of people to assume this is a virus like influenza when it really is not anywhere close to that," Sethi said. "It works for maybe educating the public about what respiratory infections are but as the unique biology of this virus, it was not a good comparison, not a good starting point."

UW-Madison Economist Tiffany Green said she hoped on outcome of the virus reaching and spreading so rapidly in the U.S. would be greater public health awareness in the future.

"I think a lot of people saw how this virus had been politicized and thought 'well it's happening to other people but not me' but even though we're seeing disparities across populations, infectious diseases don't discriminate," Green said.

Green said she hoped future mitigation efforts will particularly focus on workers whose jobs put them in crowded conditions and typically draw employees from already-marginalized communities.

"We're seeing the end result of structural inequality," Green said. "For example, in Wisconsin, when we had outbreaks in meat plants, those were immigrants mostly in these plants and they didn't have the workplace protections that were needed to make sure they were OK."

Looking ahead, Green said she believed one of the most visible lasting impacts will be people using masks during flu season to prevent the spread of that virus.

She added leaders should also begin preparing for the possibility of an increased disabled population whose health was forever impacted by their bout with COVID-19.

"We are gonna have a newly-enlarged disabled population," Green said. "There are going to be some people with long-term symptoms of COVID and possibly permanent disability."

As for when the country should feel safe about returning to its normal ways of life and shedding the guidelines around masking and social distancing, Sethi warned we're still not close to squashing the spread to the point where he would advise a wholesale lifting of pandemic restrictions.

"I think when we see the case numbers down to very low levels, single digits," Sethi said. "Where we have a string of days where nobody has tested positive for COVID; that's a sign things are much safer."

As for what he hopes is a permanent change from the pandemic, Sethi said he hopes the public has a reckoning about the value of acting on information from trusted sources -- people with expertise in the areas in question.

"2020 showed us how misinformation can really wreak havoc in our society," Sethi said. "It can cause people to make decisions that are not optimal for them and for their community."

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A. J. Bayatpour

Capitol Bureau Chief

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