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Data suggests progress against virus in EC County, but cases still ticking up

Eau Claire County is showing some new positive signs in the fight to curb COVID-19, according to county figures released this week.

But health officials said Friday that the county’s progress — a slower increase of new cases and a lower test-positivity rate — comes with caveats, and warned residents not to ease up on social distancing and handwashing.

The county’s test-positivity rate is at 1.6%, according to a new status report the Eau Claire City-County Health Department released Wednesday. That means fewer than 2% of tests of Eau Claire County residents in the last two weeks came back positive for the coronavirus.

It’s a decrease compared to the 4.2% test-positivity rate the county reported last week.

Cases of the virus are still on the rise in the county, though they appear to be slowing slightly. In the last two weeks (May 29 to June 12), 23 new cases were identified. That’s fewer than the month before; 42 new cases were found between May 15 and May 29, and 37 new cases between May 1 and May 15, according to county data.

Four new cases of the virus were identified in county residents Friday, bringing the total to 130.

But the county isn’t just testing people who report to their doctors with chest pain, body aches or fevers, which means the test-positivity rate isn’t a perfect metric of the virus’ spread in Eau Claire County.

An overall increase in testing, along with a countywide push to test residents and employees in assisted living facilities and nursing homes — even people who aren’t showing symptoms — are pushing down the county’s positivity rate, said Eau Claire City-County Health Department director Lieske Giese.

The county has seen a “slow progression of cases over the last couple weeks,” Giese said, not large spikes. She credits that slowing of new cases partly to physical distancing, more mask-wearing and people staying home when they feel sick.

“We’ll continue to see the spread of disease,” Giese said. “I’ll be surprised if it entirely flattens out. But it will be hopefully a slow progression.”

Progress in the right direction means the county may loosen restrictions, like it did in its most recent two-week order, Giese has said. The new order, in effect until June 24, allows larger gatherings both indoors and outdoors.

But some county data are concerning, Giese said.

A majority of Eau Claire County residents, 60%, with the coronavirus don’t know where they caught the virus, according to Wednesday’s status report from the Health Department. That’s an increase from last week’s status report, which said 47% of the county’s cases stemmed from community spread.

“Our positivity rate is not getting concerning, but we have outbreaks happening with people gathering, and community spread with the cases we’re seeing,” Giese said.

After ‘safer-at-home’

The statewide safer-at-home order was lifted May 13. It was quickly replaced by an Eau Claire County order, which allowed businesses to reopen immediately with social distancing and safety requirements in place.

The county hasn’t seen a large spike in cases in the month since Gov. Tony Evers’ statewide order was struck down by the state Supreme Court. But Giese said Friday the Health Department has seen smaller outbreaks, and small spikes in the test-positivity rate — and that a slower uptick in cases was expected.

“Almost every day we’ve had a number of increased cases,” she said at a news conference Friday. “We expected that with the change in the safer-at-home order ... that we’d slowly start seeing an increase in disease.”

Statewide, the virus is still sickening hundreds each day and has killed nearly 700.

On Friday, 320 new cases in Wisconsin were identified. In total, over 22,000 have tested positive, just over 3,000 have been hospitalized and 689 have died, according to the state Department of Health Services.

Of Eau Claire County’s 130 cases, 106 have recovered, according to the Health Department. No deaths from COVID-19 have been recorded in the county as of Friday.

Nathan Piper of Eau Claire and his son Carter, 12, carry their kayaks to Half Moon Lake as Prescott, 7, and Camila, 3, followed on June 11, 2020. View more photos at LeaderTelegramPhotos.com.

Nathan Piper of Eau Claire and his kids Carter, 12, Prescott, 7, and Camila, 3, kayaked in Half Moon Lake on June 11, 2020. View more photos at LeaderTelegramPhotos.com.

This time and the time we have left

We have only so many days, so many years, and almost none of us know with certainty when that time will expire. I think about time more than what may be healthy, but then again, my dad suffered a massive brain aneurysm when he was 49 years old, and as I sit here, trying to find sufficient words to address what is happening all around our country, I am 40 years old. In all likelihood, I am closer to my end than my beginning, and I think about that almost every day. I do not take my life for granted — none of it, and that is the truth. I spend many hours struggling with acute regrets, and trying, even now, to atone for my worst moments. I have had a hard time not falling apart these past two weeks as I mourn people I do not know, as I watch our nation confront its history, and the implications of social injustice, generational trauma and systemic inequity. Laying in bed at night, it seems I can almost hear the seams of my country tearing apart.

My dad used to tell me and from a young age, “Nick, you won the cosmic lottery. You were born white and middle class in the richest country in the history of the world.” Those were his blunt and honest words and I can hear them still. Long before I ever even heard the term “white privilege,” I knew I was lucky. You live long enough, you will witness the cruelty of luck, of chance, of chaos. No one asks to be born, they just are. And we know, with scientific certainty, that the skin we wear leads to massive outcome differences. If you deny the horror of slavery, of racism, of lynching, of redlining then you haven’t read your history. In fact, you have blatantly ignored it.

But, back to time. I spent three nights recently at two protests and one memorial. These were certainly beautiful summer nights I might have been elsewhere, enjoying what time I have with my family or friends. But instead, I heard my neighbors testifying about their lives, and I took their testimony to heart. I heard my neighbors ask for my help. I am embarrassed to admit that if I had been listening harder, I would have heard these clarion cries my whole life, I would have heard them in the very pages of history I just gestured at. If I am being honest with myself, I have done very little to help Americans who have less than me, who did not, as my dad said, “win the lottery.” But I do not want to come to the end of my life and know that I did not do my best. I do not want my children to know that, yes, there were peaceful protests in Eau Claire, but their dad did not raise his voice. I do not want to reach the end of my days with the voice of another human being echoing through my memories asking politely for my help. I want to have given everything that I can, while I can. I would like very much for people to say of me after I am gone, “He did the best he could.” Or better yet, “He was a good man.”

