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'An amazing step': Mass vaccination site opens at UW-Eau Claire's Zorn Arena
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EAU CLAIRE — One of the largest COVID-19 vaccine clinics in the Chippewa Valley began administering shots on Thursday.

UW-Eau Claire’s Zorn Arena has been temporarily transformed from a basketball fieldhouse into a mass vaccination site.

Health care workers were scheduled to give out 700 doses there on the first day of operation.

Before the site opened to the public Thursday, staffers and volunteers were setting up the 10 vaccination booths and making final preparations.

“Having a location where we will get 3,500 first doses every week is an amazing step forward for our vaccine efforts in Eau Claire County,” said Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department.

The new regional site is at Zorn Arena, 121 Garfield Ave. The Pfizer vaccine, a two-dose shot, will be available there.

The shots will be administered three weeks apart. The Pfizer vaccine is the only one currently authorized for people aged 16 and 17.

As of Monday, everyone in Wisconsin 16 and older is eligible to get a vaccine.

Hundreds of volunteers are pitching in at Zorn Arena to help vaccinations run smoothly, said Mike Knuth, UW-Eau Claire’s public information officer.

The Eau Claire City-County Health Department and UW-Eau Claire are overseeing the site, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Wisconsin National Guard staff are also pitching in.

“They’ve come from all over the country to make this happen,” said Grace Crickette, UW-Eau Claire vice chancellor of finance and administration.

UW-Eau Claire nursing students are also helping get shots in arms.

“We have many very eager, excited undergraduate and graduate nursing students who are loving this opportunity to help with vaccinations,” said Debra Jansen, associate dean for the College of Nursing and Health Sciences.

Getting vaccinated at Zorn Arena is free, Giese said. The site won’t ask for proof of health insurance or citizenship.

The site plans to begin giving out 700 doses per day, a total of 3,500 shots per week, with the capacity to administer more depending on supply.

In three weeks, when people begin returning for their second doses, that number will double — 1,400 doses per day.

“We will have tens of thousands of people coming here to the UW-Eau Claire campus to receive the vaccine,” Crickette said.

“Sites like this one in Eau Claire will help expand access and reach the (Biden) Administration’s goal of ensuring every American lives within five miles of a vaccine location,” Kevin M. Sligh, acting administrator for FEMA Region 5, said in a news release this week.

Getting a vaccine at Zorn Arena

The site’s hours will vary, though it will operate Tuesdays through Saturdays for the immediate future:

  • April 8-10: 1 p.m. to 7 p.m.
  • Tuesday through Saturday, April 13-28: 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.
  • Tuesday through Saturday, beginning April 29: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

The public should visit vaccinate.wi.gov to sign up for an appointment, the Health Department said.

If people don’t have internet access or need help signing up, they can call 844-684-1064 for help getting an appointment. The Zorn Arena site will not accept walk-ins.

To get to the site, people should follow Clairemont Avenue to Menomonie Street, which becomes Water Street and Summit Avenue. There will be signs directing people from Summit Avenue to the Hibbard Parking lot.

People should park in the Hibbard Lot, 1515 Park Ave. No parking permit will be required.

If someone has significant mobility issues, they can be vaccinated in their vehicles, but they must indicate that when they sign up for their appointment. Accommodations will also be available for people who need translators.

Giese urged people to show up to their appointment once they register.

“If for whatever reason you need to cancel, there is the ability to do that online. Please make sure that you do that,” she said. “We need (shots) to go in arms, and if we have people not showing up, it causes enormous challenges.”

Number of kids alone at border hits all-time high in March

WASHINGTON — The U.S. government picked up nearly 19,000 children traveling alone across the Mexican border in March, authorities said Thursday, the largest monthly number ever recorded and a major test for President Joe Biden as he reverses many of his predecessor’s hard-line immigration tactics.

A complex mix of factors in the United States and Central America drove the increase. It has coincided with the Biden administration’s decision to exempt unaccompanied children from pandemic-related powers to immediately expel most people from the country without giving them an opportunity to seek asylum. Children are instead released to “sponsors” in the U.S., usually parents or close relatives, while being allowed to pursue their cases in heavily backlogged immigration courts.

