MADISON — The Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Gov. Tony Evers’ coronavirus safer-at-home order Wednesday, ruling that his administration overstepped its authority when it extended the mandate for another month without consulting legislators.
The 4-3 ruling essentially reopens the state, lifting caps on the size of gatherings, allowing people to travel as they please and allowing shuttered businesses to reopen, including bars and restaurants. The Tavern League of Wisconsin swiftly posted the news on its website, telling members, “You can OPEN IMMEDIATELY!”
The decision let stand language that had closed schools, however, and local governments can still impose their own health restrictions. In Dane County, home to the capital of Madison, officials quickly imposed a mandate incorporating most of the statewide order.
Chief Justice Patience Roggensack wrote for the majority that Health Secretary Andrea Palm’s order amounted to an emergency rule that she doesn’t have the power to create on her own, and also imposes criminal penalties beyond her powers.
“Rule-making exists precisely to ensure that kind of controlling, subjective judgement asserted by one unelected official, Palm, is not imposed in Wisconsin,” Roggensack, part of the court’s 5-2 conservative majority, wrote.
Rebecca Dallet, one of the court’s liberal justices, dissented. She wrote that the court’s decision will “undoubtedly go down as one of the most blatant examples of judicial activism in this court’s history. And it will be Wisconsinites who pay the price.”
Dallet also took aim at the potential delay set up by a rule-making process, writing: “A review of the tedious multi-step process required to enact an emergency rule illustrates why the Legislature authorized DHS to issue statewide orders to control contagion.”
Neither Evers nor top Republicans immediately responded to requests for comment.
Before the court ruled Wednesday, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said he thought it unlikely the economy would immediately reopen if the court ruled in the GOP’s favor, citing the need to negotiate with Evers. He said he preferred a statewide reopening but said he also would consider a more regional reopening based on the impact of the virus in different areas, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.
Assembly Republican Majority Leader Jim Steineke tweeted after the ruling was released that businesses can reopen but should follow safety guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Show the Gov that there doesn’t need to be business closes to ensure safety, b/c biz will take precautions on their own,” Steineke said.
Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief on Republicans’ behalf, praised the ruling. State director Eric Bott called it “a win for the protection of the separation of powers and the necessary legislative and public oversight in the administrative rule-making process.”
Evers first issued a safer-at-home order in March that closed schools and nonessential businesses. The closures battered the state economy, but Evers argued they were necessary to slow the virus’ spread. The order was supposed to lift April 24, but Palm, an Evers appointee, extended it to May 26.
Republicans asked the Supreme Court to block the extension, arguing that Palm exceeded her authority because the extension amounted to an administrative rule, requiring legislative approval.
Evers’ administration countered that state law clearly gives the executive branch broad authority to quickly enact emergency measures to control communicable diseases. Attorney General Josh Kaul also noted that Evers’ order was similar to that in at least 42 other states and has saved many lives.
Nearly seven of 10 Wisconsin residents back Evers’ “safer at home” order, based on a Marquette University Law School poll released Tuesday, though that support was down from 86% in March.
Evers’ administration faced an uphill battle in persuading the conservative court to keep the order in place. Three of the conservatives joined Roggensack; the remaining conservative, Brian Hagedorn, joined Dallet and fellow liberal justice Ann Walsh Bradley in dissent.
The Republican legislators had asked the court to let the rule remain in place for six days to give them time to work with Evers’ administration on an alternative plan. The court refused to grant the stay, saying the two sides have had weeks to come up with something.
The GOP so far has not offered any alternative plans. The state’s chamber of commerce has suggested allowing all businesses to open at once while compelling higher-risk establishments and operations to take increasingly strict mitigation measures such as requiring employees to use protective gear.
The GOP move against Evers mirrors actions taken by Republican-controlled legislatures in other states, most notably against the Democratic governors in nearby “blue wall” states Michigan and Pennsylvania. All three are critical presidential battlegrounds in November.
The GOP has been working to weaken Evers’ powers since he ousted incumbent Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2018.
During Walker’s final weeks in office, Republicans adopted a set of laws that prohibited Evers from ordering the attorney general to withdraw from lawsuits, a move designed to prevent the governor from pulling Wisconsin out of a multistate lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act. The state Supreme Court has upheld those laws.
The high court also backed Republicans over Evers in the GOP’s insistence on holding in-person voting for April’s presidential primary despite the health risks of the coronavirus.
All four semesters of Cadie Monson’s journey toward her associate degree at Chippewa Valley Technical College included stints in hospitals.
Tending to her own medical needs along with her newborn daughter were challenges on her path to helping other people in a field now in the spotlight during the coronavirus pandemic.
But through her own perseverance and some help from family and CVTC faculty, the 27-year-old is graduating Friday from the college’s respiratory therapy program.
“It feels so awesome,” she said. “I still can’t believe that I did it.”
