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Vaccinations roll on as first virus variant found in EC County
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EAU CLAIRE — As an Eau Claire County resident is identified as the first person in Wisconsin to have contracted a new, possibly more contagious strain of COVID-19, health care workers in the county are still receiving the vaccine, including the county’s chief health officer.

An Eau Claire County resident who recently traveled internationally and tested positive for the virus at the end of December is the state’s first identified case of the variant, officials announced Wednesday.

County and state officials did not release the person’s gender, age or where they traveled. The person was not hospitalized with the virus, county officials said.

The Eau Claire City-County Health Department doesn’t believe that the person has spread the virus to anyone else in the community other than people who lived in their household, said Lieske Giese, Health Department director.

“The only close contacts were household contacts, and all of those individuals were successfully quarantined,” Giese said.

Through routine surveillance and whole genome sequencing, officials identified the variant, referred to as B.1.1.7., in a virus sample on Tuesday.

Wisconsin is one of 11 other states that have found cases of the variant, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Believed to be more contagious than the unmutated virus, the new strain is ravaging England after its discovery in November, and since then has forced the country into lockdown.

The new strain B.1.1.7 has many mutations — nearly two dozen — and eight are on the spike protein that the virus uses to attach to and infect cells. The spike is what vaccines and antibody drugs target.

Dr. Ravi Gupta, a virus expert at the University of Cambridge in England, said modeling studies suggest it may be up to two times more infectious than the version that’s been most common in England so far.

There is good news: Experts say there’s every reason to expect that vaccines will still work against the new variant.

“We think it’s highly unlikely this strain will be resistant to (vaccines),” said Dr. Ken Johnson, chief medical officer for Prevea Health and an emergency department physician at HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire. “When we design vaccines, they usually target multiple sites on the viral protein. With this mutation, there’s not enough of a match that we think this will be an issue.”

But a more contagious strain of a virus that already overwhelmed Eau Claire area hospitals in November could spell trouble for this winter.

Daily case counts of the virus in Eau Claire County have fallen since autumn, but 14 county residents were admitted to hospitals with the virus in the last week. (At the November peak, 33 county residents were hospitalized with the virus in a week.)

Health officials have found no evidence that the new strain causes more severe illness or increases the risk of death from COVID-19, DHS said Wednesday.

“Mutations among viruses are very common. It’s not unusual — in fact, it’s expected. As time goes on in the pandemic and the virus continues to replicate on a large scale, the genetic sequence of the virus will change,” said state Chief Medical Officer Dr. Ryan Westergaard on Wednesday.

Minnesota, California, Colorado, Texas, New York, Maryland, Georgia, Florida, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Connecticut have also found cases of the variant.

EC County continues vaccinating Phase 1A

Eau Claire County has vaccinated around 5,500 people since Dec. 15, when the first doses arrived in the city, Giese said.

On Wednesday, Giese was one of them. The county’s chief health officer received her first dose of the Moderna shot during a vaccination clinic for health care workers.

Giese is receiving the shot because she interacts with people with COVID-19 in her capacity as the county’s chief health officer, she said Wednesday.

“On those unfortunate occasions when someone that tests positive is not following orders to stay home, I have to go and serve them with a specific order to stay home,” Giese said. “When that happens, I’m in close contact with COVID-positive individuals.”

Giese, “a proud nurse,” is also receiving the vaccine because she might be needed to administer vaccines as a front-line worker in the coming months, she added.

Giese noted that she also has a “significant, chronic condition,” and is heartened to begin the two-dose vaccine regimen.

“We see a little bit of a light at the end of the tunnel by having an opportunity to get vaccines in arms, and we need to take full advantage of that,” she told reporters Wednesday.

County health officials have warned that people must still avoid gatherings and wear masks, even after they’re vaccinated. While the vaccine is effective in keeping people from severe illness or needing hospitalization, it is not yet proven to reduce asymptomatic spread, Giese said.

“Even if they don’t get very sick or go to the hospital, we need to protect people from that,” Giese said. “Our best two ways to do that is to socially distance and wear a mask.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Odd setting used for chats with top Eau Claire job hopefuls during COVID-19 pandemic
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EAU CLAIRE — Usually home to an ambulance, a large garage stall in Eau Claire Fire Station No. 2 will be one site today where City Council members will informally meet the three finalists vying to become the next city manager.

The unusual setting for a meet-and-greet is part of the city’s precautions to prevent elected officials, job candidates and employees from catching COVID-19 while still conducting a thorough hiring process for Eau Claire’s top job.

“We had logistical problems figuring out how to do this,” city human resources director Victoria Seltun said.

At a work session last week, council members suggested holding the informal chat sessions outdoors to greatly reduce the chance of spreading germs between people. The potential for bad weather — today’s forecast does include snow — made the city steer away from that. Erecting a tent in a city parking lot had also been considered, Seltun said, but noise from heaters used to keep them warm could’ve drowned out conversation.

