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UW System leader outlines COVID-19 measures as UW-EC's first day nears

EAU CLAIRE — UW-Eau Claire students will start their fall semester on Wednesday, returning students to classrooms that had been empty since the university went online-only in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Interim UW System President Tommy Thompson — a former Wisconsin governor appointed in July to oversee the state’s public universities — spoke to reporters Monday afternoon about coronavirus precautions put in place at college campuses.

“We feel very strongly that we should open up,” Thompson said, speaking via videoconference from an operations room where COVID-19 updates come in daily from all 13 universities in the system.

A robust virus testing program, allowing the flexibility to take online courses, creating areas for quarantining and discouraging large gatherings of students are parts of the strategy intended to keep campuses open through fall.

“We think our testing is probably the best of any university in the U.S. right now,” said Thompson, who served as the nation’s health and human services secretary under President George W. Bush.

UW-Madison has its own $8 million COVID-19 testing program, while the other 12 universities in the UW System will split $32 million allocated by Gov. Tony Evers, according to a news release issued in early August. Outside of Madison, the funding will include about 350,000 tests, primarily those intended to get fast results for students who live in on-campus dormitories.

“We want to know if there’s a spike. The only way we’ll know if a spike is coming is doing testing,” Thompson said.

Every two weeks the UW System is planning to use antigen testing — a method that gets a result back in 15 minutes, but can produce false negatives — for those students in dormitories. Students who get positive antigen test results would be told to then get a PCR test, which are known to be more accurate but can take a day or longer to get results back from a lab.

Testing statistics will be posted online for each campus starting Sept. 8 on a public UW System website.

“We want to be transparent,” Thompson said.

A website just for UW-Madison is already operational, showing 117 positive cases out of the 8,845 COVID-19 tests administered on campus since early August.

Universities also have agreements with their local public health departments for help with contact tracing when coronavirus cases occur.

This week the Eau Claire City-County Health Department is training a team of UW-Eau Claire employees who will serve as contact tracers for cases that emerge on campus, according to health director Lieske Giese. Her staff will take care of reaching out to people in the rest of the community who came in contact with a person who has COVID-19.

Maintaining space

In a normal year, about 175,000 students attend UW System universities and colleges. This year is trending closer to 170,000, Thompson said, but he didn’t rule out more people enrolling later in the academic year after watching how the fall semester turns out.

However, he noted that about 5% of on-campus housing will be reserved for students isolating and quarantining due to COVID-19. UW-Eau Claire, for instance, is using its Putnam Hall dormitory exclusively for those cases.

For students and professors who don’t want to attend classes in person over concerns for catching COVID-19, universities are arranging for those to be taught online.

Thompson referred to the instruction options as “the trifecta” — as students could opt to take all their classes in-person, online or a mix of both.

When asked if there’s a level of COVID-19 activity that would prompt the UW System to cancel in-person classes, he didn’t rule that out as a possibility but didn’t state what measures would trigger that decision. Should outbreaks crop up, Thompson said he’d hope it would be limited to affected dormitories or campuses and not cause the entire university system to shut down.

Thompson advised students to take personal responsibility for their health by not going to large parties or other gatherings that could turn into COVID-19 outbreaks.

“It could spread if the students don’t want to protect themselves and fellow students,” he said.

In addition, Thompson said UW System campuses also were encouraged to reach out to restaurants and taverns to hold down their capacities to reduce the chance of COVID-19 spreading in a large crowd.

Care kits

Universities in the Chippewa Valley have been sending kits to students that contain face masks. Akin to the governor’s mask mandate for inside buildings, the universities are employing similar rules, but also extending those to outdoor spaces. That leaves individual faculty offices and dormitory bedrooms among the few places where people are not required to wear a mask on campus.

Thermometers also were included in the care kits for UW-Eau Claire and UW-Stout students so they can regularly check for a fever. Students also have to answer daily online questionnaires about their health.

Rooms larger than typical classrooms are also being used for instruction so student desks can be spaced farther apart for social distancing.

Schofield Auditorium, Gantner Hall and seven large rooms at Davies Center — usually places for guest speakers, recitals and large gatherings — will be used for some classes this fall at UW-Eau Claire.