The Border Patrol encountered 18,663 unaccompanied children in March, well above previous highs of 11,475 in May 2019 and 10,620 in June 2014. The agency started publishing the numbers in 2009. Before then, adults made up the vast majority of those crossing the border.

March’s count was roughly double those encountered by the Border Patrol in February and more than five times the number in March 2020.

The huge increase in children traveling alone — some as young as 3 — and families has severely strained border holding facilities, which aren’t allowed to hold people for more than three days but often do. It’s left the government scrambling to find space and hire staff to care for children longer term until they can be placed with sponsors.

For many, a hurricane that hit Central America in November added urgency to endemic poverty and violence that have led people to flee for decades. Changes in U.S. policy under Biden also have guided their decisions, whether real or rumored.

Hermelindo Ak, a Guatemalan corn grower who barely makes enough to feed his family, was expelled to Mexico from Texas’ Rio Grande Valley with his 17-year-old son. Ak decided to send his son alone for a second attempt after learning unaccompanied children can stay in the U.S. Ak, 40, said he would return to family in Guatemala after selling his house to pay smugglers. The plan was for his oldest son to live with relatives in the U.S.

“I didn’t want to leave him alone,” Ak said last week in the Mexican border city of Reynosa. “Necessity obligates us.”

Amid the growing numbers, more than 4,000 people at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection holding facility have been jammed into a space designed for 250 at a tent complex in Donna, Texas. They lay inches apart on mats on the floor with foil blankets.

CBP must transfer unaccompanied children within 72 hours to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, whose facilities are more suited to longer-term care while arrangements are made to release them. More than 2,000 children were held longer than that at the Donna facility one day last week, with 39 there at least 15 days.

HHS opened its first temporary holding facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, on Feb. 22, and has since struck a slew of agreements to occupy large venues near the border, including convention centers in Dallas and San Diego, a stadium in San Antonio, Texas, and Fort Bliss army base in El Paso, Texas. The department also has been paying for flights for children and sponsors to limit time in government custody.

Overall, the Border Patrol had 168,195 encounters with migrants on the southern border in March, its busiest month since March 2001, when it counted 170,580 arrests. The numbers aren’t entirely comparable because more than half of last month’s encounters resulted in expulsions under pandemic-related authority instituted by former President Donald Trump and kept in place by Biden.

People expelled under the public health law are far more likely to try again because they face no legal consequences.

Unlike expulsions, people arrested under immigration laws can face jail time, felony prosecution for repeat offenses and bans on entering the country legally through marriage or other means. Biden administration officials said 28% of expulsions in March were people who had been expelled before, compared with a 7% pre-pandemic recidivism rate for the 12-month period that ended in September 2019.

The Border Patrol had 52,904 encounters with people arriving as families, with only about one of three being expelled and the rest allowed to stay in the U.S. to pursue asylum.

Mexico’s refusal to accept Central American families with children 6 and under because of a new law against detaining migrant families has limited the effectiveness of expulsions, administration officials said. Mexico is especially reluctant to accept families with young children in Tamaulipas state bordering the Rio Grande Valley, the busiest corridor for illegal crossings.

The means hundreds of migrants go to bus stations in Texas border towns like McAllen and Brownsville on their way to their final destinations in the U.S. To save time, the Border Patrol last month began releasing migrant families — about 9,600 people as of Tuesday, according to U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar — without notices to appear in court, instead directing them to report to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in 60 days.

Numbers grew sharply during Trump’s final year in office but further accelerated under Biden, who quickly ended many of his predecessor’s policies, including one that made asylum-seekers wait in Mexico for court hearings in the U.S.

Mexicans represented the largest proportion of people encountered by the border patrol and nearly all of the arriving Mexicans were single adults. Arrivals of people from Honduras and Guatemala were second and third and more than half of the people from those countries were families or children traveling on their own.

Measuring mortality

Shortly before dawn, the Easter Bunny is roused to work by the buzz of his alarm. He groans, searching for a snooze button.

“Tut, tut,” says Mrs. Easter Bunny, “time to get to work.”

“Just five more ...”