I believe that a politician should ask for my vote. Not tell me to vote for them. But ask for my help, my vote, my voice.

I am asking you this Saturday morning, to consider the arc of your life, and where you stand today. I am asking you to consider the future of this community and country. I am asking you to consider your neighbors, your fellow human beings — all of them, yes, but this morning, the ones — the lives — that are crying for help. I am asking you to survey the amount of time you have left in your life, and then, sit with yourself.

As a boy, I used to follow my Dad like a shadow, used to watch him in his basement workshop while he puzzled out some home improvement. He often mumbled to himself, and this both delighted and perplexed me. “Dad,” I’d say, “you’re always talking to yourself.”

And he used to tell me the same thing, every time, “Nick, I’ve had some of the best conversations of my life with myself.”

So I am asking you this, please: Have a conversation with yourself today. I sincerely believe that each one of us already knows the answers to the questions that are troubling so many Americans right now; ugly, brutal questions that are terrifying to stare in the face. You know the answer. You don’t need to ask a person of color. You don’t have to ask your pastor, priest or rabbi. If you believe in a god, then you believe that your god is alive within you, like a light. Alive, in fact, inside all of us. And there really should be no confusion in times such as these.

And I must ask you this too: Please, listen. And do not allow yourself to be easily persuaded by anyone, because if you do, your future actions will be reflexive, rather than reflective. Your actions will be neither sustainable nor prolonged. Rather than be persuaded by one side or the other, become committed, become righteous. The next time you consider the long arc of history, imagine how your reactions today will be read 50 years from now. Imagine your own grandparents. Would you prefer to be remembered as ahead of your time or behind?

I have gestured toward my own mistakes because in my experience, soulful people learn from their mistakes. And in this time of tumult, mistakes will be made. But a mistake implies action, rather than inaction.

If you have watched the video of George Floyd’s final minutes, the time he had left, people stood by and did nothing. The result is horrific. Use your time to do something, to help people as you can, to listen, to do good.

Lone UW president finalist withdraws from consideration

MADISON — The lone finalist for the University of Wisconsin System’s president job withdrew his name from consideration Friday in the face of mounting criticism from faculty, staff and students.

University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen said in a statement that after deep reflection his calling remains in that state. He also signaled that Wisconsin’s search process was flawed.

“I appreciate the strong support from the search committee at Wisconsin, and for all those who supported my candidacy, but it’s clear they have important process issues to work out,” Johnsen said.

A UW search committee has been looking for a new president since Ray Cross announced in October that he would step down as soon as a successor was hired. Cross has been battered by battles with Republican legislators over UW System funding and has had a rocky relationship with faculty and staff, drawing a no-confidence vote in 2016.

Earlier this month the search committee announced Johnsen had emerged as the only finalist. The other would-be finalists all withdrew from the running out of concern about being publicly named as a finalist during the coronavirus pandemic.

That announcement drew immediate criticism from faculty, staff and students who complained that they had no representatives on the search committee. They also pointed out Johnsen had received two no-confidence votes from Alaska faculty in 2017 and 2019 over proposals to consolidate programs and combine the three-university Alaska system into a single accredited institution to absorb budget cuts.

Hundreds of UW alumni, students, faculty and staff signed a petition demanding regents resume the search. Associated Students of Madison, the student governance group at UW-Madison, the system’s flagship school, said in a statement that it doesn’t support Johnsen.

But Regent Michael Grebe, chairman of the search committee, said a re-start could cost UW six months and Johnsen was the committee’s top pick anyway. The committee had been set to meet Friday afternoon to make a recommendation to regents to hire him.

UW Board of Regents President Andrew Petersen, who served on the search committee, noted Johnsen was the panel’s unanimous choice as the best candidate. He called Johnsen’s decision “disappointing, a dark day for the UW System.”

He said regents will now focus on shepherding the system through the COVID-19 pandemic and will decide on how to conduct a new search “when there is a better opportunity.”

Michael Bernard-Donals, president of PROFS, a UW faculty group that advocates for tenure, research support and competitive wages, said Johnsen was right when he said the process was mired with problems. Regents must start from scratch with a new search committee that includes faculty and staff from across the UW System, he said.

Laura Downer, a UW-Madison public policy graduate student who chairs Associated Students of Madison, said she was glad Johnsen withdrew. He would have had a difficult time working with faculty, staff and student groups, she said.

“In the long term, it will force the UW System to take a look at shared governance and to ensure the voice of faculty, students and staff are taken into consideration,” Downer said.

Wisconsin state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a Rochester Republican, said he was disappointed that Johnsen was driven away.

“If leftist liberals on campus can’t decide on the UW System president, they become critics and drive out a qualified leader,” Vos said. “We can’t let intimidation become the way we choose our campus leaders.”

Bernad-Donals said in response that Vos apparently didn’t pay attention to Johnsen’s statement saying the regents’ search process had problems.

Alaska state Rep. Andy Josephson, an Anchorage Democrat, chairs the university subcommittee for the House Finance Committee. He said he likes Johnsen and believes he’s very skilled but “I worry about the ability of the president to govern moving forward.”

He cited a compact Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the regents chair signed last year agreeing to $70 million in cuts to the Alaska system over three years. Josephson said he worries the deal will hamstring the system.