MI Analysis: Badger Bounce Back Isn’t A Plan To Reopen, It Is A Declaration That Wisconsin Is Closed Until The Fall

April 24, 2020

Governor Evers released his Badger Bounce Back plan earlier this week, a supposed guide on what needs to happen for the Governor to start easing his shelter-in-place order, lifting oppressive restrictions on businesses and slowly beginning the process of reopening Wisconsin. While the Governor has tried to portray the Badger Bounce Back plan as a legitimate attempt to systematically reopen the economy in an orderly fashion, our analysis finds that the Governor’s metrics are not attainable in the next couple of weeks or even the next few months. Instead, the requirements seem both incredibly difficult to achieve and deliberately vague so the Governor can keep all of us trapped in our homes this summer and keep Wisconsin’s economy closed until the fall. 

On March 24, Governor Evers and his administration issued Safer at Home, the shelter-in-place order that confined Wisconsinites to their homes, allowed only “essential” businesses to stay open with restrictions, closed schools and severely limited normal, everyday activity.  The rationale for taking this drastic step was that Safer at Home would slow the spread of COVID-19 and “prevent spikes in COVID-19 cases that could further strain our healthcare system and risk more lives.” The most recent data shows that we accomplished both of these goals. 

During the first two weeks of Safer at Home, Wisconsin averaged 152 new cases a day. The next two weeks, the state averaged 146 new cases a day. Since then, because of a localized spike in Brown County and increased testing, the average jumped to 216 a day. The large spike of diagnosed cases and the need to hospitalize those who voted in Milwaukee on April 7th has not materialized, as some had predicted. There will be isolated situations like the meat packing plant in Green Bay that pop up from time to time but we have generally flattened the curve here in Wisconsin. Remember, we needed to shelter in place so that we could flatten the curve to prevent our health care system from being overwhelmed.

Even now, as testing increases statewide, the percentage of positive diagnoses out of all tests conducted remains at an average low of 9.07%. But now that the original Safer at Home goals have been satisfied, the Badger Bounce Back seems to be moving the goal line back just as we are about to go in for a touchdown. Instead of talking about opening up our economy and how we return to some resemblance of normalcy, Evers is moving the target and making it unlikely we will be allowed out of our homes and allowed to go back to work any time soon.

According to the Badger Bounce Back, in order to eventually move beyond Safer at Home, Wisconsin will need to show progress in several “gating criteria” and demonstrate the capacity to reach certain “core responsibilities.” Essentially, the gating criteria and core responsibilities are two different types of requirements that will be used by the Governor to determine if we are ready to open back up. If and when we reach or accomplish these 14 new and separate conditions, we move to a less restrictive phase of the Governor’s plan. 

The first requirement is 14 consecutive days where reports of influenza-like illness show a downward trend. The second requirement is 14 consecutive days where reports of COVID-19-like illness show a downward trend. The third requirement is a “downward trajectory of positive [COVID-19] tests as a percent of total tests within a 14-day period.” 

What immediately jumps out is the strange addition of the requirement that flu-like illness show a downward trend. This is a COVID-19 public health emergency, not an influenza public health emergency. The two diseases have not been connected nor discussed in tandem since this began. Why now? Every flu season is widespread across Wisconsin and the entire country. According to DHS, there were 17,000 diagnosed flu cases last season, and that’s with a flu vaccine. We haven’t been able to prevent the spread of the flu before COVID-19, so why does the Evers administration think we will be able to show a downward trend of the flu for 14 consecutive days while we are trying to contain COVID-19?

As for the second requirement of 14 consecutive days of a downward trend in COVID-19-like illness, Wisconsin’s daily new diagnoses of COVID-19 has been bouncing around between 130 – 200 a day for a few weeks now. This week, because of Brown County, we are up to 216. Some days we are up. Some days we are down. Everyone agrees that we have successfully contained the spread of COVID-19 in Wisconsin but we have not experienced 14 consecutive days heading down. It is improbable that Wisconsin will see daily diagnoses decrease each day for 14 days straight any time soon. In reality, it would be six months from now, at the earliest, that we would see such a complete and absolute drop. 

Evers clarified for reporters during his announcement that the requirement is, indeed, for 14 “straight” days of decline. So if we are heading downward for 7 consecutive days and then on the 8th day, we pop back up, maybe back up even for a couple of days, the timeline to satisfy this requirement resets all the way back to day 1. He also explained that everything must decline simultaneously. Therefore, if there is one day of increased reporting for flu-like symptoms, which is likely given how widespread the flu is, we start the count over for everything.

What if it takes until the fall for COVID-19 symptoms and diagnoses to be on the decline for two weeks? By then, the seasonal flu may be back on the rise, which will prevent the state from meeting the conditions to move to the next phase, or even stay in whatever phase in which we happen to be. 