Originally from Barron, Monson is now living in Bloomer with her daughter, Paetyn, and fiance, Andrew Marquardt. The couple’s nuptials are on hold right now due to precautions against spreading COVID-19 that are preventing large gatherings.
Going for it
Prior to going for her associate degree, Monson worked as a medical assistant for Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire.
She considered seeking a degree in nursing, but the wait list to get into that program made her ponder other options. Her sister-in-law suggested she consider respiratory therapy as another in-demand career in medicine that also has a program available through CVTC, but with a shorter wait to get in.
Indeed, Monson opted for it and began her education right away, even though she already had a baby on the way due to arrive in spring 2019.
“I didn’t think twice about it, I just accepted it,” she said.
As she began her education to become a respiratory therapist in fall 2018, Monson encountered a dangerous complication brought on by the diabetes that she’d been managing her whole life. Diabetic ketoacidosis — a condition when insulin levels are too low and the body burns fat, which then leads to a harmful buildup of acids in the bloodstream — led her to get it treated at a local hospital.
But like future challenges she would face, this first medical interlude didn’t postpone her progress at school.
Her next unexpected hospital stay came with the premature birth of her daughter during the middle of the spring 2019 semester. Born six weeks early, Paetyn arrived on March 11, 2019. She weighed about six pounds and spent two weeks in the hospital, requiring a feeding tube for part of the time. Shortly after her birth, Paetyn suffered a brain bleed and had to go to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for a few days to get treatment for that.
But then they were back home, and Monson was getting into the rhythm of being a new mom while also handling her schoolwork.
Monson didn’t do it alone though, she said, giving credit to her mother and grandmother for babysitting when she needed to focus on schoolwork or get hands-on learning in clinicals at medical facilities in the region.
“Without them I would not have been able to graduate,” Monson said.
During the fall 2019 semester, Monson noticed that when Paetyn would fall asleep, her baby girl would stop breathing. She’d rouse her daughter to get her breathing again, but found it was a recurring problem to the point where Paetyn would start to turn blue.
After a few clinic visits didn’t discover the problem, Monson took her daughter back to Rochester for a sleep study. There doctors found nodules in Paetyn’s airway had been impeding her breathing, especially when she was laid down to sleep on her back.
“Her airway was 90% blocked,” Monson said.
Between Paetyn’s diagnosis and surgery to fix the problem, that amounted to two weeks in Rochester.
Then COVID-19 hit
Everything was going well during her final semester at CVTC, but a worldwide pandemic then changed how classes would be taught.
“The fourth semester was good … up until COVID,” Monson said.
The respiratory therapy program is not among CVTC’s online offerings, given the program’s heavy requirements for hands-on learning, including nearly a year of experience in clinical settings.
Though the end of those clinicals was canceled, Monson was able to fulfill the program’s requirement and a skills checkup through her new job in respiratory therapy at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire.
CVTC’s instructors had to scramble for ways to meet high standards set for accreditation while quickly switching to online learning. One measure was that students had to take their finals on a computer, but with another device pointing a camera at them to ensure they weren’t using crib notes or getting help from another person.
“We weren’t able to cheat. They made sure of that,” Monson said.
Watching on the other end of that live video feed was Theresa Meinen, CVTC’s director of clinical education for its respiratory therapy program.
“I spent an awful lot of time watching people take tests on a computer,” said the instructor.
Between 20 and 22 students start in the respiratory therapy program each fall and become a tight-knit group.
“We get to know our students very well,” Meinen said. “We’re like a little family for those two years.”
Words of encouragement
When Monson fell ill or had to take her daughter for medical care, Meinen was one of the people she’d keep in contact with.
“There was never a dull moment with Cadie because there was constantly something that needed to be tended to,” Meinen said.
But the instructor found the adjustments her student sought between the hospital stays, getting used to motherhood and managing diabetes were really minor.
“She’s a very determined young lady,” Meinen said.
Oftentimes it just came down to Meinen sending an encouraging text message when Monson had said she was feeling overwhelmed.
Despite the multiple hospital stays during her time at CVTC, Monson still managed to keep current with her coursework.
“The whole two years I only missed one test,” she said, noting it was made up on a later date.
Meinen has had pregnant students before and noted that it can be a challenge for those students due to the rigors of the respiratory therapist program. In addition to lessons that have to be taught in the classroom, the second academic year includes clinicals at different sites throughout the area, some of which require overnight stays.
Instructors work with students undergoing pregnancy, medical issues or other circumstances that can pose a challenge to their education.
“We really try very hard to make sure we can adapt anything they need to make sure they’re successful,” Meinen said.
Monson’s advice to other women who become moms while they’re in school is to reach out to your teachers to let them know what you’re going through.
“They know that life happens and things come up,” Monson said.
The support she got from occasional text messages from teachers that told her not to give up when she got frustrated helped encourage her to continue with her education.
