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Brutally cold conditions blowing in

Brutally cold conditions are expected to envelop the region into next week, prompting local officials of offer advice on how to stay safe.

“The best bet on days like we’re about to experience is to stay home if you can,” said Genevieve Kragness, an emergency room nurse at HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital. “If you have to venture out, be smart about what you wear, where you go and what’s in your car.”

Between Thursday afternoon and this morning, wind chills of 25 to 35 degrees below zero were expected, according to the National Weather Service. Arctic air is predicted to continue to dominate the region with dangerous wind chills expected through the middle of next week; the coldest air looks to arrive Tuesday and Wednesday.

“Freezing temperatures, wind chills and winter storms can cause hypothermia, frostbite and even death,” said Tyler Esh, Eau Claire County emergency management coordinator, noting 38 people died in the 2017-18 winter season in Wisconsin.

“The best way to stay safe during extreme cold is to be prepared,” said Lieske Giese, Eau Claire City-County Health Department director.

Kragness, Giese and Dr. Sue Cullinan, an emergency medicine physician at Mayo Clinic Health System, offered the following tips:

• Dress in layers; wear a hat, mittens and snow boots; and use a scarf to cover your mouth and face.

• Keep track of family members, especially young and old, friends and neighbors. This also goes for college students out for a night of drinking, Cullinan said.

• Use care in outdoor exertion, such as shoveling snow. Cullinan has seen an increase in people experiencing chest pain and heart attacks during cold weather.

• Don’t run a propane heater, oven or grill inside your home or garage to keep warm. Using these appliances can increase risk for carbon monoxide poisoning, which can cause significant medical issues and even death.

• Make sure you have working carbon monoxide detectors. All homes and duplexes in Wisconsin are required to have properly working detectors on every level, including the basement but not the attic or storage areas, according to Giese.

• Limit alcohol use. Drinking can cloud someone’s judgment, resulting in him or her not realizing exactly how cold it is or how long he or she has been outside, Cullinan said.

• Limit time outdoors. “Save … skating, sledding and running for a slightly warmer day,” Kragness said.

• Stay dry. Wet skin is much more susceptible to frostbite because the skin loses heat more quickly, Kragness said.

• Be aware of the signs of frostbite and hypothermia.

Frostbite is an injury caused by freezing of the skin and underlying tissues, according to It’s most common in fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks and the chin.

Signs and symptoms, according to the website, include, at first, cold skin and a prickling feeling; numbness; red, white, bluish-white or grayish-yellow skin; hard or waxy-looking skin; clumsiness due to joint and muscle stiffness; and blistering after rewarming, in severe cases.

Hypothermia is abnormally low body temperature caused by prolonged exposure to the cold, Kragness said. It happens when the body begins to lose heat faster than it’s produced.

Symptoms include shivering, slurred speech, confusion and a low energy level after cold exposure, she said.

• If planning to travel, make sure your windows are clear and your vehicle is in good operating condition, said Bridget Coit, Eau Claire Police Department public information officer.

Kragness recommends carrying a blanket, flashlight and first aid kit in your car.

• Don’t forget about your furry companions.

Longer-haired and thick-coated dog breeds, such as huskies and other dogs bred for colder climates, are more tolerant of cold weather; but no pet should be left outside for long periods in below-freezing weather, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

For those who keep dogs outside, make sure the floor of the animals’ dog house is off the ground, and the house has thick, dry bedding, which is changed regularly, Coit said. In addition make sure the dog has access to water, and it’s not frozen.

If your dog has a short coat or seems bothered by cold weather, consider a sweater, dog coat and booties, she said. Check the animal’s paws frequently for signs of cold-weather injury or damage, like cracked pads.

Eau Claire has state's 4th lowest jobless rate

Eau Claire ended 2018 with the fourth-lowest unemployment rate out of Wisconsin’s 32 largest cities.