The fourth requirement that must be met before Evers will begin the process of reopening Wisconsin is for hospitals “to treat all patients without crisis care.” Notice, it does not specify COVID-19 patients without crisis care but ALL patients without crisis care. Again, why Governor Evers would inject a non-COVID metric into his plan to combat COVID-19 is a real head-scratcher. If only MacIver had access to his public press events so we could ask him these basic questions that all Wisconsinites want to know the answers to but he never seems to get asked. If only… 

The fifth requirement is that hospitals must have “robust” COVID-19 testing programs for “at-risk healthcare workers.” The sixth requirement is that the testing programs at these hospitals show a “decreasing number of infected healthcare workers.”

What a “robust” testing program for healthcare workers looks like is not defined in the plan. It’s not defined on the DHS’ resource page for health care providers either. One would think that a “robust” testing program for frontline workers would have been a first priority at the beginning of the state of emergency back in March. 

The seventh requirement to be met before reopening the state is having enough testing capacity in the state so that every Wisconsin resident who has COVID-19 symptoms is tested. Right now, we have the capacity to test approximately 11,000 individuals a day or 77,000 tests per week. In reality, however, Wisconsin is only testing approximately 2,000-3,000 individuals every day. The greatest amount of tests administered in a day was 3,421 on April 24. Gov. Evers has never explained why we test so few individuals for COVID-19 when our existing capacity is so high. DHS’ Chief Medical Officer Dr. Westergaard has said it’s possible that, “There’s not a demand because there are not that many sick people.” If we cannot reach the full number of the testing capacity we have now, why is the Governor adding an even more exacting standard into the mix?

The eighth requirement would mandate that COVID-19 test results be available to the patient and to local public health officials within 48 hours of testing. This is a laudable goal and, quite frankly, we are not sure why this requirement isn’t being met right now. If we are truly in a public health emergency, one of the keys to responding to the spread of the disease should be quick turnaround on testing. How long is it taking right now for test results to come back? Again, if only we could ask Gov. Evers a question. 

At the end of this requirement, Gov. Evers mentions that the ultimate goal is to conduct 12,000 tests per day or 85,000 tests per week in the state.  Demonstrable progress towards that goal meets requirement number nine. Again, right now we have testing capacity of around 11,000 tests per day but we only test approximately 2,000 to 3,000 individuals a day. How realistic is it, then, to think we could find 12,000 people every day to test anytime soon?

The tenth requirement would see DHS hire up to 1,000 new contact tracers to combat COVID-19. Contact tracers are paid to keep tabs on every person identified as COVID-19 positive, force them to quarantine or self-isolate, interview the diagnosed to identify individuals the diagnosed may have been in contact with while infected, and then work to get those contacts to quarantine or isolate. There are currently thousands of vacant or unfilled positions in state government so there is no need to create a 1,000 brand new jobs for these tracers. We also have deep privacy concerns about how this army of investigators will conduct themselves. We will leave that discussion for another day.  

The eleventh requirement is that DHS “implement technology solutions to ensure everyone who is infected or exposed will safely isolate or quarantine.” We find number eleven even more unnerving than the contact tracers. The plan doesn’t define “technology solutions to ensure everyone who is infected or exposed will safely isolate or quarantine” but it sounds eerie and Orwellian. Are we talking about ankle bracelets to ensure those infected stay in their home or in a certain room? Or drones that hover 24/7 over your house or apartment and monitor your every move?

The eleventh requirement is that DHS “implement technology solutions to ensure everyone who is infected or exposed will safely isolate or quarantine.”

Requirement number twelve states that we must build “on systems used to track influenza and the COVID-19 pandemic, track the spread of COVID-19 and report on the Wisconsin Gating Criteria and other related metrics.” Aren’t we doing this right now? Was the DHS not tracking the coronavirus spread already? By including a requirement for a tracking system as a requirement for advancing through phases, it suggests that we do not or cannot currently track the spread of COVID-19. That can’t be true, can it? Very strange. 

The thirteenth requirement lays out what Wisconsin needs in terms of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to reopen. It requires the Evers administration to “procure PPE and other necessary supplies to support health care and public safety agencies.” Again, the order doesn’t specify or detail exactly how much PPE we need. The press has even asked Evers for a specific goal on PPE but he has refused to put a number on it. “Well, certainly, we aren’t satisfied with the amount of PPE we do have,” Governor Evers said on April 20. “We know what adequate isn’t and that’s where it is right now. We believe we can get to that point where we feel confident that the equipment going forward is adequate. I don’t have any recent numbers…” The wording is just vague enough for the Evers administration to one day say “nope, still not enough PPE” and derail the state’s progression to reopening. 

The fourteenth requirement is probably the most ambiguous of all the requirements, and that is saying something. The fourteenth requirement states that we must “assess the need for and readiness to support surge capacity for our healthcare system.” Again, Governor Evers is scant on details or metrics. What exactly “support surge capacity” would look like isn’t given a framework in this plan. Does this refer to the alternative care facilities at the State Fair Park and the Alliant Energy Center, or does it refer to other measures the administration has yet to tell us about? The requirement also raises the question, yet again, what has the DHS been doing up until now if number fourteen is a brand new concept that needed to be included in this new plan? The language is extremely generic and allows for the Evers administration to decide–without measurement–that the state is still not doing enough to meet this requirement and keep us in lockdown for however long they see fit. 

