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Fewer cases of COVID-19 at UW-Eau Claire this year, compared to last fall's surge
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EAU CLAIRE — Though new cases of COVID-19 in Eau Claire County remain high and are at levels last seen in December 2020, UW-Eau Claire is seeing far fewer cases among students and staff compared to last year.

The director of the university’s student health service says the 80% student vaccination rate is a significant factor.

Eighty-nine people at UW-Eau Claire have tested positive for COVID-19 since Aug. 23, according to the university’s COVID dashboard. That number includes both on-campus and off-campus students and faculty and staff, said Dr. Kim Frodl, medical director of UW-Eau Claire’s Student Health Service.

At the same time last year, 301 people at the university had tested positive since Sept. 1.

“I think vaccinations are probably a large part of that,” Frodl said, adding that the campus’ 80% student vaccination rate is “something we’ve worked very hard on and are proud of.”

The university has administered roughly the same number of COVID-19 tests during the September-October time period during both years, Frodl said — nearly 7,200 in 2020 and nearly 7,900 this year.

Of the university’s 89 positive tests so far this school year, 28 were on-campus students, 60 were off-campus students and one was a faculty or staff member, according to university figures.

Fewer UW-Eau Claire students are also in quarantine this fall. As of Thursday, one student is quarantined — meaning the student may have had contact with someone who tested positive — and one student is in isolation, meaning the student tested positive or is displaying symptoms and waiting for test results.

At the same time last year, 33 students were quarantined and 12 were in isolation, according to the university’s 2020 COVID dashboard.

Frodl believes vaccinations are behind the difference.

Just over 80% of UW-Eau Claire students — around 7,600 — are vaccinated, more than the university’s 70% goal, according to university data.

Frodl said over 90% of faculty and staff are also vaccinated.

“I think the one difference between last year and this year is the vaccine,” she said.

This fall the university continued some of its COVID-19 protocols that began in 2020. Students and employees will be required to wear masks inside university buildings through late November, regardless of vaccination status, except for residence hall rooms and private employee offices.

In the broader Eau Claire County area, COVID-19 transmission appears to be continuing at high levels. The county is averaging 56 new cases per day, according to the Eau Claire City-County Health Department. That weekly case level was last recorded in December 2020. Six county residents were hospitalized with COVID-19 last week, according to the Health Department.

UW-Stout

UW-Stout doesn’t currently have a COVID-19 dashboard that publicly tracks case numbers, and it doesn’t have the number of students and staff members who have tested positive so far this semester, said dean of students Sandi Scott in an email.

The university began COVID-19 testing with a new company on Oct. 1 and does not yet have testing numbers for students since the transition, UW-Stout said.

Thirteen students tested positive in September at a previous testing site; five UW-Stout employees have tested positive since Sept. 1.

Scott said that the university’s test-positivity rate is “very low.”

UW-Stout only requires biweekly testing for unvaccinated students and employees, “and again those numbers are very low,” Scott said.

As of this week, almost 76% of UW-Stout students have reported being fully vaccinated, along with almost 90% of campus employees, according to university data.


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Democracy demands memory, action - just ask a Freedom Rider

“And now, without further ado, allow me to introduce Mr. B.J. Hollars!”

My heart sinks as the crowd claps politely.

Me? Why me? What business do I have being here?

I take a deep breath, then manage what appears to be a confident stride toward the stage at Wausau’s UW Center for Civic Engagement.

“Thanks again,” whispers the event’s organizer as he directs me toward the podium.

“No problem,” I say.

Big problem, I think.

Of course, I’m flattered to introduce a pair of my personal heroes — Freedom Riders Charles Person and Joan C. Browning. It’s just that ... who gets to introduce a pair of their personal heroes?

Yes, I’d written a book about the 1961 Freedom Rides but that’s about all I’d done. Meanwhile, the people seated just feet away from me on the stage boarded those buses, risking their lives and livelihoods in the process.

Beads of sweat line my forehead as I’m stricken with an acute case of imposter syndrome. Researching and writing for a couple of years doesn’t seem worthy of an honor such at this. I clear my throat, shuffle my papers, click my heels three times. When these tactics fail to transport me back to Kansas, I continue with my introduction as best I can.

“History doesn’t just occur,” I manage at last, “it is made. It’s shaped and spun and lost and won by the people who make it so.”

