WED AM News: Lawmakers, proponents testify in support of ‘natural immunity’ bill; Boost to Medicaid reimbursement rates expected to help care providers in Wisconsin

— Proponents of a bill to allow people to use natural immunity to COVID-19 in lieu of getting vaccinated or tested argued in a public hearing that post-infection immunity should be considered equally beneficial as immunity gained from vaccines. 

But one of the state’s top health experts and multiple studies released by federal health agencies present differing evidence, highlighting the divide between supporters and opponents of vaccine mandates.

Rep. Cody Horlacher, R-Mukwonago, said the bill aims to “legitimize the conversation around natural immunity,” as well as give employers and their workers “another tool in the toolbox” as they navigate workplace vaccination mandates. 

“I think it’s important that the state of Wisconsin understands and recognizes that natural immunity is a real thing and that it works,” he said yesterday in a public hearing held by the Senate Committee on Labor and Regulatory Reform. 

Fellow bill author Sen. Mary Felzkowski, R-Irma, read written testimony from Wausau surgeon Dr. Fritz Riveron supporting the bill’s passage. His comments referenced a study from Israel that found patients with natural immunity from previous infection were “many times less likely” to be reinfected compared to vaccinated patients without a previous infection. 

“The data seems to show that the best long-term immunity is among those who have natural immunity … please be aware that the worldwide scientific data has become increasingly clear that individuals with natural immunity from previous infection have at the very least equivalent protection from COVID-19 as the vaccinated,” he wrote. 

But in a health briefing held yesterday by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, Medical College of Wisconsin President and CEO Dr. John Raymond pointed to data suggesting otherwise. The MMAC briefing was unrelated to the committee hearing. 

“We also know, again for fans of natural immunity, that previous infection with alpha, beta and delta strains — at least in the U.S. and Europe — have provided very little protection from omicron and very little reduction in hospitalizations,” Raymond said. 

Still, he noted laboratory studies suggest omicron could provide “substantial protection” against previously circulating strains if they reemerge, though he noted these results have yet to be confirmed in patient populations. And the omicron variant remains the dominant strain amid the ongoing surge in cases. 

A study released by the CDC in October found that people getting vaccinated after already having COVID-19 received significantly greater immune protection and reduction in reinfection risk. While the study highlights a “wide range” of antibody concentrations following infection with the virus, it notes that completion of a primary mRNA vaccine series “typically leads to a more consistent … initial antibody response.” 

Another CDC study from November found that of adults hospitalized for coronavirus-like sickness between January and September last year, unvaccinated people who previously had COVID-19 were more than five times more likely to

 test positive for the virus than those who were vaccinated and hadn’t previously been infected. And a study from September found about one-third of patients with COVID-19 “had no apparent natural immunity.” 

The bill stipulates that if an employer requires proof of vaccination or regular testing for COVID-19, employees can instead provide proof of immunity through a test showing the presence of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies or documented proof of a previous positive test.

The American Cancer Society Action Network, American Lung Association, Medical College of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Association of Local Departments and Boards, Wisconsin Medical Society and Wisconsin Public Health Association oppose the legislation. 

— Also during the public hearing, proponents testified in support of a bill that would allow those who quit their jobs or are fired because they refuse to get a COVID-19 vaccine to still qualify for unemployment benefits. 

Sen. Duey Stroebel said yesterday the legislation aims to ensure that “individuals subject to certain workplace policies are not disqualified from accessing a source of temporary financial relief as they seek a job with an employer who understands personal autonomy, informed consent, risk-benefit analysis and basic immunology.” 

The Saukville Republican argued that scientific evidence shows natural immunity conferred by previous infection “is at least as robust, and likely superior” to immunity gained from vaccination. 

And Rep. Shae Sortwell offered testimony supporting a bill that would allow those who can prove an injury from getting the vaccine as a condition of employment to receive worker’s compensation. 

“I don’t believe that an employer should be able to make a permanent health care decision for their employees,” Sortwell said.

Co-author and committee Chair Sen. Steve Nass noted vaccine injury is currently covered under worker’s compensation. 

“If in the future the department decides under the worker’s comp program to eliminate this coverage, at least it will, with this legislation, it will be in statute, and it needs to continue,” the Whitewater Republican said. 

Watch a video of the hearing here: 

— The head of the Wisconsin Health Care Association and Wisconsin Center for Assisted Living says a 5 percent increase to Medicaid reimbursement rates for certain home- and community-based services will “absolutely” make a difference for recipients. 

“We profusely thank the administration,” WHCA/WiCAL President Rick Abrams said yesterday in an interview. “Anything that is going to help the situation in the long-term care sector — whether they’re home- and community-based waiver services, nursing facility services — is certainly welcome.” 