“Tut, tut,” Mrs. Easter Bunny repeats, an edge in her voice. “And don’t wake the baby on the way out.”

Ejected from the burrow, the Easter Bunny makes his way toward the basket of eggs and fulfills his mission, hiding the hardboiled gems with a little less gusto than in the past.

But cut him some slack; it’s been a tough year, even for the Easter Bunny. If he looks more sluggish than usual, it’s because he is. And if his cotton ball tail appears grayer, well, pretend like you don’t notice.

Even the Easter Bunny needs a cup of coffee (or ten) every now and again, and on this holy day, let’s just give it to him.

Peering into the backyard, I’m pleased to report that the rascally rabbit has pulled it off undetected yet again. Which is no small feat these days, since my eldest and most skeptical child spent the night camped on the couch with a camera.

As I admire the Easter Bunny’s handiwork, I wonder: How many more visits might we have from our floppy-eared friend? Or from the Tooth Fairy, for that matter. Or Santa himself.

Soon I am burrowing down the figurative rabbit hole, wondering not only how many visits one receives from such illustrious guests, but also, how many holidays we’re granted per lifetime. Or how many of anything.

I do the morbid math: calculating the difference between the American male’s life expectancy of 76 years and the 36 years I’ve already notched. Forty more Easters doesn’t sound so bad, though I know that 40 more would be generous given my genes. I come from a long line of faulty tickers: hearts that perform admirably right up until the moment they don’t. That moment, I’ll add, usually occurs a few years shy of life expectancy.

Then again, let’s not set our watches by life expectancy, which seems a faulty measure once you factor in life itself. Life’s curveballs can come in the form of cancer, and car crashes, and COVID-19. As such, let us not confuse statistics with guarantees, of which there is but one: none of us is getting out of here alive.

I write these words on Easter morning, when resurrection weighs heavy on the mind. Yet folks like me know better than to imagine any shot at second chances. Which is probably why I’ve found myself seated at this keyboard at this early hour, in the time between the Easter Bunny’s visit and the first stirrings within the house. Just enough time to reflect on the nature of time: humankind’s least renewable resource.

If the statisticians are to be believed, I’ll bid my fond farewell in 2061. If I make it until July of that year, I’ll have a chance at seeing Hailey’s Comet hurtling toward its closest brush with the sun in years. But if I don’t make it until then, Hailey’s Comet will continue on without me, blazing across the heavens in all its glowing splendor.

I suppose there’s some comfort in knowing that the universe will continue on without us; though I can’t help but feel a tinge of regret for all that I will miss.

Of course it’s hardly fair to measure human life on astronomical time. Nor should we measure it on geological time, under which conditions even the oldest living human is a spring chicken. Take a walk on the rocks near Big Falls and your feet will touch a geological wonder 1.85 billion years in the making. Or wade into the Eau Claire River, which — a mere 520 million years ago — was an inland sea.

Let us not concern ourselves with astronomy or geology. I for one prefer to measure mortality on more tangible terms: how many gardens I’ve got left to plant, or gutters left to clean. How many semesters, how many students, how many words? How many teeth cleanings and annual check-ups? How many oil changes? How many campfires? How much laughter and how many tears?

Answers to such questions remain unknown, which seems proof of some higher mathematician at work. Someone who understands the miscalculation of measuring life in minutes alone.

A friend of mine several decades my senior recently confirmed as much, reminding me of the sacredness of each passing second, while also reminding me not to dwell on them as they pass. To have lived well means to age contentedly, even if, as he put it, growing older means enduring the indignity of “small subtraction.” First you lose one thing, he explained, then another thing, then another after that. Sometimes those things come back for a flicker, only to be lost again.

But to view life as some countdown to the inevitable is to lose sight of those things not yet gone. After all, there are still comets to chase, and gardens to plant, and words in need of writing.

And that’s not all.

From my basement burrow, I hear the stirrings of newly woken children: giggles, screeches, shouts.

“Hey Dad!” calls my most skeptical child. “Guess what?”


“He came!”

“Who came?” I ask.

“The Easter Bunny!” he says, his faith restored.

“For real?”

“Yeah! Get up here and see for yourself!”

I smile, then rise from my seat — taking the stairs two at a time.