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'Now is the time to stay home': Dunn County leaders plead for distancing, masking, testing
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DUNN COUNTY — As the novel coronavirus set grim records in Wisconsin in October, Dunn County community leaders on Monday issued a plea: Take warnings about gatherings, masks and social distancing seriously.

“This kind of case increase is not sustainable from a number of perspectives. Our health departments are overwhelmed, our health care providers are reaching a critical state and people are dying,” stated a letter signed by 15 community leaders, including officials at the head of Dunn County, the city of Menomonie, UW-Stout, Chippewa Valley Technical College and Dunn County area hospitals, health organizations, school districts, tourist organizations and law enforcement agencies.

Dunn County’s case counts are exploding, community officials said in the letter. The county’s surge in cases has mimicked that of Eau Claire and Chippewa counties this fall: a smaller uptick in mid-September, a short lull, then dramatic escalation around the end of October, county data shows.

Several Chippewa Valley school districts have temporarily moved classes online as cases surge, and Menomonie High School will do the same: It’s moving to all-remote learning on Wednesday, Menomonie schools Superintendent Joe Zydowsky announced: The school “is at a point with staff absences that cannot continue.” All-online schooling will last until at least Nov. 30, but may well continue after that date, Zydowsky added. (Other schools in the district, as of Monday, are planning to continue with in-person classes.)

“With deer hunting and the Thanksgiving holiday coming up, it will be very important that people avoid gatherings, wash up, mask up, and back up if we want our schools to stay open,” Zydowsky wrote.

Dunn County has a lower case rate than its neighbors do; last week Eau Claire County had 1,490 cases per 100,000 people, Chippewa County had 1,627 and Dunn County had 1,063, according to the state Department of Health Services.

But every county in Wisconsin is considered to have a high rate of virus spread as of Monday, and public health officials have been sounding the alarm for weeks. Dunn County stands at 1,628 cases of the virus as of Monday.

“Right now we have a concerning number of active cases,” said KT Gallagher, Dunn County Health Department director, in a Friday briefing on the virus.

“To put that into perspective … we’ve had a fifth, or one out of every five cases Dunn County has ever seen, in the last seven days. We have hit exponential growth, and I don’t see it stopping anytime soon.”

Eight Dunn County residents were hospitalized with the virus as of Friday, Gallagher said, a “steady increase in hospitalizations.”

One county resident has died of the virus. As of Monday, Dunn County had a lower death rate, 0.06%, than Eau Claire County, 0.6%, or Chippewa County, 1.1%. But that could be due to Dunn County’s current high concentration of cases in younger people: 35% of its cases are in 20- to 29-year-olds, and the next biggest demographic for the virus is 10- to 19-year-olds at 18%, according to county data.

But neighboring counties have seen deaths from COVID-19 ramp up nearly immediately in a relatively short amount of time. Two weeks ago, 12 residents of Eau Claire County had died of the respiratory virus. Another 19 residents have died of the virus since then, according to county data. Eau Claire City-County Health Department Director Lieske Giese has pointed to hospitalizations being a “lagging indicator” of the virus’ spread, and that the weight of the county’s cases is beginning to shift from young adults to the older demographic.

“The only way we can get things to right themselves is everyone taking a personal responsibility to keep our community safe,” Gallagher said Friday. “That means stay home. Don’t have people over, not even small gatherings. Stick to your family, your household, not your extended family.”

In their Monday letter, the county’s Recovery Team echoed Gallagher’s plea: Stay 6 feet apart if you must attend gatherings or be around others not in your household; wash your hands and use hand sanitizer, and wear a mask in public and when you can’t physically distance.

“The Recovery Team determined at its meeting Friday that immediate urgent action is needed on the part of citizens of Menomonie, Dunn County and western Wisconsin to help ensure an already dire situation doesn’t get worse,” said Doug Mell, special assistant to UW-Stout’s chancellor and spokesperson for the Dunn County Community Recovery Team.

Though it’s a hard pill to swallow, gatherings — even those with extended family — may be driving this surge in cases, Gallagher said.

“We’ve seen a lot of cases this last week associated with small gatherings of folks outside their home,” she said at a Friday briefing. “We had folks post Halloween parties while they were symptomatic. We had weddings and benefits in person where lots of people were exposed, and we have additional illnesses. Now is not the time for gatherings. Now is the time to stay home.”

Members of the Eau Claire-based Maple Ridge Bluegrass Band took advantage of the weekend’s unseasonably warm weather to practice Sunday at Carson Park. The musicians, clockwise from lower left, including Jim Nelson on guitar, Peggy Tabbot on ukulele, Mari Carlson on fiddle, Bruce Sorenson on fiddle and Larry Finseth on bass, have been getting together for socially distanced jam sessions at Carson Park about twice a month on weekday afternoons during the pandemic but decided to add a November weekend date when the weather cooperated. Hundreds of other Chippewa Valley residents followed the same strategy on a weekend with high temperatures in the 70s, flocking to area parks in advance of forecast highs in the 30s and low 40s for the next week.

