FRI AM News: Workforce initiative aims to support military members, address labor shortage; WisBusiness: the Podcast with Amit Acharya of Advocate Aurora Health

— The head of the Wisconsin Veterans Chamber of Commerce says a new workforce initiative will help address the state’s labor shortage while supporting military members transitioning to civilian life. 

“Members of the business community should know that this is a really transformative workforce initiative that connects them directly with members of the military and their families,” said Saul Newton, president and CEO of the chamber. “It helps employers meet their workforce needs and connect with some of the most talented, highly skilled, highly capable employees out there.” 

The VetWorks Wisconsin program was announced yesterday by the chamber as well as the Milwaukee nonprofit Wisconsin Veterans Network and the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs. In an interview, Newton told the effort is designed to attract more military veterans to the state. 

It builds on the existing Expiration Term of Service-Sponsorship Program, which pairs military members with a local volunteer sponsor who helps provide assistance with securing employment, housing, veteran benefits, medical care, education and more. While that program was focused entirely on supporting military members, the newly announced initiative is geared toward bolstering the state’s labor market. 

“What makes this different from the broader program as it exists, is that it is a workforce initiative,” he said. “It’s explicitly designed and has been tailored to be an employment program as an extension of this existing program.” 

The Department of Defense estimates nearly 4,000 service members leave the military and relocate to Wisconsin every year, Newton said. For the upper Midwest region, that number is over 30,000. 

“We are the only state that has this program, so this really makes us stand out and attract even more service members to look at Wisconsin as a place where they can be successful when they leave the military,” he said. “This is a really unique opportunity to attract people to the state of Wisconsin.” 

The initiative will be launched Tuesday at the annual Wisconsin Veterans in the Workforce Summit in Brookfield. 

— This week’s episode of “WisBusiness: the Podcast” is with Amit Acharya, chief research officer and system vice president for Advocate Aurora Health. 

He discusses a new partnership between the health system’s Research Institute and Forward Biolabs, a life science coworking and incubator space based in Madison. As part of the new sponsorship, Advocate Aurora will be providing laboratory services, instrumentation and scientific capabilities to participating biotech companies. 

“By doing this, we are investing into the scientific minds of those companies and the entrepreneurial journey of those scientists,” he said. “The long-term goal for us is … we can have innovation right here within the state and within the region, whereby it really accelerates scientific discoveries.” 

Acharya stressed the positive impact that the partnership aims to have on community health in the region. 

“Scale matters when it really comes to elevating the quality of care for our community and our patients, so they live well,” he said. 

He noted the Advocate Aurora Research Institute is looking to double its research impact over the next three to five years, by focusing on areas including cardiovascular health, neuroscience, cancer care and behavioral health. 

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— UW System President Tommy Thompson said in a call with reporters that he will advise his successor to prioritize implementing a blue ribbon commission on higher education, boosting enrollment, expanding online learning and continuing the administrative transformation program. 

The former GOP governor is leaving his post today, passing the role to Interim President Mike Falbo. Foley and Lardner CEO Jay Rothman will take the helm June 1. Thompson said he had not talked in depth with Rothman about the incoming president’s ideas for the system.

“I don’t know what ideas he’s going to push. I’m going to talk to him again before I leave,” Thompson said. Thompson noted he planned to encourage Rothman to address enrollment, distance learning, the administrative transformation program and the proposed Blue Ribbon Commission.

The administrative transformation program aims to improve unnecessarily complex administrative functions, including implementing more uniform policies and consistent processes. The program also implements cloud technology to ease data sharing. 

“My successor Jay has got to continue being on top of that because it’s going to transform even more the university that I’ve already started transforming,” Thompson said.

See more from the call at 

— State health officials are closely tracking the so-called “stealth omicron” sub-variant of COVID-19 in Wisconsin, but a lack of available data is limiting that effort. 

Kelsey Florek, senior genomics and data scientist with the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene, says this challenge is linked to the decline in cases seen over the past several months. 

“It’s not like a bad thing, right? We’re seeing lower case counts, and because of that, the amount of data that we’re getting is less,” she said yesterday in an interview. “And so our estimates are less precise because of that.” 

COVID-19 sequencing from February found about 4 percent of the roughly 2,400 analyzed cases were linked to the BA.2 sub-variant known as stealth omicron, according to the lab’s website.

So far this month, only about 40 cases have been sequenced. While about 20 percent of those are BA.2, Florek explained it’s difficult to draw conclusions about the strain’s prevalence from such a small sample size. 

“We’ve seen it in the major metropolitan areas — Madison, Milwaukee — and some of the counties surrounding that. We’ve also seen it in some rural counties,” she said. “With cases dropping, it’s been hard to get samples that are good enough for sequencing and trying to evaluate.” 

With some COVID-19 surges seen recently in Europe and China, Florek said health officials are keeping an eye on the strain. But she noted it’s been present in the state since late January, and Wisconsin hasn’t seen an increase in cases since then. 

“When we shifted from delta to omicron, there was a massive spike in cases and a very rapid shift where we saw, in almost two to three weeks, that completely changed from delta to omicron,” she said. “And we haven’t seen that same thing happen with the BA.2 sub-lineage. We’ve seen a subtle increase, but we haven’t seen a massive spike in cases or massive increase in that specific sub-variant.” 

Meanwhile, the seven-day average for new COVID-19 cases has dropped to 344 cases per day. And the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients continues to fall, reaching 252 most recently, the Wisconsin Hospital Association site shows. 

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