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Labor Day weekend brings record cases for EC County; half are campus-related

EAU CLAIRE — Eau Claire County recorded 199 new cases of the coronavirus over the last week, as well as its highest-ever weekend case increase from Friday, Saturday and Sunday — but over half of those new cases are related to UW-Eau Claire, health officials said Wednesday.

In-person classes at the university began last week.

Between Sept. 1 and Sept. 9, 205 Eau Claire County residents tested positive for COVID-19, and just over half of those cases — 108 — were connected to UW-Eau Claire, said Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department. Twenty were students who lived on campus.

“About 50% of our cases (in that range) were either UW-Eau Claire students or faculty,” Giese said Wednesday at a news conference.

That includes students who live both on- and off-campus, Giese noted.

Other Wisconsin college cities are experiencing similar rises in cases.

Dane County on Wednesday asked UW-Madison to send undergraduate students living in residence halls home for the rest of the semester. Since Sept. 1, at least 74% of Dane County’s new COVID-19 cases stemmed from UW-Madison, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said Wednesday in a letter to UW System President Tommy Thompson and UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank.

The Eau Claire City-County Health Department anticipated a surge in cases when UW-Eau Claire, Chippewa Valley Technical College and K-12 schools reopened, Giese said, adding that there’s been a “tremendous increase in caseload.”

Testing anyone with symptoms, as fast as possible, is “critically important” especially for young people, she said.

“Many of these are mild cases or asymptomatic cases. We know that these cases are also infectious, and these (people) can infect family members, coworkers, friends and people in the community,” Giese said. “If those individuals are volunteering or have internships or jobs, all those people become at risk.”

UW-Eau Claire has said this week it will publish a dashboard with data on COVID-19 cases on campus. As of Tuesday, 77 students had tested positive for the virus and 181 were quarantined because of a possible exposure, university officials said this week.

Giese emphasized that contact tracers believed the outbreak among the student body isn’t related to classroom areas.

“We know from our investigations, and it’s been true all summer, that our biggest risk is from our social gatherings,” she said.

If someone has a symptom of COVID-19 and gets tested, they should stay home until they get their results, even K-12 or younger students, Giese added.

State, local data

Eau Claire County reported 37 new cases on Wednesday, its highest-ever single-day increase in cases, according to Health Department data.

The county has been reporting 20s and 30s of new cases nearly every day for the last week.

Since March, 1,037 county residents have tested positive for the virus. About 859 have recovered, and 41 have ever been hospitalized with COVID-19.

Six county residents have died from complications of the virus.

Statewide, another 857 new cases of COVID-19 were reported Wednesday, along with another 15 deaths, bringing total cases to over 83,000 and deaths to 1,183.

Over the last seven days, an average of 11.7% of COVID-19 tests have come back positive, a measure that was at just 8.5% on Sept. 1, according to state Department of Health Services figures.

Shelter moving to former grocery, ice returning at Hobbs this month

EAU CLAIRE — A homeless shelter that has been housed for more than five months in Eau Claire’s municipal ice center will soon be moving to a defunct grocery store on the city’s southwest side.

Catholic Charities has been using Hobbs Ice Center, 915 Menomonie St., as its Eau Claire homeless shelter since April because the organization’s usual shelter, Sojourner House, is too small to accommodate people while public health precautions are in place during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But with the city eager to reopen Hobbs for its intended uses of ice hockey and skating, Catholic Charities sought out a new temporary home for the shelter and will be leasing the former Hansen’s IGA, 1031 W. Clairemont Ave. Shuttered in January, the store is undergoing some minor renovations to prepare it to serve as a shelter until Sojourner House can again be used.

“It is anticipated they will be able to move to that temporary facility by the first week of October,” City Manager Dale Peters said.

The city has set a firm Sept. 19 date for when the ice center will be able to accommodate ice skaters and hockey players.

“We’ll have the ice available for people who are planning to use it,” Peters said.

However, there may be some overlap when Hobbs will have the homeless shelter in one part of the facility and skating on another rink.

The center’s Akervik Rink will have a sheet of ice on it by Sept. 19, even as the larger O’Brien Rink will remain dry and may still be operating as a shelter until the new location is ready.

“Each use will be in separate parts of the building,” Peters said, noting that they have separate entrances as well.

When the shelter is moved out, Peters said the city likely will add ice to the O’Brien Rink as well.

Catholic Charities moved people from Sojourner House to the ice center at the end of March after statewide safer-at-home orders went into effect during the start of the coronavirus pandemic. With more space than Sojourner House, the ice rink allowed cots for up to 70 people to be spread out at least six feet apart to abide by social distancing guidelines that are intended to reduce the likelihood of spreading germs.

Along with providing a place to sleep, the ice center also doubled as a place for people to stay in the daytime as well. Positive Avenues, a daytime resource center run by Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan, had also been using the shelter space in Hobbs. That service is moving to the former grocery store as well, Peters said.

The grocery store at 1031 W. Clairemont Ave. has been vacant since January when Hansen’s IGA closed it. Hansen’s lasted less than a year in the spot, due in part to customer traffic falling after the nearby Shopko closed in June 2019.

Hansen’s had taken over for Gordy’s Market, which operated the store from spring 2012 until the local chain’s financial troubles caused it to close the location in September 2017. Prior to Gordy’s Market running the store, it had long been Ron’s Castle Foods.