State hasn't expanded senior program to cover vaccines
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MADISON (AP) — The Wisconsin Department of Health Services has not expanded the state’s popular SeniorCare program to include coverage for vaccines, despite being required under a bipartisan law and as flu season begins while the coronavirus ravages the state.

Republican lawmakers are demanding an explanation from Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm, calling the delay an “unnecessary roadblock for seniors looking to protect themselves from infectious diseases.”

Once a COVID-19 vaccine is available, it should also be covered under the expansion that lawmakers approved in April.

SeniorCare is a state prescription drug assistance program for people over age 65 who make up to $30,625 a year. There are about 95,000 people in the program. The state health department has said it needs to formally amend the program to access federal money to pay for the vaccinations, moves that are still in the works.

The health department did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment Monday.

State Rep. John Nygren and Sen. Alberta Darling, Republican co-chairs of the Legislature’s budget committee, wrote to Palm on Friday asking her to implement the expansion immediately.

“The delay in implementation is concerning and we have heard from constituents that it has blocked efforts to receive vaccinations,” they said.

Palm, who was appointed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, has emerged as a lightning rod for conservative criticism during the coronavirus pandemic, with some state senators saying they will vote to fire her by rejecting her confirmation.

Palm and Evers have been united in efforts to fight the pandemic, including the statewide mask mandate and attempts blocked by courts to limit capacity in bars and restaurants and the safer-at-home order that closed many businesses early in the outbreak.

A coronavirus aid bill that the Legislature passed with near-unanimous support in April, and that Evers signed into law, included a provision to expand the SeniorCare program to cover existing recommended vaccinations as well as any COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available.

The department should have acted more quickly to implement the law, Nygren and Darling said.

State law required the expanded coverage for vaccinations to take effect on April 17, an attorney for the Wisconsin Legislative Council, which provides legal advice to the Legislature, said in an Oct. 28 letter to Nygren.

The state could fund vaccinations provided through SeniorCare while it waits for approval from the federal government to help cover the costs, Nygren and Darling wrote. The vaccinations are expected to cost about $80,000 a year.

Expanding the services “improves the quality of care offered to Wisconsin’s seniors and will help protect a vulnerable population from COVID-19 when a vaccine is developed and approved,” Darling and Nygren wrote.

Palm said in an Oct. 19 letter to Nygren and Darling that before the expanded coverage could be implemented, the Legislature’s budget committee needed to approve an amendment to the SeniorCare program so it could get federal reimbursement. That approval was given last week.

Eau Claire budget vote is today
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EAU CLAIRE — A new planner position at City Hall that would give the general public a bigger voice in how Eau Claire’s money is spent will be delayed until mid-2021.

The city had budgeted for the new job to be created this summer, but its hiring had been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The city’s proposed 2021 budget, which is scheduled for approval during today’s 4 p.m. City Council meeting, now plans for the job to start midway through next year.

Councilwoman Catherine Emmanuelle had advocated for creating the new job to spearhead a “participatory budgeting” initiative that would invite Eau Claire residents to provide more input into a portion of city spending.

She acknowledged that public gatherings crucial to this job are currently not advisable due to the risk of spreading the coronavirus, but worried that the position could continue to be postponed.

“In the likely event we are still unfortunately dealing with COVID in July, do you foresee delaying hiring?” she asked the city’s finance director.

Jay Winzenz replied that starting the position in July is the plan, and it would be a good opportunity to recruit candidates who are getting their graduate degrees this spring.

“That timing does tend to work out well,” he said.

All positions are evaluated before filling them, but Winzenz added that the new planner would not just be leading the participatory budgeting program, but also have other duties.

Scott Allen, community development director, said his department has numerous projects going on and coming next year that the new employee would also work on.

“There is certainly no shortage of community planning work,” Allen said.

By delaying the position until mid-2021, Winzenz said the city is saving $45,000 in its 2021 budget.

Next year’s proposed city operating budget has $133.7 million in spending — an increase of less than $30,000 over the 2020 budget.

Local property taxes are projected to pay $42.97 million of the city’s budget, up from $42.24 million this year.

Nobody from the general public spoke at the hearing on Monday night on the budget, but a couple of residents spoke about proposed fees for city services.

Beekeeper Corey Grotte said license and inspection fees for raising honeybees in Eau Claire are significantly higher than other cities in Wisconsin.

First-time beekeepers have to pay a $95 inspection fee and the annual beekeeping license is $75. Grotte cited several other cities that charge either smaller one-time fees or smaller renewal fees.

Though no fee increase is listed for 2021 in Eau Claire, Grotte said at their current level they put a damper on people who want to raise the insects that are used to pollinate many different food-producing plants.

Mark Quam, president of the Chippewa Valley Transit Alliance, spoke in favor of a proposal the council will consider today to create a 50% discount on city bus fares for residents who have low incomes.