“It’s tough, but it’s totally doable,” she said abut becoming a mom while in school.
Early into service
While it is standard for CVTC’s students in the respiratory therapy program to secure employment before graduation – the program boasts a 100% placement rate — this year’s class has all been called into action faster than normal.
“Our students were mostly placed in jobs, but this hastened it,” said Meinen, who has also made herself able to work at a local hospital if additional respiratory therapists are needed.
The field has gained increasing attention since the coronavirus pandemic erupted. Respiratory therapists work in hospitals and put people on ventilators – a key piece of equipment in treating those with severe cases of COVID-19 with trouble breathing.
“This disease has shown people what we’re capable of,” Monson said.
While respiratory therapy comes into play for patients with COPD, trauma or other respiratory problems, the coronavirus discovered late last year also falls in their wheelhouse and requires similar safety precautions.
“While this is novel, and COVID definitely has a different path than other diseases, but it’s not unlike a lot of other things we teach in respiratory therapy,” Meinen said.
Wearing protective gear is standard for respiratory therapists, who come in close contact with patients while intubating them.
Clear plastic shields or goggles to protect from saliva have been part of respiratory therapists dress code before, but are now being seen on other hospital employees as well.
Working during the COVID pandemic has mostly meant upgrading personal protective equipment that respiratory therapists wear anyway on the job. Instead of standard surgical face masks, they’ve now gone to the N95 masks that provide a more secure fit.
Eau Claire County has two active public health investigations involving COVID-19. The investigations are taking place in one group home and one workplace and were initiated by two or more positive coronavirus cases in a building.
Lieske Giese, Eau Claire City-County Health Department director, declined to name those entities for confidentiality reasons but said people who live and work in the settings have been notified and are taking precautions.
An investigation entails working to make sure a spread is contained. Giese said the specifics depend on the facility in which COVID-19 cases occurred.
“We don’t empty out or close down a facility just because there is a case of COVID-19,” Giese said during a Wednesday media briefing. “We do work with every facility to make sure that the right response happens.”
That response includes people who came in close contact with an infected individual quarantining for 14 days.
In an investigation that occurs in a group home, Giese said some residents might be temporarily moved out of the building.
Giese said multiple cases are expected to happen in buildings where people frequently come into close contact with one another.
“If we get a case in a larger site where there’s lots of close contact, we know that that will likely result in a public health investigation,” Giese said.
The active investigations were included in data released Wednesday by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services regarding facility-wide COVID-19 investigations. One positive COVID-19 case in nursing homes and assisted living facilities initiates a public health investigation. Two or more positive cases in group homes, correctional facilities, homeless shelters, dormitories, health care facilities, workplaces and other public settings trigger an investigation.
Of the 299 active investigations in Wisconsin, seven of them are in the state’s western region. In addition to two active investigations in Eau Claire County, one group home in Clark County is being investigated.
The state also released names of 38 skilled nursing facilities with active COVID-19 investigations, including Baldwin Care Center in St. Croix County. No skilled nursing facilities in the Chippewa Valley have active investigations. DHS plans to update the list of nursing homes around the state every Wednesday, showing which ones still have active investigations.
Giese said there have not been previous public health investigations of facilities in Eau Claire County other than the two currently open, since the other positive COVID-19 cases involved individuals.
At least two positive COVID-19 results came from the 505 community tests conducted via drive-thru by the Wisconsin Army National Guard Sunday and Monday in Eau Claire.
Residents of 14 Wisconsin counties were tested overall, including 372 from Eau Claire County, 50 from Dunn County and 48 from Chippewa County. As of Wednesday afternoon, Eau Claire County was still waiting to receive results on some of the tests, but Giese said most of the results were completed.
Giese said anyone who came to the sites with any COVID-19 symptoms was tested, adding that “a very small number” of people were turned away Sunday and Monday because they showed no symptoms.
Two additional positive tests were confirmed Tuesday in Eau Claire County, bringing the total to 63 cases. Giese said 40 of the 63 people who tested positive have been released from isolation.
Giese encouraged anyone in the state with possible symptoms to attend the community testing Thursday at the Rusk County Fairgrounds, Rusk County Fairgrounds Road, Ladysmith, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Impact on education
Ron Walsh, Altoona School District interim superintendent, said at the briefing that COVID-19 will likely have a far-reaching impact on education, particularly for younger students.
“I think we’re going to be seeing impacts of this for a long time to come,” Walsh said.
In addition to students, Walsh knows many parents feel overwhelmed while balancing work, home responsibilities and taking care of their children.
“We realize that it’s very stressful,” Walsh said. “We’re trying not to overload families with education.”
Walsh said the school district is tentatively planning for possible summer school activities in July and August. No decisions have been made about fall schooling yet.
The Eau Claire Health Department’s COVID-19 hotline is 715-831-7425.