THU AM News: Meatpacking plants balance production with protection; UW researcher says state unemployment rate looks like 22.7 percent

— As meatpacking plants try to balance continuing production with protecting employees, workers at these sites are grappling with fear and uncertainty about the safety of their workplaces. 

“At the end of the day, people are scared, concerned and confused,” said Jake Bailey, servicing director and representative of UFCW Local 1473, a union that represents over 13,000 people in Wisconsin and Upper Michigan including around 5,500 meatpacking and food processing workers. 

In a recent interview, he noted that large food processing facilities have made sweeping changes, pointing to “vast improvements in all aspects.” 

“But from the worker’s perspective, we’re still concerned about going into these plants,” Bailey said. 

The nation’s largest meat processors including JBS, Smithfield Foods and Tyson have been linked to thousands of cases of COVID-19, and dozens of meat industry workers around the country have died from the virus. At least two meatpacking workers in Wisconsin have died from COVID-19, a report from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel shows. 

In Wisconsin, a hotspot for the virus in Brown County was connected to facilities owned by JBS, American Foods Group and Salm Partners, which collectively had more than 500 cases linked to their sites. Another smaller outbreak was seen at the Patrick Cudahy plant near Milwaukee, which is owned by Smithfield. 

“It’s like wildfire once it gets into these facilities,” Bailey told 

Read the full story at 

— The UW-Madison Center for Research on the Wisconsin Economy Director Noah Williams estimates the unemployment rate in Wisconsin was 22.7 percent on May 21.

This is based on day-by-day tracking done by CROWE. Its data also.placed April’s unemployment rate at over 16 percent rather than 14.1 percent.

“We think our estimate is perhaps a little bit closer to the truth than the official one,” said Williams to a Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce audiei. “The monthly state estimates are known to have a significant amount of error, there’s a relatively small sample, so they have to fill it in with a model, the model is based on older data, and this is really just a time where measurements and models aren’t working very well.”

CROWE’s research also found that Wisconsin’s counties were hit differently by the pandemic and the shutdown with a strong correlation between poor economic conditions pre-pandemic and increases in unemployment during the pandemic.

Menominee County, the smallest and poorest county in the state, had a poverty rate of 26 percent to start the pandemic and has seen 30 percent of its labor force apply for unemployment during the pandemic, Williams said.

Watch Williams’ presentation: 

— DWD Secretary Caleb Frostman is pushing back on criticism that his agency should’ve more quickly expanded call center hours for those applying for unemployment, telling a Senate committee it previously didn’t have the staff needed for a more robust operation.

Frostman also told the Senate Committee on Labor and Regulatory Reform an antiquated computer system has hampered efforts because it can’t simultaneously handle accepting new claims and processing payments. Instead, the system must switch from one function to the next to work properly. Otherwise, it risks errors in the payments to those who qualify for unemployment.

But Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, rejected the suggestion the Unemployment Insurance computer system was to blame. He also bristled at Dem charges Republicans had failed to address the dated system over the past decade they’ve been in charge of the Legislature, saying he didn’t want to hear anyone else level the accusation again, particularly those on the committee.

“Why are people working 7-5 p.m. on the phones when we have people waiting eight weeks to get a paycheck that they need in order to make ends meet?” Kapenga asked.

Wednesday’s hearing was the first opportunity for GOP lawmakers to grill Frostman about the problems applicants have had. Frostman was briefly their colleague after winning a 2018 special selection to the Senate.

The agency this week said it has now received more than 2.4 million unemployment claims and paid 1.7 million.

See more at 

— Gov. Tony Evers today said local governments will have to use $200 million in federal grants on incurred expenses related to COVID-19.

Under the plan announced today, Wisconsin’s tribal nations will receive $10 million, while every Wisconsin county, city, village and town will split the remaining $190 million.

He used elections as an example — “putting in plastic pieces and making sure the elections are safe.”

Other unbudgeted expenditures may also include PPE purchases, isolation facilities, testing and contact tracing or sick leave for public health employees.

