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How politics paralyzed Wisconsin’s pandemic response — and left families to grieve their losses

Courts and the Republican-controlled Legislature limited the powers of the Democratic governor. Partisan messaging led many residents to spurn masks and distancing.

Harper Marten
In July, Harper Marten’s father Warren Shore died in a nursing home after contracting COVID-19. Shore also had Alzheimer’s disease, but Marten did not expect to lose him so suddenly.
Angela Major / WPR

This story comes from a partnership of Wisconsin Watch and WPR.

Harper Marten donned a mask, gown, gloves, face shield and booties for a July 10 visit with her father, Warren Shore. She had not seen him in person since March.

Inside the memory care unit at Parkview Gardens, a senior living community in Racine, Marten held her father’s hand. Marten told him she loved him and sang “My Funny Valentine,” a song Shore taught her when she was a child.

Those would be her last 30 minutes with her father, who died the next day — five days after testing positive for COVID-19.

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Marten, a school teacher from Wauwatosa, knew her father didn’t have many years left, even before the positive test. Shore had lived with Alzheimer’s disease for a decade when Marten enrolled him in hospice care in March — one day before Department of Health Services Secretary-Designee Andrea Palm issued Wisconsin’s “Safer at Home” order at the direction of Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat.

But Marten wasn’t prepared to lose Shore so suddenly at age 75.

Palm’s order shuttered businesses and public spaces. When the Wisconsin Supreme Court lifted the order in May, Marten worried the virus would creep into Parkview Gardens. Marten said the community asked families to voluntarily avoid visits to protect residents, which she supported.

But by July 11, Shore was gone. The former minor league baseball pitcher, journalist, author and entrepreneur is among more than 1,850 Wisconsinites and 225,000 Americans — all with their own stories — who have died after being diagnosed with COVID-19.

“The thing that still bothers me is that my dad is one of those numbers,” Marten said. “I just hate that he and so many other people’s parents have been added to such an anonymous list.”

Seven months into the pandemic, public health experts have learned about how to limit the spread of COVID-19. Much remains simple: Wear a mask. Keep a distance. Wash your hands.

Yet many Wisconsinites are ignoring this guidance, causing hospitalizations and deaths to surge, transforming the state into one of the country’s biggest virus hotspots.

Warren Shore holds his daughter Harper Marten circa 1980.
Courtesy of Harper Marten
Warren Shore holds his daughter Harper Marten circa 1980.
A key ingredient missing from the pandemic response, public health experts say: consistent messaging from government leaders. The looming presidential election has transformed the pandemic into a national political issue. President Donald Trump and Republican allies often downplay the severity of COVID-19 — and scoff at the demonstrated effectiveness of masks, while Democrats amplify opinions of public health experts and push for restrictions to slow the virus.

Perhaps nowhere is that message more muddled than Wisconsin.

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The Republican-controlled Legislature successfully sued to end Safer at Home, and it pushed back against Evers’ subsequent orders. Republican lawmakers claim Evers has overstepped his authority, but they have offered no plans of their own to slow the virus.

The dueling messages have paralyzed state government during a crisis that calls for collective action.

“Unfortunately we are having a pandemic in an election year — in a swing state where the governor and the (Legislature) are not from the same political aisle,” said Dominique Brossard, chair of the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “You couldn’t be more complicated than the state government of Wisconsin right now.”

‘It’s all about messaging’

Wisconsin ranked third among states in coronavirus infections per capita as of Oct. 27, according to tracking by The New York Times. Wisconsin trailed only Texas, Illinois and California in total infections over the past week, despite having a fraction of those states’ populations.

The surge is overwhelming hospitals with COVID-19 patients — enough to prompt Evers to open a field hospital at Wisconsin State Fair Park in West Allis.

“Make no mistake about this: This is an urgent crisis,” Evers said at a Oct. 22 press briefing.

Still, some 5.6 million Wisconsinites have yet to test positive for COVID-19, and most can avoid it by taking simple precautions.

“You can stop COVID spread with enough (protective gear) and enough precautions and enough buy-in from everybody,” said Ajay Sethi, a professor at the UW-Madison and director of its Master of Public Health program.

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“It’s all about messaging.”

The fundamental response to a virus with no vaccine or cure has changed little over a century. Wisconsin, in fact, was the only state in 1918 to confront the flu with uniform shutdown measures, which historians credit with limiting casualties.

Sethi said UW-Madison exemplifies a local model of success on COVID-19. Following a massive outbreak in September as students returned for the semester, administrators enacted restrictions, including temporarily moving classes online, quarantines and frequently testing students for the virus.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers
REUTERS/Nick Oxford
Republican lawmakers claim Gov. Tony Evers has overstepped his authority, but they have offered no plans of their own to slow the virus.
Infections have since plummeted, a trend playing out on other campuses. Experts say stricter punishments for rule-breakers and luck may have  played a role, along with clear communication.

“Here at the UW-Madison campus there is probably a lot more cooperation compared to when you get to a larger scale — where you have more voices,” Sethi said.

