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Q&A: Sacred Heart nurse talks about challenges of COVID-19
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EAU CLAIRE — As a front-line nurse working on a critical care unit at a time when hospitals are flooded with COVID-19 patients, Sam Pitts says every day brings its own triumphs and challenges.

Pitts, 27, who has worked at HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire for nearly three years, said caring for COVID-19 patients can be emotionally taxing because they are often so sick and frightened. The situation is compounded by visitation restrictions that prevent loved ones from being at patients’ bedsides.

With many Chippewa Valley hospitals reporting this week that they have no available beds because of the recent surge in COVID-19 cases — Sacred Heart officials say the hospital is near capacity — Pitts acknowledged that staff members are strained.

That’s no surprise considering Wisconsin now has the fifth-highest case rate and sixth-highest death rate in the nation, according to The New York Times COVID-19 tracker. More than 285,000 people have tested positive and 2,457 have died in Wisconsin from the virus this year, according to the state Department of Health Services, which categorizes COVID-19 activity in Eau Claire County as critically high and growing.

Pitts, an Eau Claire resident and Chippewa Valley Technical College graduate, echoed the calls by public health officials for members of the public to stay home if they can, wear masks if they must venture out and practice social distancing and good hand hygiene.

She spoke Wednesday with the Leader-Telegram about providing nursing care during the coronavirus pandemic. The interview has been edited and condensed.

What’s it like to be on the front lines of this pandemic when hospitalizations are surging?

It’s definitely very busy around here. It’s a very dynamic situation. Family members are all at home and they want to know what’s going on. We try to keep everybody updated, but it’s a challenge.

We try to do what we can to fill that void, but we’re nowhere near what families can do. We try to connect people with FaceTime, just talking on the phone or even using whiteboards for patients to write on and then us communicating with families when patients are low on oxygen and can’t verbalize.

How about from the patients’ perspective?

Our patients down here in the ICU are very sick. Just looking in their eyes you can see that they’re scared. There’s just so many unknowns. They are trying to catch their breath, and it’s a fight every hour of every day.

How are you handling the emotional stress of caring for those patients?

There are days when you’re very touched by what family members or patients said to you, but sometimes you just have to live your life and go home and give your fiance a hug. It’s definitely been emotionally exhausting that way.

What do you see on a day-to-day basis?

Every day is interesting and brings its own triumphs and battles. It’s been very difficult. There’ve been some positives, but there’s a lot of sadness too.

How would you characterize the seriousness of the pandemic right now in the Chippewa Valley?

It is very serious. Early on you’d watch the news and think that couldn’t happen here. But now as things are cooling off outside and everybody is staying inside, it’s starting to spread and get very busy in the hospitals.

There is still a lot that we don’t seem to know or understand about the virus and still more things we need to learn to better treat everybody.

But you know more about treatment now than you did early in the pandemic, right?

It definitely seems like we have more treatment options. At the beginning it felt like we had very few. A lot of it is trying different things. That’s why they call it practicing medicine. We’re trying a lot of things to figure out what works.

What is your attitude about the personal health risk you take on by caring for patients with this highly contagious, potentially deadly virus, and do you have adequate personal protective equipment?

There are risks every day with anything you do. This is something we’ve trained for. I believe with good hand hygiene and wearing proper PPE that we are limiting the chance of any transmission. I always have the equipment I need. I feel very safe when I go to work.

Can you describe the protective gear you wear when caring for COVID-19 patients?

First, I put on a gown and gloves, and then (one of two kinds of air-purifying respirators) or an N95 mask with a shield over that.

What’s the morale like among the staff?

As for morale, we’ve got a wonderful team down here. There are tough days, but everybody picks each other up. It’s good to have great coworkers and a positive environment when things are as tough as they are right now.

So are you caring for only COVID-19 patients right now?

I’m here to take care of sick people, so I’m still taking care of a mix of patients. People still have chest pain, heart attacks and strokes and need care. That doesn’t stop because of a virus. For those people who are sick or not feeling well, it’s important they come in and be seen or contact their primary care provider.

What message would you like to share with the community at this difficult time?

It’s best to stay home right now. We’ve got everything in place these days to stay home. You can do grocery pickup or delivery. Things can really come to you, which is wonderful. When people do have to go out to the grocery store, gas stations or whatever it is, one of most basic things they should do is hand hygiene. Hand sanitizer is good, but anytime you can really wash your hands is a good idea.

