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Eau Claire nurse takes on stress, risk to care for COVID-19 patients in New York

Carolyn Miller of Eau Claire is used to working in new environments as a traveling nurse, but nothing could prepare her for what she is seeing while serving at a New York hospital overflowing with COVID-19 patients.

Halfway through an eight-week contract to work at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, Miller has a front row seat to ground zero in the nation’s battle against the new coronavirus, as New York leads all 50 states with nearly 28,000 COVID-19 deaths. What she is experiencing in this real-life stint is more shocking and emotionally taxing than anything that plays out on nearby Broadway stages.

She has seen refrigerator trucks parked outside to take care of the bodies of COVID-19 patients who died, oxygen trucks to help keep up with the huge patient demand for high-flow oxygen and military tents set up outside for screening patients before they set foot inside the hospital.

“It’s really sad,” said Miller, 34. “In my first two weeks here, after I left work, I think I cried in the shower pretty much everyday. This is undoubtedly the most stressful job I’ve ever taken on.”

She also recognizes the personal risk to health care workers: Five workers — a doctor, a nurse and three housekeepers — from her 22-bed unit alone have died from COVID-19 this spring. They are among more than 1,000 health care workers worldwide who have died from the virus, according to Medscape.

The reasons Miller put her life on the line by taking the New York job range from the practical — her previous assignment cut short her contract and traveling nurse jobs were drying up across the country as hospitals shut down elective surgeries and other services — to the inspirational — she saw a need and wanted to help.

Miller, who earned an associate degree in nursing from Chippewa Valley Technical College in 2014 and attended nursing school at UW-Milwaukee, is part of a wave of nurses and other health care workers who have flooded to York in an attempt to keep the hospitals from being overrun with COVID-19 patients.

Gina Bloczynski, nursing program director at CVTC, said the college’s faculty are humbled to learn about graduates working on the front lines of the pandemic despite the many unknowns of the situation.

“We are grateful for their resilience in providing knowledgeable and compassionate care to vulnerable patients under difficult circumstances,” Bloczynski said.

For her part, Miller said, “I don’t know if it’s a nurse thing or what, but we all want to help. We have advanced critical skills and this is what we are here to do.”

She acknowledged that working through the largest pandemic in a century isn’t something students imagine when they are attending nursing school.

“To be part of something that’s brand new, like a human experiment, that’s an opportunity you’re just not usually given,” she said.

Safety measures

Her mother, Susan Miller, is a registered dietitian at HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital, which four F-16 Fighting Falcons from the Wisconsin Air National Guard’s 115th Fighter Wing flew over Tuesday to pay tribute to health care workers and first responders for their efforts during the pandemic.

“I am very proud of Carolyn,” Susan Miller said, although she admitted safety concerns flashed through her head upon first hearing of her daughter’s plans. “She is working directly with patients who are infected, so I know she’s at risk of catching it, but I also know she is very knowledgeable about how to reduce that risk.”

Indeed, Carolyn Miller said she has never been denied a mask and also wears booties, gloves, sterile gowns and other personal protective equipment for the entirety of her five 12-hour shifts a week. She dons the PPE in a clean room daily before entering what she called the “hot zone,” or areas of the hospital with COVID-19 patients.

But with so many coronavirus particles present in her unit, Miller said matter-of-factly, “There’s no physical way you’re not going to have some virus on you when you go home at the end of your shift.”

Thus, she also has adopted elaborate procedures to limit the chance of bringing the virus into the apartment she is sharing with a nurse friend from the Midwest. Those measures include leaving her work bag near the entrance and removing and bleaching her shoes as soon as she gets home.

“I think it’s really important for people to understand that PPE isn’t what keeps you safe. It’s washing your hands,” Miller said. “So before touching anything in my apartment, I take off my scrubs and wash my hands.”

Despite all the safety measures, Miller admitted she worries about contracting the virus. She calms those fears by reminding herself she is young and healthy, putting her in a low-risk category for developing serious complications, but also recognizes she has people in her life who have compromised immune systems.

Chaos reigned

While things have calmed down somewhat, Miller described the atmosphere at Kings County Hospital when she first arrived as chaotic.

The hospital had so many patients that some didn’t even have hospital beds. Supplies were so scarce that she recalled using a pack of adult diapers instead of a pillow to prop up a patient in an effort to avoid pressure sores. Fentanyl, IV fluids and other items normally locked up were piled in cribs in the middle of rooms for easy access.

“It was all COVID when I got here. They brought in 300 extra beds and made the capacity 1,000 beds,” she said.

