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Deaf community facing added challenges under COVID-19

After showing possible symptoms of COVID-19, Marcee Stein was tested for the virus last month at a Mayo Clinic Health System drive-thru facility. She received a negative result two days later.

Stein, who is hard of hearing, went through the testing alone. That made it tough to understand instructions because workers wore masks. In the unusual, confusing scenario, Stein didn’t know if she could ask for an interpreter. She simply wanted to finish the process.

The test itself was painful, and Stein said her nose bled at one point.

“It was difficult and scary,” Stein said. “All I could do on the way home was just cry. This is such a weird, weird time to be living in right now.”

For people who are deaf and hard of hearing, the past two months have added frustrations to the isolation and uncertainty experienced under COVID-19. Some feel left behind regarding timely information, and basic communication now presents a challenge. Visiting a store, talking with co-workers and conversing with friends are all more difficult.

Rachel Kohn, an American Sign Language interpreter for the Eau Claire school district, worries about the isolating effect on deaf and hard of hearing students who may already feel disconnected from peers.

Most people in the Chippewa Valley who are deaf and hard of hearing communicate using American Sign Language. ASL, which is a separate language from English, involves body movements and facial expressions, which are much more difficult to understand if someone is wearing gloves and a mask as public health precautions. Some people, such as Stein, are also adept at lipreading, but that is nearly impossible if someone’s mouth is covered.

People interviewed understand why and appreciate that residents are taking steps to slow the spread of COVID-19. Nonetheless, the health precautions add to the stresses of daily life.

Timely communication

To ease the difficulty, several people who are deaf and hard of hearing mentioned the importance of having a certified ASL interpreter at media briefings currently held three times per week by the Eau Claire City-County Health Department.

Lieske Giese, Eau Claire City-County Health Department director, said an interpreter cannot attend the briefings in person because of “social distancing protocols as well as limits on the number of people available in a room.”

Recently, recordings of the briefings have become available on the Health Department Facebook page shortly after the briefings conclude. People can watch a recording with captions or with a local ASL interpreter, who also signs on her personal Facebook account during briefing livestreams.

“It has been a priority of ours to get the most accurate and up to date information out to our community members in a way that meets their needs,” Giese wrote in an email. “Social distancing protocols and technology limitations have led to some challenges, but we continue to work with community members and advocates to get information out through a variety of media channels through a variety of languages.”

Residents appreciated that measures have been taken but say they could be better. An ASL interpreter is part of media briefings led by Gov. Tony Evers and other state officials, and Stein mentioned that La Crosse County has had an interpreter virtually alongside its Health Department director since the briefings began in March.

“If other places are able to do it, I don’t see why we can’t,” Stein said. “The point of doing these live briefings is so that everyone can get this information at that time, but it’s leaving out a section of people.”

English is Stein’s first language, so she often reads articles and watches TV to stay updated. However, many deaf people learned ASL before English, so having timely information about COVID-19 in their first language is vital. The languages have different grammatical structures, making it harder for some to communicate via reading and writing English. Writing on the same piece of paper presents challenges, too, because that involves close contact between people.

Kristin Schiebe said a media briefing would ideally show the person speaking, captions with what the person is saying and a certified deaf interpreter signing ASL next to the person speaking, whether or not they are physically together.

Health issues

Scheibe is deaf and works as an American Sign Language professor at UW-Eau Claire. (She spoke with the Leader-Telegram over the phone using an interpreter). Schiebe visited a hospital recently and said it was extremely difficult trying to talk with employees wearing masks; they used gestures to eventually reach an understanding.

After her unpleasant testing experience, Stein hopes she doesn’t require health care in the future.

“During this time of everyone being required to wear masks and tensions being high, it is a little uncomfortable to think about having to go in and take medical treatment,” Stein said.

According to Mary Bygd, limited English proficiency coordinator for Mayo Clinic Health System in Northwest Wisconsin, there are five part- and full-time interpreters and eight per diem interpreters at Mayo’s Northwest Wisconsin region, plus 24/7 access to two contracted interpreter services via telephone or video. A video/telephone interpreting device is also available at each drive-thru testing tent.

“Supporting our limited English proficient and deaf or hard of hearing patients is a priority,” Bygd wrote in an email. “As we have increased the use of telemedicine, we now offer interpreters for video visits with providers.”

