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‘We are not powerless’: 12 die in a week, hospitals strained in EC County
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EAU CLAIRE — Data this week suggests the spread of the novel coronavirus in Eau Claire County is continuing to dramatically worsen, as the county added 240 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday, blowing past its previous record of 178 new cases in a single day.

The Eau Claire City-County Health Department, blocked from issuing an enforceable public health order, kept pleading with people to socially distance, wear masks and avoid all but the smallest groups of people, pointing to rising deaths and strained hospitals.

“We had really had today, for the first time, a record number of cases beyond what I think any of us could have imagined,” said Lieske Giese, Eau Claire City-County Health Department director, at a Thursday news briefing.

Twelve county residents have died of the virus in the last week.

The Health Department on Thursday did not give more information on the most recent seven deaths, when asked about the patients’ age range or medical conditions.

“Most of these people have been above the age of 65, and many have underlying conditions. But again, the cause of death was COVID-19,” Giese said.

“Our thoughts go out ... to those people who have lost loved ones in this way.”

The significant increase in COVID-19 deaths since Oct. 1 is partially due to an extremely high volume of new cases, Giese said Thursday — but it’s also because more cases are being concentrated in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and similar places.

“That means that despite all the amazingly hard work those facilities have been doing to slow spread just like the rest of the community, we’re seeing cases in those settings as well,” Giese said.

Almost every metric by which the county measures the coronavirus’ spread is indicating the virus is still raging in the Chippewa Valley, according to a Thursday report from the Health Department. Nearly one in five COVID-19 tests came back positive last week, a bump up from last week’s 15% test-positivity rate. The Health Department is investigating instances of two more connected cases at 29 different facilities in the last two weeks. Just over a third of county residents diagnosed with COVID-19 in the last two weeks aren’t sure where they contracted the infection (although that number is down from 41% last week).

“Since Sept. 7, we’ve been at or above the range of daily cases — 25 or more a day — where it’s recommended by many national experts (that we) be all staying home, rather than doing our normal activities,” Giese said.

Almost 800 people are actively isolating in Eau Claire County right now after being diagnosed with COVID-19. Another 3,500 have recovered, according to county data.

Just over 4,500 county residents have tested positive for the virus since March.

Starting last week, because of the surge in cases, the Health Department is “no longer able” to call close contacts of people that have contracted COVID-19, Giese said. Instead, she urged people who test positive to reach out to their close contacts and tell them to visit the Health Department’s website for instructions, www.covid19eauclaire.org.

Local hospitals still strained

Another 27 county residents were hospitalized with COVID-19 between Oct. 24 and Oct. 31.

More patients hospitalized with the virus means potential trouble for local hospitals. Eau Claire County health officials last week said that hospitals are on track to be overwhelmed if the county keeps recording over 100 new cases a day. New cases need to be under 30 a day for hospitals to be in a better spot, Giese said last week.

As of Thursday, 148 county residents have been hospitalized with the virus — or just over 3% of all cases in the county so far.

But Eau Claire area hospitals are already showing signs of trouble.

Mayo Clinic Health System hospitals in northwestern Wisconsin, including Mayo Clinic in Eau Claire, announced last week they would temporarily defer elective procedures so staffers could focus on coronavirus patients.

As of Oct. 30, 52 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 at the Eau Claire Mayo Clinic hospital alone.

“We now are at risk of overwhelming our health care system,” Dr. Richard Helmers, regional vice president for MCHS, said last week in a news release.

In a group of 15 northwestern Wisconsin counties, including Eau Claire, Chippewa and Dunn, 158 people are hospitalized with the virus as of Thursday — 46 more people than last week, according to the state Department of Health Services.

Eighteen of those people are in intensive care units, up from 12 last week. Twenty-five are on ventilators.

Northwestern Wisconsin’s inpatient hospital beds were 77% occupied in the last 14 days, and its ICU beds were 89% occupied, according to the state DHS.

But people still should go to a hospital if they have an urgent health issue or emergency, Giese said.

The Health Department has one overwhelming message for the community, Giese said Thursday: Wear a mask, social distance, stay away from gatherings and understand that huge case increases aren’t inevitable.

“It’s serious,” Giese said of the state of the virus in the Chippewa Valley. “It’s also something we can do a whole lot about. We are not powerless. We can wear a mask. We can stay 6 feet apart.”