“No matter how small the municipality, they are doing something related to COVID-19,” he said.

But for some areas, such as Brown County, the population doesn’t reflect the amount of need to “corral the virus.”

“Much of the money that came into that, came from the money that the state controls,” he said, noting that the state has also spent several million dollars in Milwaukee “because of the need they’ve had in that county.”

See the release:

— DHS reports the state’s COVID-19 death toll at 539 — up 22 since the last count, the most Wisconsin has had in one day.

“There’s been usually single digits to low teens numbers of cases overall, so we haven’t seen a huge increase in deaths,” said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer of the Bureau of Communicable Diseases in a DHS briefing. “The number of deaths occuring to people living in long term care facilities is pretty substantial.” 

The state’s number of confirmed cases also rose since Tuesday — by 599 — bringing the cumulative case count to 16,462. The positive tests results account for 5.8 percent of the total tests received Wednesday, a spike since Tuesday, but still under Saturday’s peak of 6.8 percent.

Tuesday, the most test results came back out of any other day with 10,330, closer to the state’s daily lab capacity of 14,753 and “another milestone,” according to DHS Secretary Andrea Palm.

An estimated 60 percent of those who tested positive have recovered from COVID-19, while 3 percent of patients have died. Thirty-seven percent are still in a 30-day waiting period of symptom onset or diagnosis.

Counties reporting deaths include: Milwaukee (282), Brown (33), Racine (28), Waukesha (28), Dane (27), Kenosha (24), Rock (18), Walworth (16), Grant (12), Ozaukee (11), Outagamie (8), Clark (4), Fond du Lac (4), Richland (4) and Washington (4).

Door, Jefferson, Sauk, Sheboygan and Winnebago counties report three deaths each. Marinette County reports two deaths.

Adams, Bayfield, Buffalo, Burnett, Calumet, Columbia, Dodge, Forest, Iron, Jackson, Juneau, Kewaunee, Manitowoc, Marathon, Marquette, Monroe, Polk, Waupaca and Wood counties report one death each.

Click here for more coronavirus resources and updates:

— COVID-19 ICU patients and inpatients with pending tests are spiking in hospitals statewide. 

According to data from the Wisconsin Hospital Association, state COVID-19 patients are still hovering at a peak at 413. Meanwhile inpatients with pending COVID-19 tests skyrocketed since Tuesday by 117 new patients, bringing the total to 335 patients. And ICU patients are the highest they’ve been in over a month at 139 patients. 

But it’s not to a level where hospitals need to use their surge capacity, according to Palm. 

Of the state’s 16,462 confirmed cases, 15 percent have been hospitalized and 3 percent have received intensive care, according to DHS.

DHS reports that 290 of the total COVID patients are in southeastern Wisconsin, and 60 or fewer patients in each of the six other regions of the state.

“We are concerned about the increase, the slight increase, in hospitalizations that we’re seeing in parts of the state and those are all things we’re watching very closely as we do the work of continuing to ramp up testing and tracing,” Palm said.

— And Wisconsin appears to have an adequate supply of beds and ventilators, according to WHA.

“We plan for the worst and work as hard as we can to make it not come true,” said Palm in response to the state working to procure more ventilators despite having more than enough.

Because health officials continue to worry about a resurgence of COVID-19 at the end of summer and into the fall, “procuring ventilators as an insurance policy is an important piece of the work we need to do,” Palm said.

Statewide, hospitals have a total of 1,273 ventilators and 318 ventilated patients.

ICU beds immediately available in the state number 398 out of 1,438 total in Wisconsin; intermediate care beds — 152 out of 878; surgical beds — 1,385 out of 7,211; and isolation beds — beds in negative pressure rooms meant for isolating patients — 1,095 out of 1,973.

But PPE supplies are still lagging. The WHA data shows that 32 hospitals in the state have seven days or less supply of N95 masks, 34 have a limited supply of gowns and 29 hospitals have limited paper medical masks.

— DHS is conducting 446 facility-wide investigations across the state, 70 more than last week. 

