News of the Day

U.S. Panel Endorses Widespread Use of Pfizer COVID-19 Vaccine

A U.S. government advisory panel endorsed widespread use of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine Thursday, putting the country just one step away from launching an epic vaccination campaign against the outbreak that has killed close to 300,000 Americans.

Shots could begin within days, depending on how quickly the Food and Drug Administration signs off, as expected, on the expert committee’s recommendation.

“This is a light at the end of the long tunnel of this pandemic,” declared Dr. Sally Goza, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

In a 17-4 vote with one abstention, the government advisers concluded that the vaccine from Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech appears safe and effective for emergency use in adults and teenagers 16 and over.

Pfizer has said it will have about 25 million doses of the two-shot vaccine for the U.S. by the end of December. But the initial supplies will be reserved primarily for health care workers and nursing home residents, with other vulnerable groups next in line until ramped-up production enables shots to become widely available on demand — something that will probably not happen until the spring.

Next week, the FDA will review a second vaccine, from Moderna and the National Institutes of Health, that appears about as protective as Pfizer-BioNTech’s shot. A third candidate, from Johnson & Johnson, which would require just one dose, is working its way through the pipeline. Behind that is a candidate from AstraZeneca and Oxford University.

GOP Leaders: Pandemic Waivers For Unemployment Insurance Should End

Some state requirements for unemployment benefits in Wisconsin that were put on hold during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic will go back into effect in February, according to GOP leaders in the state Legislature.

During a Wednesday meeting with the state’s largest business group, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and incoming Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, said temporary waivers of Wisconsin’s one-week waiting period and work search requirements for unemployment benefits will be allowed to expire early next year.

Lawmakers approved waiving the one-week waiting period until Feb. 7 in their wide-ranging COVID-19 response legislation earlier this year.

The work search waiver was first instituted through an emergency order from Gov. Tony Evers in March. When that order expired, his administration worked with lawmakers to approve an emergency rule to extend it. Those extensions were approved by the GOP-controlled rulemaking committee in September and November, with the latest extension set to expire on Feb. 2.

During the virtual meeting with Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce members on Wednesday afternoon, Vos argued the waivers shouldn’t be extended again because “Wisconsin’s unemployment has come down to a much more manageable number.”

“That one-week waiting period should probably remain and not be allowed to lapse again, so people are out looking for work as quick as they can,” Vos said.

Vos said the work search requirement was waived with the idea that the pandemic and its effect on jobs wouldn’t last as long as it has.

“Here we are, nine months later, and we still have folks who are not doing a work search even though their position has been permanently eliminated,” he said. “That’s probably not the right move.”

LeMahieu agreed: “There’s no way we can extend those (waivers) with the way unemployment is trending in the state of Wisconsin,” he said.

Gov. Tony Evers proposed extending both unemployment-related waivers until January 2022 in his COVID-19 response proposal unveiled last month. The governor’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Small Businesses could Face Higher Taxes Because of PPP Loans

Small business owners across Wisconsin and the country may be forced to pay higher taxes after receiving money from the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), adding to their costs at a time when many have seen their revenue crushed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But in mid-November, the U.S. Treasury Department and the IRS said if a business paid for expenses with money from a PPP loan that has been or will be forgiven, businesses cannot deduct those expenses from their taxes — deductions that would otherwise be routine in past years.

Without being able to deduct those expenses, many small businesses will be faced with a higher tax bill, a reality Republicans and Democrats in Congress say is not what lawmakers intended when they created the program.

In a joint statement on November 19, U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, and Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, ranking member of the committee, urged the Treasury Department to reconsider the ruling, saying the department along with the IRS was ignoring the intent of Congress.

“Since the CARES Act, we’ve stressed that our intent was for small businesses receiving Paycheck Protection Program loans to receive the benefit of their deductions for ordinary and necessary business expenses,” Grassley and Wyden wrote. “Regrettably, Treasury has now doubled down on its position in new guidance that increases the tax burden on small businesses by accelerating their tax liability, all at a time when many businesses continue to struggle and some are again beginning to close. Small businesses need help maintaining their cash flow, not more strains on it.”