Still, the limited number of qualified local interpreters available in person means communication issues will likely persist whenever deaf and hard of hearing people leave their homes in the near future. A potential improvement involves clear masks that allow people to see mouth movement and read lips, but those are not yet available on a wide scale.

“If we don’t have interpreters, what will we do?” Schiebe said.

Work challenges

Stein recently began working a temp retail job at an essential business after her hours were cut at her previous job. Her co-workers have shown patience and understanding, but she occasionally notices annoyance when asking them to reiterate instructions. Stein said customers have also reacted angrily after she asked them to repeat themselves.

Erin Odegard has found it much tougher to communicate with co-workers at her warehouse job. (Odegard is deaf and spoke with the Leader-Telegram over the phone using an interpreter).

Employees must wear masks covering their mouths, so Odegard cannot always tell when they are speaking to her. Most people either don’t know ASL or misunderstand what she is trying to say, adding to the frustration.

Like nearly everyone, Odegard’s social circle has shrunk, a difficult mental and emotional adjustment. She and her husband enjoy hosting friends at their home, but they haven’t done that for the past two months. Odegard has stayed in touch with friends and family through video communication, but she said that is not nearly the same as sensing someone’s energy during an in-person interaction.

Schiebe similarly misses personal connections. She often attended local deaf events, conversing with many people and sharing a common, unique culture. It is difficult not to see friends and family, but to stay centered, Schiebe meditates and goes on walks.

Schiebe emphasized that people like her should be treated the same as people without hearing difficulties. However, COVID-19 is presenting obstacles to equality.

AP featured
Outdoor enthusiasts reject wholesale changes to deer season

MADISON — Outdoor enthusiasts overwhelmingly rejected Wisconsin wildlife officials’ proposals to dramatically reshape the state’s gun deer hunting structure to bolster the waning sport, a survey released Wednesday shows.

The state Department of Natural Resources has been working for years to rekindle interest in deer hunting as hunters age out of the sport and more young people ignore the outdoors. DNR records show that total gun deer license sales dropped nearly 16% between 1994 and last year. Sales to Wisconsin residents have dropped by nearly 20% over that span.

The DNR planned to submit questions about reforming the gun deer season to attendees at the Wisconsin Conservation Congress’ statewide spring hearings April 13. The congress is an influential group of sportsmen who advise the DNR on policy decisions.

The congress ultimately canceled the hearings due to the coronavirus pandemic and conducted an online survey instead.

The DNR released results on Wednesday.

The biggest change the DNR proposed was extending the nine-day gun season to 19 days. The congress included a separate question asking if people would support replacing the nine-day with a 16-day season that would start in mid-November. The nine-day season currently begins the Saturday before Thanksgiving, and hunters have complained that the late start misses the rut and that the deer have stopped moving by then, leading to weak harvests.

The proposal to extend the gun season to 19 days failed by nearly a 3-to-1 margin, 42,208 to 14,820, with 2,261 having no opinion. The 16-day idea failed by more than a 2-to-1 margin, 38,106 to 15,599.

The idea of extending the season didn’t garner much support in the Chippewa Valley. Among the Eau Claire County hunters surveyed, 250 supported the idea of the longer season but 700 voted against it. Among Chippewa County residents, the 19-day proposal failed 260-901. In Dunn County, it failed 190-592.

The DNR included a number of other questions centered on reducing competition from additional deer seasons. Board members fear those seasons are diluting excitement about the traditional nine-day gun season.

Those proposals included eliminating the four-day antlerless-only December hunt; prohibiting any hunting for two or five days leading up to the gun season; limiting the crossbow season to the month of October and restarting it after the gun season ends; and closing the crossbow season in November and re-opening it after the gun season. The crossbow season currently runs from mid-September to early January, in concurrence with the archery season.

The department also asked how many would support invalidating crossbow and archery buck tags during the nine-day gun season. Hunters could still legally use crossbows and bows, but they would need a firearm tag for any kill.

Respondents supported eliminating the December hunt, with about 33,000 voting to get rid of it compared with about 20,500 voting to keep it. Nearly 5,700 had no opinion. In Eau Claire County, 568 respondents supported eliminating the antlerless-only holiday firearm deer season, while 335 supported keeping it. In Chippewa County, 700 respondents supported eliminating the antlerless-only holiday, while 378 supported retaining it. Dunn County residents called for eliminating it on a 483-273 vote.

The proposal to ban hunting leading up to the gun season failed, with 31,055 respondents voting against. Nearly 12,875 respondents said they would support a five-day prohibition. About 11,235 said they would support a two-day ban. Nearly 3,300 had no opinion.

