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Chippewa Valley residents alter holiday plans because of COVID-19 pandemic
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EAU CLAIRE — In a normal year, Ted Theyerl would be looking forward to a large family gathering Thursday to celebrate Thanksgiving.

The treasured annual tradition would involve traveling to southeastern Wisconsin to share a Thanksgiving feast with about 30 relatives.

But this year, of course, is anything but normal, with the COVID-19 pandemic raging through Wisconsin and much of the nation.

As a result, Theyerl will be following the advice of public health officials by forgoing the journey to visit his elderly parents and in-laws and instead celebrating the holiday with his immediate family at their home in Altoona.

“It will be different,” Theyerl said. “But we just decided, with local hospitals at capacity and the area setting records for positive cases, that it wouldn’t be the right thing to do to travel to see our parents at Thanksgiving this year.”

However, the Theyerls may still have an extra guest, in the form of a laptop computer, when they sit down to enjoy the turkey breasts they bought for Thanksgiving dinner. Their goal is to have their parents eat at the same time so they can still share food and conversation — virtually.

In an effort to maintain family traditions, Theyerl plans to make his mother’s special acorn squash recipe and his wife, Denise, will whip up the riced potatoes that are a highlight of Thanksgiving dinners at her parents’ house.

The family’s approach is just what state and local public health officials have been advocating for the holiday, especially with the COVID-19 surge striking the Chippewa Valley and Wisconsin this November.

“I do feel very strongly this Thanksgiving that people should stick with their household unit and find different ways to connect with other family members,” Chippewa County Public Health Director Angela Weideman said.

“That’s really the safest way to do it right now.”

She isn’t even interested in diluting her message by offering suggestions to limit the risk for people who refuse to heed that guidance.

“We’re not at a place, as far as transmission rate, case counts, hospitalizations and death counts, where people should be gathering,” Weideman said. “The advice I’d give is to just stay home with your family unit.”

The situation will affect the personal lives of Weideman and her colleagues at the Public Health Department too.

Weideman plans to celebrate at home with her son and a cousin who lives with them. They will still have turkey, potatoes and cranberries and plan to video chat with relatives via Zoom.

While she acknowledged it makes her sad not to be able to gather with relatives from a dozen households as usual this Thanksgiving, Weideman said it’s a sacrifice worth making to protect her elderly grandparents and ensure nobody has to feel guilty about inadvertently exposing a loved one to a virus that has killed 2,876 people statewide and 43 in Chippewa County.

“We’re losing families and friends because people are not willing to give up something that is unsafe,” Weideman said. “Hopefully we’ll all get through this and have a day when we can all get together and celebrate as a family again. This is not going to last forever.”

Eau Claire City-County Health Department Director Lieske Giese is preaching the same message — guidance that is also echoed by officials from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recently recommended that folks don’t travel at all for Thanksgiving.

While Giese knows it will be difficult for people to skip their holiday traditions, she strongly recommends that local residents plan a different Thanksgiving this year to protect loved ones from the highly contagious virus.

Giese plans to follow the advice she is giving the community by celebrating only with her immediate family.

“Usually my Thanksgiving includes my large extended family, my brother, sister, mom, extended adopted family members. We share who prepares the food, we share a lot of laughter and a lot of connection at that Thanksgiving celebration,” she said. “We’re not doing that this year. A number of months ago we toyed with the idea that we could do it outside — find a way to protect those vulnerable people in my family by keeping distance and still eating together. We’re not doing that.

“The disease surge is too great. We’re not gathering. I’ll be making sure, even though my mom and sister live in Eau Claire, that we’re Zooming with them while we eat our meal. That’s going to be hard, but I’m hoping my family, like your family, will be able to find something that we’re laughing about next year when we talk about this Thanksgiving.”

People who absolutely must attend a gathering should quarantine for 14 days before and after the event and consider getting tested beforehand, Giese said, cautioning that those steps reduce risk but aren’t foolproof.

New ways to celebrate

The decision to follow public health guidelines for Thanksgiving wasn’t difficult for Breana Stanley of Eau Claire, as she has had a number of relatives test positive for the virus recently.

“My mother tested positive for COVID earlier this week and is quarantining and my sister-in-law and family are also positive and quarantining, so we won’t be doing anything with that side of the family,” Stanley said.