Bested only by Madison, Fitchburg and Sun Prairie — all located in Dane County where the jobless rate is usually lowest in the state — Eau Claire had a 2.2 percent unemployment rate in December, according to statistics released Thursday by the state Department of Workforce Development. Fitchburg, Madison and Sun Prairie all posted 1.9 percent unemployment last month.

Statewide, unemployment was 3 percent last month — a slight improvement from 3.2 percent in December 2017. Wisconsin has remained below the national unemployment rate, which was 3.9 percent last month.

“We’re still seeing moderate economic growth,” said Scott Hodek, DWD economist serving west-central Wisconsin.

In addition to jobs created by that growth is the long-term trend of positions opening up after baby boomers who had occupied them have retired.

“It’s a great market if you’re a job seeker,” Hodek said.

Eau Claire’s unemployment rate matched the 2.2 percent also seen in the city in December 2017, but several other cities — Beloit, Fond du Lac, Green Bay, Janesville, Kenosha, Milwaukee, Neenah, Racine and Wausau — all set new record lows.

When rural areas near the city are added in, all of Eau Claire County had a 2.4 percent unemployment rate last month, which is the same it had a year ago. That puts Eau Claire County in the in the top 25 percent of the 72 in the state.

Figures in Chippewa and Dunn counties got a little worse when comparing last month to December 2017.

Dunn County went from 2.7 percent unemployment in December 2017 and worsened to 2.9 percent last month — putting it in about the middle of the pack of Wisconsin counties.

Chippewa County’s jobless rate of 3.5 last month — just 0.1 percent worse than a year before — landed it just above the bottom 25 percent of counties in the state.

Based on annual trends, December is usually a month when unemployment is low, Hodek noted, but it usually rises in January and February.

Wisconsin governor's order to leave ACA lawsuit rejected

MADISON — Wisconsin’s attorney general has rejected Democratic Gov. Tony Evers request to withdraw from a multi-state lawsuit targeting the Affordable Care Act, saying in a letter released Thursday that only the Republican-controlled Legislature now has the power to take such action.

The decision is a setback for Evers, who along with Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul was elected in November and opposed the lawsuit that seeks to repeal the federal health care law. Evers on Tuesday directed Kaul to withdraw from the case , but he later tempered the request after Republican legislative leaders and a nonpartisan legislative attorney said Evers didn’t have the authority to make the order.

The Wisconsin governor previously had such authority, but Republicans stripped that power during a lame-duck legislative session last month. The legislation making the change was quickly signed by then-Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican who supports the lawsuit but was defeated by Evers in his bid for a third term.

Other successful legislation also weakened Kaul’s powers.

The law change gave the Legislature’s GOP-controlled Joint Finance Committee the power to withdraw the states from lawsuits. Kaul, in a three-paragraph letter to Evers, wrote that the Wisconsin Department of Justice “does not have statutory authority to withdraw the State from the ACA litigation absent approval from the Joint Committee on Finance.”

Kaul later sent a letter to the committee’s Republican co-chairs asking to withdraw from the lawsuit and requesting the committee vote promptly. The committee’s co-chairs, Rep. John Nygren and Sen. Alberta Darling, released the letter to media outlets early Thursday evening.

Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said GOP lawmakers supported the lawsuit when it was filed but had not yet discussed the new request to withdraw.

A federal judge in Texas last month declared the Affordable Care Act to be unconstitutional, but its provisions remain in effect while the case is under appeal.

Evers’ flip flop Wednesday drew derision from Vos, who tweeted “#AmateurHour.” Baldauff said Republicans were making a “distraction” by focusing on how the Justice Department would comply with the new state law related to withdrawing from the lawsuit.

“Republicans know that people don’t support their plans to gut the Affordable Care Act and are desperate to change the conversation,” she said. “But the real story isn’t complicated: the governor is ready to move forward with protecting the health care of millions of Wisconsinites.”

Evers has yet to embrace a bill making its way through the Legislature that guarantees access to health insurance for people with pre-existing medical conditions in Wisconsin. The Assembly passed it on a bipartisan vote Tuesday, but Evers was skeptical, saying he was disappointed the measure didn’t go farther to protect other essential health services.