We will need to satisfy or “make progress” towards satisfying all fourteen of the above requirements before we move out of the current shelter-in-place order to Phase 1. How much progress must be achieved towards most of the requirements is not specified in the order nor is the administration giving any sincere indications of what that progress looks like. The same 14 requirements will then need to be met again before moving to another phase. This means that if even one condition isn’t met, there’s potential to fall back a phase or more, or stay trapped in a phase until all conditions are met again. 

When Wisconsin finally reaches Phase 1, the state will allow gatherings of up to 10 people, K-12 schools and child care facilities to resume normal in-person operations, and restaurants will be open with some limitations. Non-essential businesses may remove some limitations, but those remain unspecified until the Phase 1 order is issued by the DHS.

As Emergency Order #28 states, “Public and private K-12 schools shall remain closed for pupil instruction and extracurricular activities for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year.” If schools are not allowed to reopen until Phase 1 of the Badger Bounce Back plan, this implies again that Phase 1 won’t be achieved until the fall, five months from now. Phase 1 also allows gatherings of up to 10 people. How exactly are schools supposed to be in session with only nine students and one teacher allowed in a room? You could argue that this would allow summer schools to open for classrooms of 10 people, but then that begs for clarity from Order #28 on when exactly the “2019-2020 school year” ends. The more probable interpretation is Phase 1 taking place in the fall. In any case, the contradictions make for a confusing transition to reopening the state.

Phase 2 will allow gatherings of up to 50 people, restaurants to fully operate, bars and non-essential businesses to open with restrictions, and post-secondary schools to consider reopening. This phase doesn’t clarify why restaurants can reopen before bars and doesn’t clarify why K-12 schools can reopen before post-secondary schools can even consider reopening (see the language in the chart below). What Phase 2 does make clear is that post-secondary schools can’t even plan to reopen until at least 14 days after K-12 schools have.

Phase 3 will open the state almost completely, end physical distancing requirements, and recommend only minimal protective measures for the general public. More strict protective measures are prescribed for the vulnerable population. Until Phase 3 people above the age of 60 are told to still shelter in place. Sorry if you are a teacher, bartender, or business owner above 60 years old. Even if your workplace is allowed to reopen earlier, you won’t be able to go back to work until Phase 3, many months down the road.

“Unnecessary” visits to group living settings and hospitals are banned even after Phase 3. Such visits are cancelled indefinitely “until a vaccine is available.”

The Badger Bounce Back allows the DHS and WEDC to issue additional orders to remove restrictions on “certain businesses or sectors” if removing them won’t have a huge impact on meeting the gating criteria. While this sounds encouraging, the tone of the order itself and lack of specificity contained within the order does not give us hope that WEDC will look for reasons for businesses to reopen. We fear that WEDC will be creating even more hurdles that prevent a private business from determining for themselves how to safely reopen and ensure their workers can do their jobs safely. 

Here is again where the plan contradicts itself and the Governor. When asked about the Safer at Home extension, Evers said on April 16, “This is a statewide, comprehensive plan and we can’t just parcel off parts in the state and leave them high and dry.” This would suggest that just days before announcing the Badger Bounce Back, Evers preferred a one-size-fits-all approach to reopening the state. But the powers given to local health authorities and the DHS say the exact opposite. Instead, local health officials may clamp down on and stunt the progress of local economies as they see fit. That’s a scary concept when Evers’ generic language in the plan doesn’t limit what those officials can decide. 

What the Badger Bounce Back plan lacks the most is common sense and reality. Wisconsin is not New York. Wisconsin is not California. As of April 26, Wisconsin had identified 5,911 COVID-19 virus diagnoses, 1,397 hospitalizations, and 272 of our fellow Wisconsinites have passed away from the virus. Life is precious and the loss of life cannot and should not be minimalized. Thank God we have experienced far fewer deaths and hospitalizations than any of the hot spot states. Unlike other states, Wisconsin has also never experienced the surge that overwhelmed our hospitals and our healthcare system that some gravely predicted. So why is Evers forcing on Wisconsin a plan more appropriate for a hot spot state? The same plan that is necessary for New York to respond and recover will not work for Wisconsin and is unnecessary. Gov Evers needs to start creating a solution that works for Wisconsin. 

Rather than establishing a tailored plan for Wisconsin to get back to work, the Badger Bounce Back is merely a plan to think of a plan to come up with a plan… to maybe reopen the state this fall. By then, it will be too late for countless Wisconsinites, business owners, home owners, employees, everyone. Everyone except the chosen few, lucky enough to work for government. For the rest of us Wisconsinites, the Badger Bounce Back plan, like Safer at Home before it, leaves us with more questions and concerns about the vague language and unquantified metrics.