Probably I say some other things, too. Like how the story of the Freedom Riders is the story of people like Charles Person of Atlanta, who joined the Congress of Racial Equality’s Freedom Ride from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans on May 4, 1961. And that it’s also the story of people like Joan C. Browning, a white woman from rural Georgia, who for years picked 200 pounds of cotton a day alongside hired Black workers on her family farm.

I point out, too, how the symmetry of their stories is striking. While Person holds the distinction of being on that first Freedom Riders bus, Browning holds the distinction of taking her seat on the last.

Together, their individual stories serve as bookends for a crucial moment in civil rights history, one that inspired not only the social justice movement to come, but also the environmental justice movement, the women’s rights movement and the movement for rights for people with disabilities.

All this fundamental change set into motion because 400 or so folks took their seats on some buses.

I conclude my introductions, retreating hastily backstage as the crowd cheers for the Freedom Riders themselves, both of whom proceed to share their harrowing stories with quiet, understated grace. Charles begins by noting the violence he endured at the hands of an angry mob in Birmingham, adding too, that those injuries healed long ago. What hasn’t healed, he continues, is the long-term effects of being exposed to Agent Orange during his time as a Marine in Vietnam. Charles fought for his country both stateside and abroad and paid a price for it. But he has no regrets.

“The Freedom Rides was an adventure, it was a test, and in the end, it was successful,” Charles says. “I think if you get to know the (Freedom Riders) still alive today, you’ll learn to love them the way I do. Even in our old age, we have a desire to work for our country to make it stronger, and to make it better.”

Next, the crowd turns its attention toward Joan, who — in the aftermath of Charles’s story — appears momentarily as uncomfortable as I’d been during my own remarks.

“I really didn’t want to talk about myself,” Joan begins, “because I didn’t think I was very important in the Freedom Movement. But (civil rights leader) Julian Bond convinced me. He wrote an article in which he said we need to do this work because democracy itself demands memory. He wrote how (in the civil rights movement), ordinary men and women were moved to extraordinary acts of courage, and what may be done once may well be done again.’”

I nod from my place in the back of the room.

“That is why I bother to tell you about myself,” Joan says, “not because I’m that important, but because young people today hold the key to our future.”

My mind leaps to May 21, 2016 — the last time I’d spent time with Charles Person. We’d been milling alongside several other Freedom Riders in the parking lot of Montgomery’s First Baptist Church. It was the 55th anniversary of the night when many of those Riders were trapped in that church while a white mob hurled bricks and bottles through its windows. All those years later, while standing alongside Charles, one of the Freedom Riders had turned to me — the resident youngster in the group — and said “Well kid, we did our part. Now the torch is yours.”

Then, the Freedom Riders receded into the night, leaving me alone in the shadow of the church steeple.

Listening to Joan speak at the UW Center for Civic Engagement, I know for certain that she’s right. Young people do hold the key to our future. But I am no longer that young person. In fact, I’m about twice as old as Charles and Joan were when they first took their seats on the bus.

Suddenly the reason for my introduction anxieties pulls into sharp focus: If an 18- and 19-year-old fundamentally changed the world, shouldn’t a 37-year-old have something to show for himself? What have I done beside write about other people’s heroics?

Time, I worry, is running out. And the proverbial bus might be leaving without me.

At the presentation’s conclusion, I find Charles seated behind a table signing books for his fans.

“I’ll let you get down to business,” I say, as a long line of people gathers before him. “But I want to say thank you. One last time. For all you’ve done and continue to do.”

“Same to you,” Charles says. “For all you’ve done.”

I smile, though what I’ve done feels wholly insufficient.

I move toward Joan, who graciously signs my copy of her own book, scrawling a message to me inside the book’s flap.

“Thank you,” she says, handing back the book, “for your warm introduction.”

“It was nothing,” I say, which feels like the truth.

Back in the parking lot, as I prepare for the drive back to Eau Claire, I take a moment to read Joan’s inscription inside the book.

“Thank you,” she wrote, “for passing on the lesson of the ongoing Freedom struggle.”

Thank you, I think, for living it.


Nursing schools see applications rise, despite COVID burnout

STORRS, Conn. (AP) — Nurses around the U.S. are getting burned out by the COVID-19 crisis and quitting, yet applications to nursing schools are rising, driven by what educators say are young people who see the global emergency as an opportunity and a challenge.

Among them is University of Connecticut sophomore Brianna Monte, a 19-year-old from Mahopac, New York, who had been considering majoring in education but decided on nursing after watching nurses care for her 84-year-grandmother, who was diagnosed last year with COVID-19 and also had cancer.

