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Wisconsin doctors back mask order as Legislature eyes repeal

January 25, 2021 GMT
FILE - In this April 7, 2020 file photo, voters masked against coronavirus line up for Wisconsin's primary election in Milwaukee. Wisconsin's statewide mask mandate would be overturned by the Republican-controlled state Legislature under a resolution that could be voted on as soon as Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Morry Gash File)
FILE - In this April 7, 2020 file photo, voters masked against coronavirus line up for Wisconsin's primary election in Milwaukee. Wisconsin's statewide mask mandate would be overturned by the Republican-controlled state Legislature under a resolution that could be voted on as soon as Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Morry Gash File)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Medical Society on Monday announced its opposition to a Republican-authored resolution that would overturn the statewide mask mandate put in place by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The state Senate planned to vote Tuesday on the resolution. The Assembly, also in session on Tuesday, has not said if it will vote on the resolution. The resolution must pass the Senate and Assembly to undo the mask mandate. Resolutions do not require the governor’s signature to take effect.

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The board of directors for the medical society, which represents doctors and advocates on their behalf, voted Saturday to support continuation of the mask mandate issued by Evers and oppose the GOP resolution. The group, the state’s largest for individual doctors, announced the action on Monday.

“Other than vaccines, mask-wearing is one of the few tools we have in our arsenal to help prevent spreading COVID-19 even further than it already has,” Dr. Bud Chumbley, chief operating officer of the medical society, said in a statement.

“We need to do all we can to prevent more deaths and help our economy return to normal,” Chumbley said. “We ask all of our government leaders to support physicians and other front-line health care workers by promoting mask-wearing as an effective tool against COVID-19.”

The resolution overturning the mask order has nine co-sponsors in the Senate and 19 in the Assembly, all Republicans. Neither Assembly Speaker Robin Vos nor GOP Majority Leader Jim Steineke have co-sponsored the resolution or said if the Assembly would take it up. Republican Assembly members were expected to discuss it during a closed caucus meeting Tuesday ahead of the session.

Evers’ mask mandate is also being challenged in the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which heard arguments in November and could issue a ruling at any point.

Republican critics argue that Evers exceeded his authority by issuing multiple emergency declarations during the pandemic, which allowed him to extend the mask mandate beyond the 60 days allowed under the law without approval from the Legislature. Lawmakers say Evers had to seek the OK from the Legislature for any order beyond 60 days. Evers contends the changing nature of the pandemic, and the ongoing response, warranted new emergency declarations.

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The Assembly will on Tuesday consider a COVID-19 response bill passed by the Senate earlier this month that is backed by Evers. Republican Assembly leaders were critical of the bill and expected to make changes, but have not said yet what those will be.

The bill as passed by the Senate would limit liability for COVID-19 claims against businesses, schools, governments and health care providers. It also extends the waiver of a one-week waiting period to receive unemployment benefits only until March 14. Evers wants the waiver extended into July. It also ensures that Medicaid covers COVID-19 testing and vaccinations and guarantees that SeniorCare, the state’s prescription drug discount program for senior citizens, would cover vaccinations.

Assembly Republicans earlier approved a much more expansive bill with numerous provisions Democrats opposed. Those included barring employers and governments from mandating vaccines for employees; prohibiting the closure of churches and limiting the closure of businesses to two weeks at a time during a health emergency and requiring a two-thirds majority school board vote every two weeks to remain all virtual.

Wisconsin began vaccinating residents age 65 and over on Monday. The state has vaccinated 4.5% of its population, which is below the nationally average of 5.6%, according to data compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That places Wisconsin 43rd nationally in vaccination rate.

To date, 5,699 people have died from COVID-19 in Wisconsin and nearly 534,000 have tested positive, according to the state Department of Health Services. Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases in Wisconsin has decreased by 45%, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

The number of newly reported cases, 946, was below 1,000 for the first time in a month. The seven-day average of new cases, 1,577, was at its lowest point in four months.

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Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter: https://twitter.com/sbauerAP

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This story has been corrected to show the number of newly reported cases dropped below 1,000 for the first time since December, not September.