On December 3, hundreds of national trade groups like the Associated General Contractors of America and the National Beer Wholesalers Association sent a letter to leadership in Congress urging them to pass legislation before the end of the year to correct what they called “an avoidable catastrophe for millions of small businesses.”

“The effect of this (IRS) ruling is to transform tax-free loan forgiveness into taxable income, raising the specter of a surprise tax increase of up to 37 percent on small businesses when they file their taxes for 2020,” the letter said.

State’s Budget Challenges Come into Focus

When Gov. Tony Evers unveils his proposed 2021-23 budget early next year, he will do so amid elevated unemployment, slowing state tax collections, and the spending pressures created by an ongoing pandemic and increased demand for social services. How well will the state’s finances hold up to the strain?

To examine this question, the Wisconsin Policy Forum started with the state’s projected increases in tax collections along with its base spending levels. After including routine adjustments for debt payments and employee compensation but excluding all new spending requests by state agencies, we find general fund spending is currently projected to exceed revenues by $373.1 million in the two-year budget running from July 2021 to June 2023. To make up the difference – equal to about 1% of spending over the two years – the state would have to spend down reserves, adopt spending cuts or tax increases, delay payments for certain obligations, or draw on some other new source such as additional federal aid.

Our bare-bones tally did not factor in the projected expense of maintaining current services within Medicaid health programs – more than $1.1 billion over the next two years – or include additional spending on pandemic response, state aid to K-12 schools or local governments, prisons, or the University of Wisconsin System. New spending in at least some of these areas appears inevitable, particularly in the case of Medicaid, and will add to the challenge substantially.

In one bright spot, the state expects to finish the current 2021 fiscal year with reserves of roughly $2 billion – much more than was expected a year ago or was available in the past two recessions. However, Evers has proposed spending $541 million on pandemic response in the coming months and GOP lawmakers have proposed up to $100 million, which if approved in either case would reduce that total.

For now, these are mere projections and all forecasts should be taken with great caution in this volatile time. Further action by the federal government might improve the state’s position specifically or the economy more broadly while federal inaction and a spike in coronavirus cases could cause the economy – and state budget – to deteriorate even more.

Governor Asks Federal Officials to Prioritize Wisconsin for COVID-19 Vaccine, Provide Additional $466 million

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers on Thursday asked federal officials to prioritize Wisconsin for COVID-19 vaccine distribution, citing concerns about high case numbers, strained hospitals and a lack of statewide mitigation efforts.

He also sent a letter to President Donald Trump and the state’s congressional delegation Thursday saying that Wisconsin needs an additional $466 million for COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, hospitals, vaccine distribution and public messaging for just the first quarter of 2021.

Wisconsin health officials on Wednesday said they expect to begin distributing vaccines in mid-December.

“Our current understanding based on what we have been told by CDC is we will receive 49,725 the first week vaccine is distributed (December 14), but that is subject to change,” said Elizabeth Goodsitt, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health Services. “We expect to get more shipments weekly to follow.”

The state’s COVID-19 response will cost $466 million in the first quarter of 2021, Evers said. That includes:

  • $255 million for testing kits and lab diagnostics
  • $58 million for testing sites
  • $36 million for contact tracing
  • $105 million for hospital system surge capacity including continued operation of the field hospital at State Fair Park
  • $10 million for vaccine infrastructure readiness
  • $2 million for public health guidance and awareness

Governor Evers Announces $45 Million in Targeted Assistance for Restaurants Impacted by the COVID-19 Pandemic

Yesterday, Governor Tony Evers announced that restaurants and other targeted small businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic will receive $45 million in assistance. The program, We’re All In For Restaurants, is aimed at businesses throughout Wisconsin that, as gathering places, have been challenged from the beginning of the pandemic, and are incredibly important employers and community members.

“Restaurants and other venues have been among the businesses hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Gov. Evers said. “They’ve made the tough decisions to keep employees and customers safe by restricting indoor seating, offering delivery and curbside pick-up, and providing outdoor tables. We greatly appreciate the changes they’ve made to prioritize the health and safety of our communities, but now with winter coming, we are glad to provide this support at a critical time.”

The program will be administered by the Department of Revenue (DOR) in collaboration with WEDC. Unlike previous We’re All In grants, businesses will not have to apply for the grants, but will be identified and contacted directly by the DOR based on the businesses’ state tax records.