“They were switching out their protective gear in between every patient, running like crazy trying to make sure all of their patients were attended to,” she said.

“I had that moment of clarity that made me want to jump right in to health care and join the workers on the front line.”

Nationally, enrollment in bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral nursing programs increased 5.6% in 2020 from the year before to just over 250,000 students, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.

Figures for the current 2021-22 school year won’t be available until January, but administrators say they have continued to see a spike in interest.

The University of Michigan nursing school reported getting about 1,800 applications for 150 freshman slots this fall, compared with about 1,200 in 2019.

Marie Nolan, executive vice dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing in Baltimore, said it has seen its biggest number of applicants ever, many of them applying even before a vaccine was available, despite her worries that COVID-19 would scare off students.

Students at those and other schools have been able to gain valuable hands-on experience during the pandemic, doing COVID-19 testing and contact tracing and working at community vaccination clinics.

“We’ve said to the students, ‘This is a career opportunity that you’ll never see again,’” Nolan said.

Emma Champlin, a first-year nursing student at Fresno State, said that like many of her classmates, she saw the pandemic as a chance to learn critical-care skills and then apply them. And she is young and her immune system is fine, she said, “so the idea of getting the virus didn’t scare me.”

“It’s just time for us to step in and give it our all and figure out how we can help, because there has to be a new generation and that’s got to be us,” the 21-year-old said.

The higher enrollment could help ease a nursing shortage that existed even before COVID-19. But it has brought its own problems: The increase, combined with the departure of too many experienced nurses whose job is to help train students, has left many nursing programs without the ability to expand.

The rise is happening even as hospital leaders around the U.S. report that thousands of nurses have quit or retired during the outbreak, many of them exhausted and demoralized because of the pressure of caring for the dying, hostility from patients and families, and the frustration in knowing that many deaths were preventable by way of masks and vaccinations.

Eric Kumor saw many of his nursing colleagues from a COVID-19 unit in Lansing, Michigan, transfer or take other jobs this past spring when the pandemic’s third wave began to hit. He followed them out the door in July.

“It was like this mass exodus. Everybody chose their own health and wellness over dealing with another wave,” he said.

He said he plans on returning to health care someday, but for now is working at a barbecue joint, where the worst thing that can happen is “burning a brisket.”

“I’m not done with nursing yet,” he said.

Betty Jo Rocchio, chief nursing officer for Mercy Health, which runs hospitals and clinics in Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma, said her system has about 8,500 nurses but is losing about 160 each month.

The departures are also taking their toll on nursing education, which relies on clinical instructors and preceptors, the experienced, hands-on nurses who mentor students on the job.

Nursing faculty is expected to shrink by 25% by 2025 across the country as nurses retire or leave because of burnout or other reasons, said Patricia Hurn, the nursing school dean at Michigan.

Mindy Schiebler, a cardiac nurse from Vancouver, Washington, taught nursing students for three years before quitting in 2016. She said she would love to still be teaching but that it’s not workable financially. She said she knows nursing professors who work multiple jobs or dip into their retirement savings.

“How long can you subsidize your own job?” she asked. “Nurses will make double what you make in just a few years out of the gate.”

Administrators said they would like to see more financial incentives such as tax breaks for instructors and preceptors. Rocchio said it would also help to have national licensing instead of state-by-state requirements, giving health systems more flexibility in training and hiring.

Champlin, the Fresno State student now doing clinical studies in a COVID-19 ward, said the stress, even on students, is sometimes overwhelming. It’s physically and mentally tiring to don cumbersome protective equipment every time you enter someone’s room and then watch as a tube is inserted down the frightened patient’s throat and the person is hooked up to a ventilator.

“I don’t even know when it will stop,” she said. “Is this the new normal? I think the scariness of it has worn off at this point, and now we’re just all exhausted.” She confessed: “That has had me reconsider, at times, my career choice.”

Hurn said the pandemic has led to a new focus at her school on the mental health of students, leading to the creation of programs such as “Yoga on the Lawn.”

“For nursing, you have to develop the skills to be resilient, to adapt to high-strain conditions,” she said.

Monte, whose grandmother survived, said she believes the pandemic is waning and hopes to have a long career no matter the challenges.

“They do have this nursing shortage right now, which selfishly is good for me, because I won’t have trouble finding a job, wherever I decide to go,” she said. “I feel like I won’t get burned out, even if we have another national emergency. I feel I’ll still be committed to nursing.”

___

Associated Press writer John Seewer in Toledo, Ohio, contributed to this story.


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