Paralyzing a pandemic response

Republicans began resisting Evers’ pandemic plan by suing to overturn Safer at Home.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court immediately lifted the order on May 13, leaving some local governments to enforce their own regulations. The justices ruled that Palm overstepped her authority, and they expected the administration to propose a new plan through legislative rulemaking.

Republicans swiftly rejected the administration’s new plan, with Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater,  accusing Palm of “once again trying to improperly take control of the daily lives of every Wisconsin citizen.”

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In late July, Evers ordered a mask mandate for most public buildings, following 32 other states. Senate Majority Leader Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said his colleagues stood “ready to convene” to overturn it.

The Legislature did not meet, but it backed a conservative legal group’s thus-far unsuccessful challenge of the order, arguing Evers lacked authority to issue a new emergency and enact a mask mandate.

As COVID-19 deaths neared 1,400 earlier this month, Evers instructed Palm to order 25% indoor capacity limits. The Tavern League of Wisconsin quickly sued, triggering court rulings that blocked, reinstated and again blocked the order.

Lawmakers ‘sit back’

The Legislature has not passed a bill since a COVID-19 relief package in April, and Republicans are questioning the need to act further.

“There isn’t a lot that we can do as politicians, but we need to sit back, let the medical community figure this out,” state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin, said in an Oct. 20 WisconsinEye interview.

Sanfelippo, chairman of the Assembly committee on health, was among GOP lawmakers who attended an indoor mass gathering — many not wearing masks — hosted by an anti-abortion group, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

Other Wisconsin Republicans have contradicted medical research by suggesting that masks don’t slow the virus. Such statements threaten to counteract those urging people to take precautions, including scattered messages from some Republicans.

Neither Fitzgerald nor Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, responded to questions emailed to their spokespeople for this story.

Mobility within the state returned to pre-pandemic levels within weeks after the Supreme Court ruling, according to an Oct. 11 White House Coronavirus Task Force report.

Failure to follow masking and distancing guidelines will cause “preventable deaths,” the report said, adding: “State leaders should work intensely with communities to ensure a clear and shared message.”

Republican governors in some other states have acted.

Infection spikes this summer prompted Republican governors Texas and Florida to order bars closed after showing reluctance earlier. Arizona saw COVID-19 infections plummet 75% shortly after Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, allowed local governments to enforce mask mandates, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Alta Charo, professor of law and bioethics at UW-Madison, said questions surrounding a governor’s emergency powers leave room for reasonable disagreement.

“They are invoked to remove the kinds of democratic protections that we have in place to guard against overly authoritarian, overly individualistic policies,” she said.

But she said Republicans appear to be arguing in bad faith during “a tremendously brutal struggle for power” that began when the Legislature shrank some of Evers’ powers even before he took office.

A family fights COVID, then grieves

Wisconsin’s failure to control the virus is leaving more families to grieve, including Duane Bark’s.

Bark — the popular superintendent for Markesan District Schools, mentor and former football coach — was admitted to the hospital on July 23, his 61st birthday. He had COVID-19 but no other underlying conditions, his family said. He was hooked up to a ventilator by August and placed in a medically induced coma.

He fought for three months, his family said, but by Oct. 7 his organs were failing, and his family gathered around him one last time.

Bradley Bark, Duane’s oldest son, read Bible verses of comfort. When he punctuated The Lord’s Prayer with an “Amen,” Duane opened his eyes for the first time in over a week, Bradley said.

“(There were) tears coming out of his eyes,” Bradley said, “and he flatlined at that point.”

“It was extremely sad and comforting, too. We know where he’s at right now,” he added.

Duane Bark (wearing a blue blazer, fifth from the left) with his family in 2019 in Madison.
Courtesy of Bradley Bark
Duane Bark (wearing a blue blazer, fifth from the left) with his family in 2019 in Madison.
Brian Bark, Duane’s middle child, suspects a friend brought the virus into the family’s home during a maskless visit. The virus also sent Duane’s wife, daughter and mother-in-law to the hospital. Unlike Duane, they would be released.

The friend made it clear that he was going to bars after the court lifted Safer at Home, Brian said.

“Very poor decisions on that. Not wearing masks. Being around people nonstop,” he added. “I have a lot of anger towards that person.”

Remembering lives lost

The Bark family carefully gathered at a funeral home after Duane died. They wore masks and stayed distant.

They will hold a larger memorial in July, if gatherings are again safe.

That can only happen, Brian Bark said, “if we come together as a people and realize that we need to figure (the pandemic) out.”

Marten said the virtual memorial service for her father “was a bigger gift” than she expected.

“I think that COVID is really showing us that we are something much more common than the labels that divide us,” she said. “We owe it to ourselves to really connect with those (224,000 people) who passed — who meant something to somebody.”

Bram Sable-Smith is WPR’s Mike Simonson Memorial Investigative Fellow embedded in the newsroom of Wisconsin Watch, which collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.