Long-term care facilities account for 186 of them, followed closely by 185 non-health care workplace investigations.

Long-term care facilities in the state are reporting 222 deaths due to COVID-19, making up 41 percent of total deaths in Wisconsin due to the virus. These include nursing homes and assisted living facilities, such as community-based residential facilities and residential care apartment complexes. 

Thirty-nine of the investigations are in group housing facilities including correctional facilities, homeless shelters, dormitories and group homes that have identified 23 COVID-19 deaths, or 4 percent of the state’s total. 

One hundred and thirty-nine of the state’s COVID-19 deaths were not linked to group housing facilities, but 155 deaths are categorized as “unknown,” meaning they may or may not have occurred at these facilities. 

According to DHS, the unknown category exists because relevant information has only been collected since April 8. 

“Long-term care has been a priority for us since the very beginning of this pandemic,” said Palm. “The burden of death and disease from COVID-19 has fallen on older folks here in Wisconsin just as it has around the nation.”

Dr. Ryan Westergaard echoed Palm’s concerns adding that long-term care is a “high-risk environment” with a “high-risk patient population.”

About 19 percent of confirmed COVID-19 patients who have died in the state were over 90 years old, while another 26 percent were between 80 and 89 years old. Another 26 percent were between 70 and 79, and 16 percent were between 60 and 69. 

DHS is also conducting investigations in healthcare facilities (17) and “other settings” (19).

A majority of the investigations are taking place in Milwaukee (84), Brown (65) and Racine (49) counties.

Click here to see the facilities under investigation and a breakdown by county:

— Public Health Madison & Dane County announced 25 more people had tested positive for the virus — the county’s biggest jump since late March.

“If we are half green and half yellow and we do not have any red for percent positive cases or cases per day, we will be able to move to phase 2,” said Environmental Health Supervisor Bonnie Koenig in a Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce webinar briefing. 

The county met the criteria to move into phase 1 Tuesday, which was that all the metrics were yellow. The metrics are updated every Friday.

“If anybody were to look on our website now, they would see that we were lined up pretty good; we had half yellow and half green,” she said, noting that that means Dane County is “on target.”

Koenig couldn’t predict what this week or next week will look like, but since it’s going to be at least 14 days before Dane County will move into phase 2, she suggests tuning into the website on June 6. 

But she also added that “it’s not a date, it’s the metrics that will determine whether or not we can move from phase 1 to phase 2.”

The first phase of Forward Dane allows businesses such as restaurants, gyms and retail establishments to open at 25 percent capacity with physical distancing. 

Phase 1 also allows indoor gatherings at commercial facilities of 50 people or less; indoor gatherings at a private residence of 10 people or less; outdoor gatherings of 50 or less; and reopening public courts and fields.

“What I would really like to say about that to business owners is if we just do this right, we know if we have those protective measures in place and we do this right, that we’re going to set ourselves up better to move swiftly through these phases,” said Koenig. “However, whether it’s a business or other people within our community, if we ignore those protective measures, that may hold us back.”

— While the threat of antibiotic resistant bacteria continues to grow, one effort spearheaded by UW-Madison Professor Jo Handelsman is sourcing potential candidates for new antibiotics from all over the world. 

Through the Tiny Earth project — which Handelsman created while teaching at Yale University in 2012 — thousands of undergraduate college students have been collecting soil samples and isolating bacteria that produce antibiotic chemicals. More than 10,000 students participate each year by taking the Tiny Earth class at academic institutions that offer the program. 

The network now has active programs in 25 countries and more are popping up each year, Handelsman said yesterday during a webinar hosted by the Madison Rotary Club. 

“Our goal with this project overall is to make antibiotic discovery cheaper and more efficient for the pharmaceutical companies,” she said. “They’ve told us repeatedly from the 1980s on that the discovery process is the expensive and difficult part they don’t want to engage in.” 