Jim Erickson blows leaves into a pile before bagging them in his yard along Wilson Street on Thursday in Eau Claire. View more photos at LeaderTelegramPhotos.com.

The heart of the city
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Listening to Elizabeth Steans, the reference services manager at L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library (LEPMPL), there is a palpable sense of passion in her voice. Authentic excitement, electricity. She loves where she works, she loves her co-workers, and she loves the mission of the library. She hasn’t committed her life to the library to get rich; no librarian is in it for the money. “I feel fortunate every day, every minute, to work here,” she says. “I feel very blessed.”

“This library has a staff that is dedicated to the work they do,” she adds. “Everyone I work with, everyone in the library has the customer in mind ... the betterment of the community. To contribute to our mission. There is a human life experience that is valued by the staff and the mission of the library.” She pauses to gather her thoughts. “It’s like a commitment to society.”

Elizabeth is an Eau Claire native and when she talks about her childhood, the LEPMPL is something of a touchstone. It is no mistake then, no coincidence, that she works in a library as an adult.

She describes an early visit to the library where she recalls the building not as some silent sepulcher for old books, but rather as a “playground.”

“It was like everything was covered with gold,” she continues. “We used to go antique-shopping with my Mom, and we couldn’t touch anything, unless you had the money. But we were kids, and we didn’t have any money. But the first time we went to the library, we could touch everything. Pull things off shelves. Lay down on the floor and read things. You didn’t need any money. You just needed a library card. And you didn’t have to pay for it — it was free. You just walked in. A child being able to go to the library and transcend their imagination — that’s the vision I’m supporting as a librarian.”

Steans has been working in the library field for over 21 years and for the LEPMPL for over 11 years. She’s seen the role of a library change during that time.

“In the time I’ve worked for public libraries,” she explains, “I’ve experienced an increasing amount of customers reaching out in crisis seeking help on topics like housing, neglect, sexual assault, employment, health insurance, and the list goes on. Years ago, delivering requested resources was where a librarian’s efforts typically ended, but today, partnership with a social worker has amplified our efforts to enhance our customer’s quality of life.”

The LEPMPL is asking the community for support right now as they plan for a major upgrade, renovation and expansion. Simply put: Many of the library’s mechanical systems need replacement, and this need happens to coincide with a dramatic growth in circulation, programming and attendance. This community is most definitely using its library. There is no doubt why: In this moment of American history, with such divisive politics, with such a dire need to understand and consume facts, with a decline in social services, the library stands as something of a citadel for the community at large. A safe, quiet place amidst the rancor and noise.

Steans is excited about the future of the library and the much needed renovations. “Personally, I grew up in this library. I’ve been here since I was 7. It’s exciting to me to open up the space and the sightlines will be right through the building. You’ll be able to see the river from one side of the building to the other. More seating, more natural light.”

The “new” library won’t just be more efficient, more functional, but it will be a beautiful public space adjacent to the Eau Claire River, one of the most beautiful spots in town. The perfect place to discover a new book, album or movie. The perfect place to introduce children to a lifelong love for reading. The perfect place to seek help for employment or housing.

When asked why she wanted to become a librarian, Steans is almost overcome. The question is akin to “Why do you believe in God?” or “Why do you love your children?” It is, both an easy question, and impossible to distill down quickly for a stranger. But Steans tries to. “I want to support an institution that is equal to everyone. That provides services to everyone, no matter what.”

It is all too easy to misconstrue something like a library as just a building. This would be a terrible mistake. Anyone who uses the library knows that a library is about the people who enter its doors, hungry for knowledge or a story. A building without books or librarians is just another building.

On Nov. 19th from noon to 1 p.m., the LEPMPL is hosting a virtual event entitled, “How To Talk To Your Grandchildren Or Special In Your Life About Great Books.” It is an example of the kind of programming the library does so well. Unifying generations and people from all walks of life around the notion of literacy and storytelling. The event is also an opportunity for community members to learn more about how they can reinvest in the library through the Story Builder Campaign, supporting the library’s bright and shining mission. Go to the library’s website if you need more information, or, go ask a librarian.

AP centerpiece
Trump hits election integrity with unsupported complaints
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WASHINGTON (AP) — With votes still being counted across the nation, President Donald Trump on Thursday sought to undermine confidence in the nation’s election, making unsupported accusations from the White House about the integrity of the results in his race against Democrat Joe Biden.