UW-Eau Claire freshman Allison Schaller of Eau Claire walks to class Wednesday surrounded by flags placed on campus for Veterans Day. View more photos at LeaderTelegramPhotos.com.

Chippewa County COVID positivity rate reaches 55%
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CHIPPEWA FALLS — More than half the people who took a COVID-19 test in Chippewa County in the past week have tested positive for the virus.

Chippewa County Public Health Director Angela Weideman urged the public to stay home as much as possible and avoid gatherings as cases in the county surge.

“It’s sad, the numbers we’re seeing,” Weideman said Wednesday during her weekly COVID-19 press conference. “We definitely want those numbers to move in a different direction.”

Weideman said more people are not quarantining or self-isolating when they’ve been exposed to someone with the disease, which is undoubtedly leading to more cases.

“It’s getting more challenging to get people to not go to work,” she said.

In the past seven days, 856 Chippewa County residents tested positive out of 1,541 tests conducted, or about 55.5% of all those tested. It is marked increases from last week, when the positivity rate jumped to 35.4%. In the prior two weeks, it was 27.4% and 21.1%, respectively.

In recent weeks, Chippewa Falls, New Auburn, Cadott and Bloomer school districts have gone to virtual learning formats, and other school systems have adopted blended learning models. Weideman said her office continues to examine data about positivity rates about school-age children, teachers and staff.

“Final decisions have not been made about going back to in-person learning,” she said.

Chippewa County remains at a severe risk of COVID-19, meaning people should only gather indoors with those in their homes, and outdoor gatherings should be limited to 15 people. Weideman doesn’t anticipate the state or county adopting any new guidelines further restricting bars, restaurants or businesses, either limiting capacity or forced closures.

The situation at nearby hospitals aren’t improving, either, she added. About 77% of beds in hospitals across the northwest region of the state are now in use, including 88% of ICU beds. About 15% of ventilators are in use.

“We are very near capacity or at capacity,” Weideman said of the hospitals in Chippewa County.

In good news, the county is preparing for the possibility of obtaining vaccines. However, the leading vaccine from drugmaker Pfizer will need to be stored at -93 degrees Fahrenheit. Weideman said they are working on storage and transportation plans.

“We do have some options already that can keep the vaccines cold enough,” she said.

In the past week, the county once again set records in the number of new cases (856, up from 547 last week and 451 the prior week week 247, and active, ongoing cases (1,128, up from 937 last week and 647 the prior week).

However, for the first time in weeks, hospitalizations declined, from 25 last week to 19 this week. However, that number is still up from 18 and 12 in prior weeks.

The coronavirus-related deaths in the county climbed from 24 to 31, with all those ages 55 to 105. Some had pre-existing conditions.

“Loss is sad for everyone, regardless of age or underlying conditions,” Weideman said.

More than two-thirds of state counties finish canvass
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MADISON (AP) — More than two-thirds of Wisconsin counties had completed certifying the results of last week’s presidential election as of Wednesday, but the last one is still not expected to be finished until the Nov. 17 deadline.

All counties must finish the work before President Donald Trump can request a recount as he has said he will. Unofficial results showed Democrat Joe Biden defeated Trump by about 20,500 votes. That is within the 1-point margin to allow for a recount, but the 0.63-point spread is wide enough that Trump would have to pay for it.

A 2016 presidential recount, which resulted in only a 131 net change in votes, cost Green Party candidate Jill Stein about $2 million.

As of Wednesday, 49 out of 72 counties had submitted their canvassed results to the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

Some of the state’s largest counties were still working on it, including Milwaukee, Dane, Waukesha and Brown.

Brown County Clerk Sandy Juno said in an email Wednesday that it was a “slow going process” and they were down on available staff members due to COVID-19.

Juno said she did not anticipate finishing the canvass until the Nov. 17 deadline.

Trump has until 5 p.m. the day after the last canvass is completed to request the recount.

The certified vote totals in the 49 counties that have submitted their returns changed little from what they reported on election night. Thirteen counties showed no change. In the others, Biden’s vote total dropped by 51 votes while Trump’s fell by 208, giving Biden a net gain of 157 votes.

In most counties, the vote change from what was reported on election night versus the certified results was up or down only a handful of votes either way.

The biggest single change was in the city of Shawano, where Trump lost 274 votes. The mistake was made by a worker who entered 636 total votes for Trump in one city district rather than the correct 362 votes when they reported the totals to the county on election night, said Shawano Count Clerk Pamela Schmidt. The error was caught during the canvassing process, she said.

Trump carried Shawano County with 67% of the vote.