Her floor had one patient die during her first shift and two more die in the next 12 hours. They are among the 4,676 people who have died from COVID-19 in Kings County — the most of any county in the United States — and nearly 90,000 deaths nationwide, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University

“These people are literally the sickest people I’ve ever seen in my life once they’re intubated,” Miller said, noting that COVID-19 patients generally are lying on their bellies and using the most advanced ventilator settings. “They throw these massive blood clots, but their blood is thin. Their lungs don’t become pliable anymore, they become fluid overloaded and their skin just blisters and peels away. It’s horrific. It really is.”

Long days

Miller’s daily routine involves leaving her East Village apartment at about 6:45 p.m. every work day to allow enough time for the hourlong subway ride to the hospital before her shift starts at 8 p.m. She returns home around 9:30 a.m. and sleeps from about 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. before starting the exhausting cycle all over again.

While going out for takeout food on a recent evening off, Miller said she wanted to cry when reminded of a heartwarming New York tradition that has arisen since COVID-19 struck the city with such force.

“Every night at 7 p.m. all of New York City cheers for health care workers, first responders and hospital workers,” she said. “It’s like horns blaring and people out on their balconies clapping, cheering and whistling. It’s just so cool.”

The city has changed in the four weeks Miller has been there, as the virus curve has flattened and the weather has improved.

“When I first got here, it was so surreal. There were like no cars on the road and you hardly saw any people at all,” she said. “It was like I had New York City to myself. You could cross First Avenue without even looking both ways and not worry about getting hit by a car.”

But now more people are outside in parks and coffee shops are full, but with everybody 6 feet apart.

“People here are really serious about social distancing, and everyone wears a mask,” Miller said, joking that the one bright spot of the pandemic is that masks eliminate the need to wear makeup.

Having seen the tremendous toll the virus has taken on their community, New Yorkers understand and accept the need to make such sacrifices, she said.

By contrast, she is alarmed to see photos of people in the Midwest crowded into stores, standing close to each other and not wearing masks. though she understands the pain safer-at-home orders have inflicted on business owners, protests and complaints about restrictions have Miller worried about COVID-19 spikes as Wisconsin and other Midwestern states begin reopening. She hopes people will stay kind to each other and have civil conversations about the issue.

Most of all, she advised people in less affected areas to heed the guidance of epidemiologists trying to protect them.

“Let’s let the scientists and experts make their recommendations,” Miller said, “and let’s listen to them because those are the people you depend on when you actually do get sick.”

EC downtown farmer’s market kicks off, drawing masked shoppers

People shopping for fresh vegetables, flowers and baked goods Saturday morning had an easier time navigating through the pavilion at the Eau Claire Downtown Farmers Market.

That extra space between shoppers? A side effect of new, coronavirus-related precautions for the popular downtown market, which kicked off its 2020 summer season on Saturday morning.

Shoppers could take advantage of masks and hand sanitizer when they arrived, and foot traffic was directed one-way through the pavilion on Riverfront Terrace.

“I’m very happy to see it open,” said Rachel Menter of Eau Claire, a longtime farmers market attendee who was shopping Saturday morning. “I respect the health care officials that make those decisions for our safety. I wish it could be different … but at least they’re able to open, which is great.”

Early Saturday morning, about half of shoppers were wearing masks.

About 30 vendors set up booths around the outside of the pavilion, opening up space for pedestrians inside. No food samples will be distributed, and only vendors are allowed to touch food before it’s sold.

According to the market’s new rules, vendors must wear facemasks, and customers will be offered masks before they enter.

College students Kathryn Bartel of Kewaunee and Emily Chiesa of Milwaukee were pleased they could continue a tradition of coming to the farmers market in May before their spring semester ends.

“It’s nice to support small businesses, and it’s nice that people look like they’re following the rules,” Bartel said.

The downtown farmers market delayed its opening by two weeks, but is deemed an essential business and is exempt from closing and mass gathering restrictions.

The market typically draws more than 5,000 visitors on summer Saturdays, UW-Eau Claire researchers have said.

The market is scheduled to be open three days a week, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays beginning in June. For hours, visit www.ecdowntownfarmersmarket.com.

Wisconsin again? Swing state a hotbed of virus politics

MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin has been the battleground for political proxy wars for nearly a decade, the backdrop for bruising feuds over labor unions, executive power, redistricting and President Donald Trump.

Now, six months before a presidential election, the state is on fire again. With a divided state government and a polarized electorate, Wisconsin has emerged as a hotbed of partisan fighting over the coronavirus, including how to slow its spread, restart the economy, vote during a pandemic and judge Trump’s leadership.