Hours earlier, Biden offered reassurances that the counting could be trusted, projecting a more presidential appearance while urging patience from Americans.

The candidates’ sharply contrasting postures intensified a national moment of uncertainty as the nation and the world waited to learn which man would collect the 270 electoral votes needed to capture the presidency. Trump pursued legal options with little success, working the phones and escalating efforts to sow doubt about the outcome of the race.

His path to victory narrow, Trump pushed unsupported allegations of electoral misconduct in a series of tweets and insisted the ongoing vote count of ballots submitted before and on Election Day must cease. And in his first public appearance since late on Election Night, he amplified the conspiracy theories amid the trappings of presidential power.

“This is a case when they are trying to steal an election, they are trying to rig an election,” said Trump of Democrats, whom he accused of corruption while providing no evidence.

He made similar claims about election integrity during the 2016 campaign, which he went on to win. This time, he was speaking not as a candidate, but as the sitting president of the United States.

Biden took a different tack, speaking briefly to reporters after attending a COVID-19 briefing to declare that “each ballot must be counted.”

“I ask everyone to stay calm. The process is working,” said Biden. “It is the will of the voters. No one, not anyone else who chooses the president of the United States of America.”

Biden’s victories in Michigan and Wisconsin put him in a commanding position, but Trump showed no sign of giving up. It could take several more days for the vote count to conclude and a clear winner emerge.

With millions of ballots yet to be tabulated, Biden already had received more than 72 million votes, the most in history.

Trump’s campaign engaged in a flurry of legal activity to try to improve the Republican president’s chances, requesting a recount in Wisconsin and filing lawsuits in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Georgia. Statewide recounts in Wisconsin have historically changed the vote tally by only a few hundred votes; Biden led by more than 20,000 ballots out of nearly 3.3 million counted.

Judges in Georgia and Michigan quickly dismissed Trump campaign lawsuits there on Thursday.

Biden has already won Michigan and Wisconsin. The contests in Georgia and Pennsylvania, along with Nevada and North Carolina, were tight with votes still being tabulated.

The Trump campaign said it was confident the president would ultimately pull out a victory in Arizona, where votes were also still being counted, including in Maricopa County, the state’s most populous area. The AP has declared Biden the winner in Arizona and said Thursday that it was monitoring the vote count as it proceeded.

“The Associated Press continues to watch and analyze vote count results from Arizona as they come in,” said Sally Buzbee, AP’s executive editor. “We will follow the facts in all cases.”

Trump’s legal challenges faced long odds. He would have to win multiple suits in multiple states in order to stop vote counts, since more than one state was undeclared.

There were no obvious grounds for the Justice Department to attempt to intervene to stop a vote count at the state level, unless the federal government could somehow assert a violation of federal voting laws or the Constitution. The department could theoretically file a brief in support of a Trump campaign lawsuit if it believed there were federal concerns at stake, but that intervention would be extraordinary.

While Trump has insisted that ballot counting stop, it was unclear exactly what that would include. Counting for votes received by Nov. 3 was continuing, but roughly 20 states allow ballots to be counted if postmarked by Nov. 3 but received in the days after. In some states that is as long as nine days, or even longer. Some of the deadline changes were made as a result of the pandemic, but others are just routine parts of state election laws. Trump has fixated on Pennsylvania, where the Supreme Court refused to stop a court’s ruling that allowed for a three-day extension.

He also said he was taking fraud claims to court – but most of the lawsuits only demand better access for campaign observers to locations where ballots are being processed and counted. A judge in Georgia dismissed the campaign’s suit there less than 12 hours after it was filed. And a Michigan judge dismissed a Trump lawsuit over whether enough GOP challengers had access to handling of absentee ballots

Biden attorney Bob Bauer said the suits were legally “meritless.” Their only purpose, he said “is to create an opportunity for them to message falsely about what’s taking place in the electoral process.”

It was unclear when a national winner would be determined after a long, bitter campaign dominated by the coronavirus and its effects on Americans and the national economy. The U.S. on Wednesday set another record for daily confirmed cases as several states posted all-time highs. The pandemic has killed more than 233,000 people in the United States.

Beyond the presidency, Democrats had hoped the election would allow the party to reclaim the Senate and pad its majority in the House. But while the voting scrambled seats in the House and Senate, it ultimately left Congress much like it began — deeply divided.