With her husband deer hunting and other family members potentially at high risk of complications from COVID-19, Stanley plans a simple Thanksgiving dinner (turkey breast, potatoes and corn) just for her and her two children, 4 and 2, followed by some crafts and a video chat with her mom.

Charlie Grossklaus, the retired president of Royal Credit Union, is disappointed he has to miss Thanksgiving with family members in the Chippewa Valley, but has formulated an appealing alternative plan that he believes should be safe.

Grossklaus and his wife are planning to drive to their winter home in Naples, Florida, in time to celebrate Thanksgiving with other Eau Claire friends — in a socially distanced manner — on one of the city’s Gulf of Mexico beaches.

“We’ll pick up some turkey dinners from a local cafe, space ourselves out on the beach, maybe have a little wine and go for a walk,” he said. “Then we’ll watch the sunset.”

Respect for others

By contrast, the Theyerls aim to put an up-North spin on their scaled-down holiday festivities. They plan to drive to northern Wisconsin in hopes of finding enough snow to pursue a family passion — cross-country skiing — that just happens to be an activity made for social distancing.

The Theyerls have seen firsthand the discomfort and inconvenience that COVID-19 can cause, as their youngest son, Christian, a UW-La Crosse student, contracted the virus while visiting La Crosse in June.

Christian lost his sense of taste, endured a chronic cough and constant headaches, and was so fatigued he stayed in bed for several days. The family isolated him in his bedroom, leaving food outside the door and communicating via FaceTime. His condition was serious enough that his health care provider sent him a device to monitor the level of oxygen in his bloodstream.

Meanwhile, the rest of the family also had to quarantine for about three weeks to ensure they didn’t spread the virus.

“I saw what my son got, and I don’t want to be passing it along to other people,” Ted Theyerl said.

He views skipping the family’s usual Thanksgiving gathering as a way of showing respect for others.

“I’m hoping that if we all sacrifice a little this year we’ll be able to go back to our normal celebrations next year,” Theyerl said.

It’s a hope that is shared by many in this strange year.

'Forward' has many meanings
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Throughout my life I’ve called upon Wisconsin’s state motto as my mantra in difficult times. “Forward” reminds all of us that things will get better. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately.

More than ad slogans, mottos serve as each state’s mission statement which conveys in just a few words a reflection of its people or, more importantly, a hope for its citizens. Consider Georgia’s: Wisdom, justice, moderation. Or other states with one-word maxims: New York, Excelsior; Texas, Friendship; Utah, Industry. I love Hawaii’s — “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness” — which sounds much more lyrical in native Hawaiian: “Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ‘Aina i ka Pono.” I don’t quite understand Oregon’s — “She flies with her own wings” — though I appreciate its uplifting sentiment.

Turns out “Forward” was not Wisconsin’s top choice. Around 1850 our first governor, Nelson Dewey, asked University of Wisconsin Chancellor John Lathrop to design an official state seal. Lathrop went with Wisconsin Territory’s motto: “Civilitas Successit Barbaruin” (“Civilization Succeeds Barbarism”). Story goes that when Dewey took the plans to New York City to be cast in metal he ran into a Milwaukee lawyer he knew, Edward Ryan. These two “common guys” discussed how neither liked Lathrop’s pretentious slogan. They sat down together on the steps of a Wall Street bank for an impromptu meeting to brainstorm a phrase that would fit the plainspoken, hard-working people of their new state.

They considered “Upward” and “Onward” before settling on “Forward,” a resilience that still embodies Wisconsinites.

My parents and grandparents exemplified the best of this grit. My mother’s people, the Weinfurters, were a farm family from Germany who settled in unincorporated Blenker, Wisconsin, in the 1880s. My grandfather was born there in 1892 and my grandmother on a neighboring farm in 1896. Ignatz Weinfurter likely knew Anna Altmann his entire life. They married at St. Kilian’s, where all of their 15 kids received baptism and one infant was buried. These Catholic farmers welcomed as many children as they could: gifts from God and cheap labor. As my own fifth-grade math problem, I figured out Anna was with child for over 11 years — longer than I’d been alive and over one-fourth of her too-short life. She died of stomach cancer in 1938 when my mom’s youngest brother was a toddler and her oldest was 24.