The Assembly passed a similar bill last session but it died in the Senate. It’s unclear whether this year’s version has enough support there to pass, or whether Evers would sign it.

A Marquette University Law School poll released Thursday showed that 48 percent of respondents supported Wisconsin withdrawing from the lawsuit, while 42 percent wanted to continue. The poll of 800 registered voters was conducted between Jan. 16 and Sunday and had an error rate of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.

Government shutdown could have local impact

A partial shutdown of the federal government could have a significant local impact on people in need in the Chippewa Valley, officials who work with that population said.

From delaying food assistance for qualified people as soon as March to slowing the processing of affordable housing vouchers, the shutdown is adversely impacting a wide range of services for those who need them, heads of local nonprofit agencies and others said.

Carrie Poser, director of the Wisconsin Balance of State Continuum of Care, which works with agencies providing services, sent an update to service providers Wednesday outlining concerns about the impacts in the Chippewa Valley and elsewhere of the shutdown that on Thursday reached 34 days, the longest in history.

“As you all know, the government shutdown impacts the agencies that fund many of your programs and provides resources to those in poverty,” Poser wrote in an email.

Among the projected funding delays caused by the shutdown, Poser said, is a concern FoodShare Wisconsin recipients will not receive assistance buying food starting in March if the impasse is not ended by then. FoodShare is a federally funded program for Wisconsin residents who need help buying food.

FoodShare clients in Eau Claire County and elsewhere in Wisconsin are receiving notification their food assistance dollars may not be available in March if the shutdown is not settled before then.

Those clients are receiving their February food payments this month, and social services officials are cautioning recipients to ration those dollars to last through next month.

“It is definitely a worry,” Kathy Welke, an economic support consortium manager with the Eau Claire County Human Services Department, said of the prospect of clients losing FoodShare funding in March. “{span}For some folks (FoodShare) might be a supplement and for others it might be all they have to buy their groceries.”{/span}

{span}If that happens, local food pantries that already are well-used by those who need help obtaining food will face further pressure, Welke said.{/span}{/span}

Other services that could be adversely impacted by the shutdown are subsidized housing and benefits provided via the Women, Infants and Children program that provides assistance to women and their kids.

{span}WIC services are available to local clients through February, Eau Claire City-County Health Department director Lieske Giese said, but may well not be as of March if the shutdown continues.

”We are starting to be concerned about this,” she said.

A lack of affordable housing is a growing concern in Eau Claire, officials who work on that issue in the city said, and money and processing delays for those receiving that assistance or those waiting for it would add problems to an already challenging situation.

”It is my understanding that funding for people who need help paying for housing could be at risk beginning in March,” said Keith Johnathan, executive director of the Eau Claire Housing Authority and manager of the city’s housing division.

The housing authority has reserve funding that could help for a while, Johnathan said, “but that won’t last forever.”

For various social services programs receiving federal dollars, “this is an uncertain time and the ripple effect is just beginning,” Poser said.

Among her concerns, she said, are federal delays caused by the shutdown that mean “we do not know which programs, including renewals, that start in 2019 will be funded or cut.”

Other grants that were approved for funding for this year scheduled to begin Jan. 1 have been delayed because the shutdown means contracts have not been finalized, she said.

In addition, Poser said, Housing and Urban Development staff are not available to answer questions.

Others expressed similar concerns. Jeanne Semb, housing services coordinator for the Western Dairyland Community Action Agency, said the shutdown will hurt people that agency serves.

”This will definitely have an effect on all of our clients,” she said.

Tom Wirth, deputy director of the Eau Claire County Human Services Department, said his office is concerned about problems posed by the shutdown as well.

”It’s having an adverse impact, and it is going to continue to have that impact” until the shutdown ends, he said.

Poser urged people to contact federal lawmakers to push for a resolution to the shutdown.

”It is imperative that we speak up and out about the impact that the shutdown has on people in poverty, people experiencing homelessness and the programs and agencies fighting to provide services,” she said.{/span}