Book: Trump said of virus, 'I wanted to always play it down'

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump talked in private about the “deadly” coronavirus last February, even as he was declaring to America it was no worse than the flu and insisting it was under control, according to a new book by journalist Bob Woodward. Trump said Wednesday he was just being a “cheerleader” for the nation and trying to keep everyone calm.

His public rhetoric, Trump told Woodward in March, was part of a strategy to deliberately minimize the danger. “I wanted to always play it down,” the president said. “I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic.”

Trump, according to the book, acknowledged being alarmed by the virus, even as he was telling the nation that it would swiftly disappear.

Coming less than eight weeks before Election Day, the revelations in the book — accompanied by recordings Woodward made of his interviews with Trump — provide an unwelcome return of public attention to the president’s handling of the pandemic that has so far killed about 190,000 Americans. He is currently pushing hard for a resumption of normal activity and trying to project strength and control to bolster his political position in his campaign against Democrat Joe Biden.

In a Feb. 7 call with Woodward, Trump said of the virus, “You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed. And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus.” “This is deadly stuff,” the president repeated for emphasis.

Just three days later, Trump struck a far rosier tone in an interview with Fox Business: “I think the virus is going to be — it’s going to be fine.”

Biden said Wednesday the book shows Trump “lied to the American people. He knowingly and willingly lied about the threat it posed to the country for months.”

“While a deadly disease ripped through our nation, he failed to do his job — on purpose. It was a life or death betrayal of the American people,” Biden said at a campaign event in Michigan.

Speaking Wednesday at the White House, Trump acknowledged he downplayed the virus, insisting he was trying to buck up the nation and suggesting he was trying to avoid “gouging” on prices of needed supplies.

“The fact is I’m a cheerleader for this country. I love our country and I don’t want people to be frightened. I don’t want to create panic, as you say,” Trump told reporters. “Certainly, I’m not going to drive this country or the world into a frenzy. We want to show confidence. We want to show strength.”

Yet Trump’s public comments suggested he was steering people to ignore the reality of the coming storm. Woodward’s account details dire warnings from top Trump national security officials to the president in late January that the virus that causes COVID-19 could be as bad as the devastating influenza pandemic of 1918.

On Feb. 25, just weeks before much of the country was forced to shut down because of the pandemic, Trump declared the virus “very well under control in our country.”

Though he restricted travel from China in January, Trump did not begin to devote extensive federal resources to procuring vital personal protective equipment, including face masks, or expand the production of ventilators until March. In fact, U.S. officials recommended against widespread mask wearing until April in part because of a shortage of protective masks required by front-line medical workers.

Trump aides and allies said at the time that he was aiming to prop up the economy with his rosy take on the virus throughout February, even as his administration took few concrete steps to prepare for the coming pandemic.

The Washington Post, where Woodward serves as associate editor, reported excerpts of the book, “Rage” on Wednesday, as did CNN. The book also covers race relations, diplomacy with North Korea and a range of other issues that have arisen during the past two years.

The book is based in part on 18 interviews that Woodward conducted with Trump between December and July.

“Trump never did seem willing to fully mobilize the federal government and continually seemed to push problems off on the states,” Woodward writes of the pandemic. “There was no real management theory of the case or how to organize a massive enterprise to deal with one of the most complex emergencies the United States had ever faced.”

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Wednesday, “The president has never lied to the American public on COVID. The president was expressing calm, and his actions reflect that.”

She said Trump’s actions show that he took COVID-19 seriously. She noted that the president put in place travel restrictions with China on Jan. 31 and said that some Democrats had criticized the move.

In an interview with Fox News on Wednesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, said Trump never “distorted” what he had advised the president.

“Often he would want to, you know, make sure that the country doesn’t get down and out about things, but I don’t recall anything that was any gross distortion in things that I spoke to him about,” Fauci said.

McEnany insisted “the president never downplayed the virus,” though Trump himself told Woodward he was “playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic.”

“There is damning truth that President Trump lied and people died,” said Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York. Schumer said that when he thinks about how many people in his state died, “It just makes me angry.” He added: “How many people would be alive today if he just told Americans the truth?”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the president’s comments to Woodward showed weakness and a disdain for science.

“What he was actually saying is, ‘I don’t want anybody to think anything like this happened on my watch so I’m not going to call any more attention to it,’” Pelosi said on MSNBC.

Woodward’s book is his second on the Trump White House. The first, published in 2018, portrayed Trump in an unflattering light, and the president fumed at staff that he was not interviewed for it, according to former White House officials and Republicans close to the White House. They were not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations and discussed the matter on condition of anonymity.

Trump was convinced that if he had talked to Woodward, it could have led to a more favorable depiction in the book, according to the officials. Trump had always held Woodward in high regard — he considered the journalist as the biggest star in the field — and told aides that he must be interviewed if Woodward were to write again, the officials said.

Several Republican senators at the Capitol declined to comment on the new book, telling reporters they hadn’t yet read it, even when informed of key passages about the virus. “I just can’t, can’t comment on it,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

“Could we all have done things differently? Yes, including Congress. We were all a little slow to recognize the severity,” Portman said.