In recent weeks, every political twist has been dissected by the parties, political scientists and the press, all searching for insight into which way the swing state might be swinging in the virus era.

Democrats had the most significant recent win, a contested statewide Supreme Court race. It gave them a claim on sense of momentum after making gains in the 2018 midterm elections.

But Republicans this past week won a special election for Congress, albeit in a GOP stronghold, and successfully had the governor’s stay-at-home order tossed out by the state Supreme Court.

But no one is making predictions about Wisconsin in November, other than to note that the latest fight over the fallout from the coronavirus may be the most important of them all.

“The jury’s still out,” said former Gov. Scott Walker, perhaps the figure most closely associated with Wisconsin’s political turbulence. The Republican had previously said the economic recovery favored Trump carrying the state. On Friday, he said the November presidential election will be a referendum on Trump’s handling of the pandemic.

“One, how do you feel about your own health and health of your family,” Walker said. “Two, how do you feel about the health of the economy, particularly your own job. ... If people are still freaked out, then I think it’s always tough for any incumbent.”

Taking their cues from Trump, who has called on states to “liberate” residents from stay-at-home orders and get back to normal, state Republican lawmakers challenged Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ order in court. Similar maneuvers have been tried in Michigan and Pennsylvania, the other Rust Belt states that backed Trump in 2016 and handed him the White House.

But only in Wisconsin have Republicans gotten what they wanted, suddenly taking ownership of the state’s coronavirus response and, with it, new political risk. While some Wisconsinites rushed out to bars to celebrate the court’s ruling, many in the state were confused about the new patchwork of restrictions. Meanwhile, a solid majority of Wisconsin residents have said they support Evers’ handling of the crisis, according to a new Marquette University Law School poll.

Democrats were quick to cast the issue as much larger than the previous partisan feuds.

“By November, a significant fraction of Wisconsinites might be close to someone who has been hospitalized or even died because of coronavirus,” Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Ben Wikler said. “And those are, unlike passing news cycles, the things that can create scars that change how people view politics in their own lives.”

As in other states, the virus has moved beyond Wisconsin’s big Democratic cities. Brown County, home of Green Bay and a number of meat processing plants, has become Wisconsin’s fastest-growing coronavirus hot spot.

In 2016, Trump easily carried the county. But in last month’s election, Democrats’ choice for the state Supreme Court, Jill Karofsky, won Brown County, part of her surprisingly strong showing in an election plagued by long lines at polling places and widespread worries over whether it was safe to be voting at all.

Evers tried at the last minute to postpone the election, but Republicans refused. Again, Wisconsin’s drama was projected on the national stage — and mined for lessons about organizing, mail-in voting and ballot access.

“Republicans in my district were begging us not to hold an in-person election,” said state Rep. Robyn Vining, a Democrat whose district spans western Milwaukee County and GOP-leaning suburbs. “People who said they had voted Republican their entire lives were furious.”

Whether Republicans will take out any frustrations on Trump is far from clear. The Marquette University poll this week found Trump has a 47% approval rate in Wisconsin, virtually unchanged from March. The poll also registered the impact of the state’s decade of political battles — an intense polarization.

“There’s not much of a middle in Wisconsin, at least as far as Donald Trump is concerned,” said John Johnson, a research fellow from Marquette University Law School.

The state was a hotbed of tea party opposition to Barack Obama’s administration in 2010, sentiment that helped Walker win office and move to cut public-sector unions’ bargaining rights. The effort ignited mass Capitol protests in Madison and prompted a bitter recall election a year later. Walker beat it back and went on to win reelection in 2014.

His tenure hit at the heart of Wisconsin’s once-progressive tradition. In addition to his labor legislation, he enacted deep tax cuts and prevailed over a challenge to Wisconsin’s legislative redistricting — leaving the state with districts heavily gerrymandered to favor his party.

Since Trump’s narrow 2016 victory in Wisconsin — the first by a Republican presidential candidate since 1984 — Wisconsin has become home to a permanent campaign. Democrats began a year-round organizing initiative that led to a comeback with Evers’ narrow defeat of Walker in 2018.

Republicans, too, have invested in organizing in the state, particularly in hunting for new voters in the rural counties where Trump made strong gains over past Republicans candidates.

The Trump campaign says its staff of 60 turned its attention this week to a special election for a congressional seat in northern Wisconsin. They made 2.4 million get-out-the-vote calls in the district — roughly half of all the voter contacts they’ve made this election cycle in the state.

State Sen. Tom Tiffany won the seat by 14 percentage points. Trump carried the district by 20 percentage points in 2016.