During the webinar, she explained that most major pharmaceutical companies don’t put many resources into finding new antibiotics, since they’re not as lucrative as other drugs taken for chronic conditions. By creating a pipeline for new antibiotic drug candidates and handing them off to companies for development, regulatory approval and clinical trials, “perhaps that would reduce the cost and challenge associated with antibiotic discovery.” 

She explained she was inspired to create the project by her desire to boost STEM education as well as the rising threat of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections. The industry hasn’t been turning out many new antibiotics in decades, and doctors are discouraged from prescribing the typically more expensive new drugs for cost reasons. 

At the same time, bacterial infections are on the rise, and the World Health Organization has been tracking increasing death tolls from these infections. According to Handelsman, the WHO predicts bacterial infections will become the world’s leading cause of death by 2050 “unless we dramatically change our discovery process” for new antibiotics. 

Last year alone, 36,000 people in the United States were killed by antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections, and that number has been climbing for years. 

“Before the 1940s — that was when antibiotics were first commercialized, during World War Two — bacterial infections caused a third of the deaths in the United States,” Handelsman said. “We’re under threat of going back to that condition in the next decades because of the resistance problem.” 

Watch the full webinar here: 

See more on the Tiny Earth project: 

— A Madison startup called Propellor Health now covers 90 percent of the U.S. market for inhaler medications for asthma and COPD after clearing another FDA hurdle. 

The business has received FDA clearance to connect its platform to Symbicort, which is a medication for these conditions made by AstraZeneca, a multinational pharmaceuticals company. 

Propellor’s platform uses sensors attached to inhalers to track their usage, connecting that information with an app that can be used by the patient or care provider to monitor asthma symptoms.

“Our partnership with AstraZeneca will give respiratory patients a tool to help manage their condition and increase their medication adherence, a critical factor in keeping people out of the hospital,” said David Van Sickle, co-founder and CEO of Propeller Health.

According to earlier research on the Propellor platform, users can increase their asthma control by up to 63 percent and medication adherence by up to 58 percent. Plus, previous clinical studies found that users’ emergency department visits and hospitalizations were decreased by 57 percent. 

See the release: 


# More than 700K Wisconsin unemployment claims still haven’t been paid. Politicians are blaming the other side for delays

# Area restaurants carefully approach reopening dine-in service

# Great Wolf resorts joins growing number of hotels under cash pressure from pandemic

# Marcoux retiring after 16 years overseeing Milwaukee’s development efforts



– Crop report: Memorial Day weekend brings surge of summer

– Wisconsin farms can apply to USDA financial assistance program

– Farm groups applaud WI Farm Support Program, call for equitable distribution


– Barrett picks Lafayette Crump to replace retiring Rocky Marcoux as DCD commissioner

– Barrett picks Crump to succeed Marcoux as Milwaukee development chief


– Metro Milwaukee lost nearly 108,000 jobs in April

– Hodag Country Festival will be among state’s first large events amid pandemic

– Backlog of Wisconsin’s unemployment claims expected to continue for months


– Natural Resources Board maintains 10-elk harvest


– Children’s Wisconsin gifted $2.5 million grant to provide mental health services in the ED

– Milwaukee County COVID-19 hospitalizations up as city continues evaluating next reopening phase

– County COVID-19 task force outlines plans


– Cardinal Stritch president Kathleen Rinehart stepping down


– Advocate Aurora invests in Texas-based PPE manufacturer


– Wisconsin to send absentee ballot forms to most voters

– Tony Evers announces $200 million in aid for localities as state sees record COVID-19 cases


– Milwaukee development commissioner Rocky Marcoux retiring

– Renters in limbo as eviction ban ends


– Barrett picks Lafayette Crump as Milwaukee’s next commissioner of city development


– Brewers officials discuss plans for playing baseball amid COVID-19

– Milwaukee Brewers envision how baseball without fans in stadium could look


– Milwaukee Food and City Tours restarts walking tour operations

– Trempealeau, Door County fairs canceled. State Fair next?

– Add Rock Fest to cancellation list 


– Alliant Energy announces new solar projects in Wisconsin


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