Former Republican Wisconsin governor and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson said Republicans and Democrats have to work together to effectively combat COVID-19.
“I’m of the opinion that when you have an enemy, an outside enemy like this virus, you have to fight it on a bipartisan basis,” Thompson said in an interview with BizTimes Milwaukee. “… It may be impossible in a presidential year, but I’m hoping the goodwill of America and the great country of ours sees the need for us to come together.”
In the spirit of bipartisanship, Thompson – who was appointed to lead the federal HHS department from 2001-‘05 during George W. Bush’s presidency – said he won’t criticize Gov. Tony Evers’ handling of the pandemic.
“It’s a tough situation. And the governor didn’t ask for it and didn’t cause it and neither did DHS (the state Department of Health Services). They were thrown into a situation that nobody was completely familiar with. I’d have to say that they, overall, did a good job. I think they had a couple of mistakes along the way, but I’m not going to criticize them for doing what they thought was right,” Thompson said, adding that the extension of Evers’ “Safer at Home” order was “probably not needed.”
“But, overall, I’m one of the individuals who believes that when you have people in public life, you support them,” he said. “I’m not going to step back and criticize the governor and (DHS secretary-designee) Andrea Palm. I wish them well.”
At this point of the state’s reopening, Thompson said testing and contact tracing will be key to “winning the battle” against COVID-19.
Last week, Evers announced a statewide effort to significantly increase testing and contact tracing with $1 billion in federal CARES Act funding.
This week, Palm reported the state is now processing more than 10,000 COVID-19 tests daily, which she called a “milestone” in its testing efforts. About 400 state employees have been deployed as contact tracers, with another 100 trained. The state plans to onboard an additional 100 contact tracers next week.
Thompson said building up that infrastructure will help prevent a second wave of the coronavirus.
“If you really want to stop this virus – and I do – it has to be on the shoulders of testing and tracing,” he said. “If you want to win the battle and the war, that’s what you have to do.”
Thompson, who led HHS during the SARS global outbreak in 2003, drew comparisons between the two outbreaks, both of which originated in China.
“I think the difference was that we moved faster,” he said. “As soon as we found out about it, I sent people to China and I went to China. And anybody that was sick on a plane coming in from China, we got them off the plane and started testing them right away, so there was no way to expand it. We were lucky nobody died (in the United States from the disease).”
He added that the U.S. was slow to roll out COVID-19 testing when the coronavirus first arrived in the country.
“I think if there’s any criticism of anybody in this whole operation it was the fact that we didn’t have testing done at the beginning like we should have,” he said. “The CDC should have been farther along and better prepared to have a test, and their test was not the best when they turned it out. That was too bad.”
Still, Thompson applauded CDC and NIH, saying they are the best sources of information as the state begins reopening.
“I think we have the two greatest resources in the world in our country, and that’s NIH and CDC,” he said. “They are the experts. And you need to listen to them.”
Thompson said it’s “time to open up” businesses, and has thrown his support behind Wisconsin Hospital Association’s PSA campaign to encourage patients to return to hospitals and clinics for routine care amid the pandemic.
“It’s time that we look to the future, we are Americans and we need to get our businesses open,” he said. “That needs to be told loud and clear. They’re open and secure and safe … That’s the message for hospitals, and it’s the same for any business.”
Get more news and insight in the May 25 issue of BizTimes Milwaukee. Subscribe to get updates in your inbox here.