According to preliminary DOR estimates, restaurants will account for roughly 95 percent of the approximately 2,000 businesses to receive the funds. The program will target businesses with annual revenues of more than $1 million and less than $7 million. Previous state grant programs have focused on businesses with annual revenues of less than $1 million.

This is the third phase of the We’re All In grant program from WEDC aimed at helping businesses weather the economic storm created by the pandemic. The first phase provided more than $65 million in grants to more than 26,000 businesses statewide, while the second phase is currently disbursing more than $120 million to more than 24,000 small businesses statewide.

Funding for We’re All In programs comes from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. 

Wisconsin State Senate Not Coming Back This Month for Virus Relief

Republicans who control the Wisconsin Senate won’t take up any COVID-19 relief measures before January, the incoming majority leader said Wednesday, even though Assembly Republicans have said they’re open to coming in this month and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has urged swift action before federal money runs out.

“We’re not coming back in December,” said Sen. Devin LeMahieu, who takes over as majority leader in January.

LeMahieu also told The Associated Press in an interview that he has not yet studied a wide-ranging package of coronavirus-related measures released late Tuesday by Assembly Republicans. The proposals put forward by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos were the first since the Legislature last met in April.

“Frankly, I haven’t had the chance to go through it very in depth yet,” said LeMahieu, of Oostburg. “It’s such a new document. I’m sure there are some good things in there we could take a look at.”

CDC Expected to Announce Decrease in Coronavirus Quarantine Durations

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will shorten its recommended quarantine period for people exposed to the coronavirus to as little as seven days, CNN reported.

Under the new guidelines, quarantines can end after seven days for people who test negative and 10 days for those who do not get tests instead of the current 14-day period for both groups.

CDC Director Robert Redfield announced the update Tuesday in a meeting of the White House coronavirus task force, according to CNN, which cited two senior administration officials. Vice President Pence, the head of the task force, has reportedly been pushing the CDC for a review of the recommendations for several months, and the topic has long been under discussion.

The CDC previously defined a close contact as involving continuous exposure to a person with the virus for 15 minutes. It currently defines it as 15 minutes in total within six feet of an infected person. In July, the agency altered its recommendations for how long a person should isolate after first experiencing symptoms, shortening the period from 14 days to 10 if the person is not symptomatic by the end of that period.

 

Waukesha County Judge Allows Business Lawsuit over COVID Data Release to Continue

A lawsuit over whether the state can release data on businesses in Wisconsin tied to COVID-19 outbreaks will proceed after a judge on Monday denied motions from the state and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to dismiss the case.

The state’s largest business lobby, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, sued to stop the release of the data in October , arguing that businesses could suffer “irreparable harm.”

In a hearing that lasted three hours Monday, WMC attorney Ryan Walsh argued that the data is private medical information and that the state has to prove the records cannot be used to identify individuals who had COVID-19. “They claim they have been attentive to that, but ‘trust us’ is not good enough here,” Walsh said.

The records in question contain data on roughly a thousand Wisconsin businesses with 25 or more employees that have had at least two employees test positive or identify as close contacts.

The Journal Sentinel requested the records in June after workers at food processing plants and residents at nursing homes told the newspaper they were left in the dark about outbreaks at their facilities and had to learn about cases through word of mouth.

In her motion to dismiss the lawsuit, Assistant Attorney General Anne Bensky, representing the state, argued that the WMC had no standing to sue.

But Judge Lloyd Carter of the Waukesha County Circuit Court sided with the business lobby and said he was concerned that releasing the data could plaster businesses with a “scarlet letter.”

“We’re talking about businesses who are teetering on the brink of failure,” Carter said. “We’re talking about release of data with potential for irreparable harm to those businesses.”

 

Wisconsin Tourism Secretary Resigning to Take Private Sector Job

Wisconsin’s tourism secretary is planning to resign. Gov. Tony Evers’ office announced Wednesday that Sara Meaney will leave her position next month to take a job outside of state government.

Department of Tourism Deputy Secretary Anne Sayers will serve as interim department secretary following Meaney’s departure.

Evers appointed Meaney in December 2018, weeks after he won election. But the state Senate never confirmed her.