Nearly 28,000 respondents voted against limiting the crossbow season to October and reopening after the gun season, compared to about 25,690 in support. Nearly 5,300 had no opinion. The proposal to close the crossbow season in November fared even worse, with nearly 31,700 against, 20,816 in support and about 6,100 with no opinion. Eau Claire County respondents rejected the idea, with 355 supporting limiting the crossbow season, but 525 voted against it. In Chippewa County the vote was 394 for limiting the season, 681 against it.

Respondents also soundly rejected invalidating archery and crossbow tags during the gun season, 35,360 to 18,169, with 5,517 having no opinion.

They also rejected the congress’ proposal to reinstate the DNR’s contentious earn-a-buck program. Hunters in areas where the program was implemented had to kill a doe before they could take a buck. The requirement was intended as a herd-control measure, but hunters generally despised it because it forced them to pass up trophy bucks. Then-Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill in 2011 outlawing the program.

Respondents overwhelmingly approved the group’s questions about whether the Legislature should raise the cost of deer and bear licenses for out-of-state residents. The questions did not propose any dollar amount.

Out-of-state residents currently pay $160 for a deer license and $251 for a bear license. Minnesota charges out-of-state hunters $186 for a deer license and $230 for a bear license. Illinois charges $411 for a deer bow license and $200 for a gun deer license; that state doesn’t offer bear licenses. Wyoming charges out-of-staters $374 for a deer license and $373 for a bear license.

The survey is advisory only.

State hit with bad budget news as pressure mounts to reopen

MADISON — New budget figures for Wisconsin released Wednesday show an $870 million drop-off in tax collections last month, the latest stark sign of how much the coronavirus pandemic is hurting the state’s economy.

The bleak but expected budget figures came as pressure continued to build on Democratic Gov. Tony Evers to reopen business in the state faster and loosen his “safer at home” order that runs until May 26.

Former Republican U.S. Senate candidate Eric Hovde, a millionaire Madison businessman, joined the conservative chorus against Evers, launching a television ad Wednesday arguing for the immediate reopening of the state.

The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau told lawmakers that state tax collections were down $870 million in April, the first full month of the safer-at-home order, compared to April 2019. Tax collections were down $313 million between July and April compared to the same 10-month period the previous fiscal year. Evers has projected a $2 billion loss over the current budget that runs through June 2021.

The memo said several variables could help the state’s budget in the coming months, including Evers’ order to cut spending 5%, expected to save $70 million. Some of the $2 billion in federal aid could go toward the budget shortfall, and the state has about $844 million in savings that could be used, the memo said.

But the numbers will only add to the pressure on Evers from businesses, Republican lawmakers and others. A protest to urge a faster reopening attracted about 1,500 people to the Capitol last month. The Wisconsin Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday, and could rule any day, on a Republican-brought lawsuit that seeks to block the safer-at-home order.

The Hovde ad, along with a new website with a petition calling for reopening, are the first public projects of a group he created called Our Future Matters. Hovde ran for the Republican nomination for Senate in 2012 but came second in the primary to former Gov. Tommy Thompson. The banker, investor and developer flirted with another run for Senate in 2018 but did not get in. Hovde has said he’s considering running again in 2022.

“It’s time to open Wisconsin given the data and the consequences of the shutdown,” Hovde said in a statement. “Decisions are being made to lock down our state that are having both severe negative economic and health consequences for our citizens.”

In the ad, Hovde questions the science behind the decision to issue the “safer at home order,” projections of infections for Wisconsin, concerns about hospital capacity and risks associated with high unemployment. More than 517,000 people have filed for unemployment in Wisconsin since mid-March.

Evers didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment. He and state health officials have said the longer safer-at-home order is the best approach to slowing the spread of the virus in accordance with scientific principles.

The order originally shut down most nonessential businesses until April 24, but Evers extended it until May 26 with some loosening to allow for curbside services. He has a plan for reopening the state but several benchmarks must be met, including a decline in new coronavirus cases and hospital capacity to safely deal with virus patients.

The state Department of Health Services reported Wednesday that at least 362 people in Wisconsin have died from COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, and nearly 8.900 people have been infected. The actual number of infections is thought to be far higher, because many people have not been tested and studies suggest people can be infected without feeling sick.

The percentage of positive cases has declined for three consecutive days, but has gone up and down over the past 14 days.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.