Gov. Tony Evers and the Department of Health Services announced the increase yesterday, which applies to some services provided to members of the state’s Medicaid programs. Abrams explained the rate increase will apply to assisted living centers and disability care residences, though he added it won’t apply to nursing facilities. 

The release from the guv’s office shows the rate increase will be funded through the American Rescue Plan Act. According to Abrams, a provision of the ARPA appropriates a 10 percent Medicaid funding increase for home- and community-based waiver programs for a one-year period. 

“And even though the funding is for one year, states like Wisconsin will have until mid-2024 to spend that money,” he said. 

The reimbursement rate increases took effect at the beginning of this year and will run through March 31, 2024. When combined with investments from the 2021-23 biennial budget, the release shows the hourly reimbursement rate for personal care services will increase 14 percent overall from $19.16 to $21.84 per hour. 

DHS estimates the annual cost of the ARPA-based rate increase will be approximately $156 million, according to an email from the agency. 

Wisconsin Assisted Living Association President and CEO Mike Pochowski says the reimbursement increase will “allow assisted living facilities to offset the financial pressures they continue to endure.” 

“In particular, assisted living facilities are seeing significant surges in the consumer price index (inflation),” he said in an email. “More specifically, wages, food, utilities, supplies, etc. Even still, assisted living facilities who serve the most vulnerable populations — elderly and persons with disabilities, are doing everything they can to continue providing quality care and services to their residents.” 

See the release: 

— Evers has announced he’s putting $5 million in federal ARPA funds into helping the meat processing industry.

That includes helping students in Wisconsin’s meat processing training programs, supporting program development and helping processors find employees.

Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation President Kevin Krentz says the organization appreciates the support. 

“Our organization’s policy is supportive of incentive programs to encourage students to pursue careers in meat processing and this funding provided by the American Rescue Plan Act will do just that,” he said in a statement. 

See the guv’s release:

See the Farm Bureau release: 

— Medical College of Wisconsin Chair of Neurosurgery Dr. Shekar Kurpad has been named the founding director of the new Neuroscience Institute in Milwaukee.

The institute is a joint effort of MCW, Froedtert Health and Children’s Wisconsin that aims to “harness the vast clinical expertise and world-renowned research talent” in the neuroscience field across the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center campus. 

“The new Neuroscience Institute will showcase the unmatched advancements that are possible through collaborative academic medicine,” said Dr. Joseph Kerschner, provost and executive vice president of MCW. “Dr. Kurpad’s vast experience and expertise across the field of neuroscience are invaluable in propelling the NSI mission forward.”

See more on the new effort in a release: 

— AT&T Minnesota President Paul Weirtz has been named state president of AT&T Wisconsin and will lead the company’s legislative and community affairs efforts in both states. 

Weirtz, who has worked for AT&T for more than 20 years, succeeds former president Scott VanderSanden after he retired in December. 

“AT&T has a long history of investing in Wisconsin, and I’m excited to work closely with our team to continue those investments, from expanding our networks to giving back to our local communities,” Weirtz said.

See the release: 


# Wisconsin awards up to $600,000 in match grants to 7 innovative early-stage companies

# DNR set to allow factory farm expansion in Kewaunee County

# Wisconsin teens and high-risk younger kids are starting to get their COVID-19 booster shots



– Controversial dairy CAFO in Kewaunee County could have up to 15K cows under proposed permit changes

– Thirty-three vying for 2022 Wisconsin Fairest of the Fair


– Riley Construction starts off new year with key leadership transitions


– Ice floe rescue of 34 people from an unscheduled adventure in Green Bay costs anglers their fishing gear


– Dane County sees highest COVID-19 hospitalization rate since the beginning of the pandemic

– Fox Valley hospitals at ‘breaking point,’ urge COVID-19 vaccinations, boosters


– Baird acquires minority ownership of platform aiming to democratize direct index investing


– Nitrates bill advancing through the Legislature

– GOPs advance bill to count prior COVID infection as immunity


– ‘No path’ for Common Council to vote on Frank Productions venue: Ald. Bauman

– Trifinity expands in Kenosha County thanks to booming e-commerce


– New music venue near Summerfest site can break ground without city zoning change 

– Some parishioners upset over pandemic protections have left for other congregations


<i>See these and other press releases: </i>

Wisconsin Farm Bureau: Statement on Gov. Evers and DATCP Meat Talent Development Announcement

Main Street Alliance: Leading small business organizations call on lawmakers to consider rule change to make Senate work better and to pass Voting Rights Legislation