There is just one photograph of Mom with her family. I wonder what prompted that afternoon’s pause from work? And who brought the camera, surely a luxury in the mid-1930s?

Her parents sit in the middle, with children staged around them. A boy rests on Ignatz’s lap; Anna is pregnant with baby 15. The barn rises behind them, icon of their past and future. My grandparents and their older kids survived WWI, the 1918 flu pandemic, and at the time of this picture they had just come through the Great Depression.

Only one family photo was ever taken — something almost unimaginable in today’s snap-happy world. As a kid, I gazed at this barnyard portrait and recalled the nursery rhyme, “There was an old woman who lived in a shoe; she had so many children she didn’t know what to do.” I felt simultaneously sorry about their woes and pleased not to be these strange relatives. You can see their dirty faces and imagine their bare feet. More tragedy is just around the corner. Still, in the front row a curly haired girl wearing a worn checkered dress smiles as if there’s no reason not to. Fast forward: She becomes my mother.

Ignatz always loved beer, and once Anna was gone his drinking increased. During his worst benders he lived in the shed, and the older girls brought him meals. His kids took care of one another, and their two married sisters checked in when they could. One day without warning Ignatz gave away his 14-year-old daughter to another farm family. Who knows what sort of deal was made. From then on, whenever nuns from St. Kilian’s came for a home visit on the Weinfurter farm, my fearful mother hid in the barn so she would not be the next child given up. She was 8 years old.

The girl who was handed over like a piglet runt of the litter did not speak of it until she was 80-something. I interviewed her for a family oral history project when my mom became more and more lost in an Alzheimer’s haze. At the mention of Ignatz’s name my aunt clammed up like the rejected teenager she once was. “I’m not going to talk about him,” she seethed. She recalled that she cried every day until her new family simply gave her back. Such trauma festers as a bruise that no longer purples but stains forever. Still, for this child tested by poverty and loss, the only option was forward.

Two years after Anna’s death, Ignatz came home drunk one April night and was run down on the highway by a young man he’d been drinking with at the tavern. The Weinfurter children watched as their father’s broken body was pulled from the ditch in front of their farmhouse. He died of massive head injuries. This was big news for papers in Marshfield and Wisconsin Rapids, the closest cities. The headline “Car fatally injures farmer in front of home” made it as far as The Capital Times in Madison.

A coroner’s inquest determined a dark figure on a dark highway after midnight was an accident waiting to happen. The Weinfurters forgave that drunk driver, Clarence, a boy they all knew, and simply carried on. It was 1940. Two years later he served in the Pacific Theater during WWII. Clarence’s idea of forward took him far away and back home again to raise a family. He died at age 92. I did not know this story until my father gave me an obituary in 2012 and said simply, “He killed your grandfather.” Turns out my parents kept tabs on this man from afar, a lesson in how forgiveness does not always mean erasing the past.

Over 100 years after Blenker, Wisconsin, farm kids Ignatz and Anna fell in love, they created a progeny of nearly 1,000 bodies scattered around the United States. The word “forward” likely never crossed my grandparent’s lips. Yet here we are. Here we all are.

Officials: COVID-19 vaccine news hopeful; expect slow rollout in 2021

EAU CLAIRE — With encouraging news about two COVID-19 vaccine candidates this week, local health care and frontline workers will be the first offered the vaccine, health officials said Thursday.

While the two vaccine candidates’ data is promising, a vaccine — or several — will be rolled out gradually in western Wisconsin due to strict storage and transportation requirements and availability, said Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department.

“We know that while a vaccine is on the near horizon and we’re excited, it will take many, many months to get everyone in our community vaccinated fully,” Giese said at a Thursday news briefing. “ … Once that supply is available, we’ll be working with the state to quickly get it out.”

Two U.S. pharmaceutical companies, Pfizer and Moderna, announced this week that clinical trials indicated their COVID-19 vaccines are around 95% effective.

Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech SE said their vaccine protected people of all ages and ethnicities, with no significant safety problems so far in a trial that includes almost 44,000 participants.

Though the Health Department can’t pin an exact date for when the first vaccines may arrive in Eau Claire County, “we are also hearing that the likely vaccine will start coming as soon as sometime in December for small numbers of health care workers across the U.S.,” Giese said. “We’re hoping after the start of the new year we’ll be hearing about the vaccine supply.”