So to accommodate council members who are not comfortable meeting in an enclosed space during the coronavirus pandemic, the ambulance bay with its garage door open will be part of today’s planned meet-and-greets. Other council members who are OK meeting indoors will have the chance to speak with the finalists in the council chamber inside City Hall.

As multiple council members are expected to attend the informal one-on-one meetings with the candidates, the city did issue a public notice of the day’s events. While that does allow the general public to observe this afternoon’s events, the city isn’t actively encouraging that because of the precautions it is taking to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“We’re just trying not to advertise it widely for safety and health reasons,” Seltun said.

She consulted with public health officials, who still discourage large gatherings, when planning details of the meet-and-greets.

For both settings, council members will take turns talking to the finalists for a few minutes, keep a six-foot distance between people and wear face masks to limit contact between people.

Scheduled for noon to 2 p.m. today, the three candidates will rotate between the two different sites for meet-and-greets and each take a tour of City Hall guided by interim City Manager David Solberg.

The three finalists are current Eau Claire County Administrator Kathryn Schauf, Mequon City Administrator Will Jones and Maquoketa, Iowa, City Manager Gerald Smith.

As of Wednesday afternoon, council President Terry Weld didn’t have a headcount of how many council members planning to attend today’s icebreaker conversations with the finalists. Aside from their part-time duties as elected city officials, members do have day jobs, but Weld but expected all would try to be at the meet-and-greets at some point in the afternoon.

The public notice states that no formal action will be taken this afternoon, but information council members gather during the event could be used in their decision-making.

To date all of the council’s discussions with candidates have been done over the internet, but city leaders felt it was important to meet face-to-face at some point.

“It just gives us a little more insight into the candidate,” Weld said.

For some council members, this will be their first time inside a city building since the pandemic began in mid-March and led public meetings to be conducted through online videoconferencing software.

This morning, the manager candidates will be in online interviews with city department directors and a panel of seven community members. Coming from a variety of backgrounds, those on the panel represent the Eau Claire school district, Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce, UW-Eau Claire, the Eau Claire City-County Board of Health, Visit Eau Claire, the Black & Brown Women Power Coalition and the city’s retirees, Seltun said.

Video recordings of the job candidates’ responses to the panel will be posted to the city’s website for the public to watch.

In regular times, the city would’ve considered a forum where the general public would be encouraged to speak with the manager hopefuls. But with the ongoing pandemic, the interview videos and an online survey that residents can submit to the council are ways the city is providing for the public to participate in the hiring process.

“Without having a chance for a big meet-and-greet, this will be the next best thing,” Weld said.

Formal interviews continue Friday morning with a panel of rank-and-file city employees and finally the full City Council in the afternoon — all conducted via web-based videoconferencing.

The council is scheduling a meeting on Tuesday afternoon to begin its deliberations on hiring a candidate after reviewing comments provided by the interview panels and community surveys.

Seeking out a new city manager has taken nearly a year due to delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Dale Peters first announced last February that he would retire in May, but then decided to continue serving as city manager while Eau Claire dealt with the pandemic. The city put its manager search on hold in mid-March, but then resumed in June. Peters announced in September that he would retire in October.

Trump impeached after Capitol riot; historic second charge
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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump was impeached by the U.S. House for a historic second time Wednesday, charged with “incitement of insurrection” over the deadly mob siege of the Capitol in a swift and stunning collapse of his final days in office.

With the Capitol secured by armed National Guard troops inside and out, the House voted 232-197 to impeach Trump. The proceedings moved at lightning speed, with lawmakers voting just one week after violent pro-Trump loyalists stormed the U.S. Capitol, egged on by the president’s calls for them to “fight like hell” against the election results.

Ten Republicans fled Trump, joining Democrats who said he needed to be held accountable and warned ominously of a “clear and present danger” if Congress should leave him unchecked before Democrat Joe Biden’s inauguration Jan. 20.

Trump is the only U.S. president to be twice impeached.

The Capitol insurrection stunned and angered lawmakers, who were sent scrambling for safety as the mob descended, and it revealed the fragility of the nation’s history of peaceful transfers of power. The riot also forced a reckoning among some Republicans, who have stood by Trump throughout his presidency and largely allowed him to spread false attacks against the integrity of the 2020 election.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi invoked Abraham Lincoln and the Bible, imploring lawmakers to uphold their oath to defend the Constitution from all enemies, foreign “and domestic.”

She said of Trump: “He must go, he is a clear and present danger to the nation that we all love.”

Holed up at the White House, watching the proceedings on TV, Trump took no responsibility for the bloody riot seen around the world, but issued a statement urging “NO violence, NO lawbreaking and NO vandalism of any kind” to disrupt Biden’s ascension to the White House.

In the face of the accusations against him and with the FBI warning of more violence, Trump said, “That is not what I stand for, and it is not what America stands for. I call on ALL Americans to help ease tensions and calm tempers.”

Trump was first impeached by the House in 2019 over his dealings with Ukraine, but the Senate voted in 2020 acquit. He is the first to be impeached twice. None has been convicted by the Senate, but Republicans said Wednesday that could change in the rapidly shifting political environment as officeholders, donors, big business and others peel away from the defeated president.

The soonest Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell would start an impeachment trial is Tuesday, the day before Trump is already set to leave the White House, McConnell’s office said. The legislation is also intended to prevent Trump from ever running again.

McConnell believes Trump committed impeachable offenses and considers the Democrats’ impeachment drive an opportunity to reduce the divisive, chaotic president’s hold on the GOP, a Republican strategist told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

McConnell told major donors over the weekend that he was through with Trump, said the strategist, who demanded anonymity to describe McConnell’s conversations.

In a note to colleagues Wednesday, McConnell said he had “not made a final decision on how I will vote.”

Unlike his first time, Trump faces this impeachment as a weakened leader, having lost his own reelection as well as the Senate Republican majority.

Even Trump ally Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, shifted his position and said Wednesday the president bears responsibility for the horrifying day at the Capitol.

In making a case for the “high crimes and misdemeanors” demanded in the Constitution, the four-page impeachment resolution approved Wednesday relies on Trump’s own incendiary rhetoric and the falsehoods he spread about Biden’s election victory, including at a rally near the White House on the day of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

A Capitol Police officer died from injuries suffered in the riot, and police shot and killed a woman during the siege. Three other people died in what authorities said were medical emergencies. The riot delayed the tally of Electoral College votes that was the last step in finalizing Biden’s victory.

Ten Republican lawmakers, including third-ranking House GOP leader Liz Cheney of Wyoming, voted to impeach Trump, cleaving the Republican leadership, and the party itself.

Cheney, whose father is the former Republican vice president, said of Trump’s actions summoning the mob that “there has never been a greater betrayal by a President” of his office.

Trump was said to be livid with perceived disloyalty from McConnell and Cheney.

With the team around Trump hollowed out and his Twitter account silenced by the social media company, the president was deeply frustrated that he could not hit back, according to White House officials and Republicans close to the West Wing who weren’t authorized to speak publicly about private conversations.

From the White House, Trump leaned on Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina to push Republican senators to resist, while chief of staff Mark Meadows called some of his former colleagues on Capitol Hill.

The president’s sturdy popularity with the GOP lawmakers’ constituents still had some sway, and most House Republicans voted not to impeach.

Security was exceptionally tight at the Capitol, with tall fences around the complex. Metal-detector screenings were required for lawmakers entering the House chamber, where a week earlier lawmakers huddled inside as police, guns drawn, barricade the door from rioters.

“We are debating this historic measure at a crime scene,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.

During the debate, some Republicans repeated the falsehoods spread by Trump about the election and argued that the president has been treated unfairly by Democrats from the day he took office.

Other Republicans argued the impeachment was a rushed sham and complained about a double standard applied to his supporters but not to the liberal left. Some simply appealed for the nation to move on.

Rep. Tom McClintock of California said, “Every movement has a lunatic fringe.”

Yet Democratic Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo. and others recounted the harrowing day as rioters pounded on the chamber door trying to break in. Some called it a “coup” attempt.

Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., contended that Trump was “capable of starting a civil war.”

Conviction and removal of Trump would require a two-thirds vote in the Senate, which will be evenly divided. Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania joined Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska over the weekend in calling for Trump to “go away as soon as possible.”

Fending off concerns that an impeachment trial would bog down his first days in office, Biden is encouraging senators to divide their time between taking taking up his priorities of confirming his nominees and approving COVID-19 relief while also conducting the trial.

The impeachment bill draws from Trump’s own false statements about his election defeat to Biden. Judges across the country, including some nominated by Trump, have repeatedly dismissed cases challenging the election results, and former Attorney General William Barr, a Trump ally, has said there was no sign of widespread fraud.

The House had first tried to persuade Vice President Mike Pence and the Cabinet to invoke their authority under the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office. Pence declined to do so, but the House passed the resolution anyway.

The impeachment bill also details Trump’s pressure on state officials in Georgia to “find” him more votes.

While some have questioned impeaching the president so close to the end of his term, there is precedent. In 1876, during the Ulysses Grant administration, War Secretary William Belknap was impeached by the House the day he resigned, and the Senate convened a trial months later. He was acquitted.


Associated Press writers Kevin Freking, Andrew Taylor and Zeke Miller contributed to this report.