Vaccine distribution will be coordinated at the state level, but the Eau Claire City-County Health Department will also likely partner with pharmacies and health care clinics to get the vaccine out to the public when it’s more broadly available, Giese added.

“We’re anticipating vaccination supply and support going directly to places like long-term care facilities and other places where we can quickly get the vaccine out,” Giese said.

The vaccines must be transported and stored in extremely cold temperatures, leading U.S. hospitals to buy special ultra-cold freezers to store the vaccines.

“We are working on having access to those resources locally as well,” Giese said. “There are no set plans yet for how that vaccine will come in and be distributed … and we also anticipate the vaccine won’t all arrive at once.”

A third vaccine contender, from AstraZeneca Plc and the University of Oxford, is expected to release trial results in coming days.

The Pfizer-BioNTech data shows 170 trial participants contracted Covid-19 overall. Eight participants who got the vaccine fell ill, while 162 cases were seen among those who got the placebo. The shot helped to prevent severe disease, according to the analysis, with nine of 10 severe cases in the trial occurring in the placebo group.

The vaccine’s efficacy in people older than 65 was more than 94%, the companies said.

Most people who received the shot tolerated it well. Severe fatigue was seen in 3.7% of volunteers after the second dose in the two-shot regimen, but that was the only severe side effect that occurred in more than 2% of people, according to the analysis.

On Monday, Moderna released its own promising results and said it expects to be able to apply for emergency authorization in the U.S. within weeks.

Pfizer and BioNTech plan to seek U.S. emergency authorization “within days,” according to the release.

Both the Moderna and the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines are based on messenger RNA, a new type of vaccine technology that is able to be deployed very quickly. It essentially transforms the body’s cells into tiny vaccine making machines. The vaccines instruct cells to make copies of the coronavirus spike protein, stimulating the production of protective antibodies.

COVID-19 in Eau Claire County

Eau Claire County has recorded the highest seven-day COVID-19 case count in the last week than at any other point during the pandemic.

About 1,300 county residents were newly diagnosed just in the last week.

In comparison, it took almost six months for the first 1,000 cases to be reported in the county.

The county also broke its single-day case record this week, once Monday and appearing to again on Wednesday. Its current record appears to be 351 new cases in a day — though that Wednesday case count was “partly related to a data system download issue with one of our health care systems that happened across the state,” Giese said. “A number of positive test results were imported in that single day … that were positives, but from previous days.”

In total, the county is nearing 7,000 cases of the virus. About 4,750 county residents have recovered after their diagnosis, according to county data.

Forty-eight county residents have died of COVID-19, and 14 of those deaths happened in the last week. Most have been people older than 65 with “some level” of underlying health conditions, Giese said.

About 3% of residents who have contracted the virus, or 203 people, have ever been hospitalized — another 30 county residents hospitalized with the virus in the last week.

Eighteen cases have been found in people associated with the Eau Claire County Jail, and two of those people still have active cases of COVID-19.

County metrics tracking the virus showed little significant change this week, though health officials cautioned the data overwhelmingly indicates the virus is raging in the Chippewa Valley:

In northwestern Wisconsin in the last two weeks, 89% of inpatient hospital beds are in use, up from 81% last week. In the same region, 90% of ICU beds are full, compared to 93% last week.

The county’s test-positivity rate, or the seven-day average percentage of all tests that come back positive, is at 18.9%; last week it was at 19.7%. It’s still higher than the state average, which is sitting at 16%, according to the state Department of Health Services.

The percentage of community spread cases, or the portion of people who test positive who don’t know where they contracted the virus, is the same this week: 32% over the last 14 days.

Contact tracers were able to contact only 46% of new cases within 24 hours this week, down from 52% last week.

Wisconsin added just over 6,600 new cases of COVID-19, as well as 83 deaths, on Thursday.

On Thursday, Giese pleaded with the community to take the recent case surge, hospitalizations and deaths seriously and not to gather in person with people outside their household.

“We need to pay attention to that, as a critical part of what is going on with COVID-19 in our communities,” Giese said. “We don’t see viruses kill people like this ever. We hear often that this is just like the flu, this is just like a virus ... this is a virus that is putting people in the hospital and resulting in long-term health impacts for individuals.”