Likewise, UW-Stout, which starts classes on Sept. 9, is using some rooms at its Memorial Student Union for classes.

A Zoom Thanksgiving? Summer could give way to bleaker fall

As the Summer of COVID draws to a close, many experts fear an even bleaker fall and suggest that American families should start planning for Thanksgiving by Zoom.

Because of the many uncertainties, public health scientists say it’s easier to forecast the weather on Thanksgiving Day than to predict how the U.S. coronavirus crisis will play out this autumn. But school reopenings, holiday travel and more indoor activity because of colder weather could all separately increase transmission of the virus and combine in ways that could multiply the threat, they say.

Here’s one way it could go: As more schools open for in-person instruction and more college students return to campuses, small clusters of cases could widen into outbreaks in late September. Public fatigue over mask rules and other restrictions could stymie efforts to slow these infections.

A few weeks later, widening outbreaks could start to strain hospitals. If a bad flu season peaks in October, as happened in 2009, the pressure on the health care system could result in higher daily death tolls from the coronavirus.

Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has said that scenario is his biggest fear.

One certainty is that the virus will still be around, said Jarad Niemi, a disease-modeling expert at Iowa State University.

“We will not have a vaccine yet and we will not have enough infected individuals for herd immunity to be helpful,” Niemi said.

Fall may feel like a roller coaster of stop-and-start restrictions, as communities react to climbing hospital cases, said University of Texas disease modeler Lauren Ancel Meyers. Everyone should get a flu shot, she said, because if flu spreads widely, hospitals will begin to buckle and “that will compound the threat of COVID.”

“The decisions we make today will fundamentally impact the safety and feasibility of what we can do next month and by Thanksgiving,” Meyers said.

The virus is blamed for over 180,000 deaths and 6 million confirmed infections in the U.S. Worldwide, the death toll is put at almost 850,000, with over 25 million cases.

The U.S. is recording on average about 900 deaths a day from COVID-19, and newly confirmed infections per day are running at about 42,000, down from their peak in mid-July, when cases were topping out at over 70,000.

Around the country, a chicken processing plant in California will close this week for deep cleaning after nearly 400 workers got sick, including eight who died. And college campuses have been hit by outbreaks involving hundreds of students, blamed in some cases on too much partying. Schools including the University of North Carolina, Michigan State and Notre Dame have moved instruction online because of clusters on their campuses.

Several vaccines are in advanced testing, and researchers hope to have results later this year. But even if a vaccine is declared safe and effective by year’s end, as some expect, there won’t be enough for everyone who wants it right away.

Several companies are developing rapid, at-home tests, which conceivably could be used by families before a Thanksgiving gathering, but none has yet won approval.

More than 90 million adults are over 65 or have health problems, putting them in higher danger of severe consequences if they get sick with the coronavirus. Many of them and their families are starting to decide whether to book holiday flights.

Cassie Docking, 44, an urgent care nurse in Seattle, is telling her parents — both cancer survivors — that Thanksgiving will be by FaceTime only.

“We all want to get to 2021,” she said, “and if that’s what it takes, that’s what we’ll do.”

Caitlin Joyce’s family is forging ahead with a holiday feast. They plan to set up plywood tables on sawhorses in a large garage so they can sit 6 feet apart.

“We’ll be in our coats and our sweaters,” said Joyce, 30, of Edmonds, Washington, who plans to travel to her grandparents’ home in Virginia. “It will be almost like camping.”

One widely cited disease model projects 2,086 U.S. deaths per day by Thanksgiving, more than double compared with today.

“In our family we will not have our extended family get-together. We will stick to the nuclear family,” said Dr. Christopher Murray of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, one of the few models making a prediction for November.

Uncertainty is huge in Murray’s model: Daily deaths could be as low as 1,500 by Thanksgiving or as high as 3,100. In a more optimistic scenario, daily deaths could range from 510 to 1,200 if nearly everyone wears masks. A more pessimistic scenario? From 2,700 to 6,500 daily deaths if social distancing rules continue to be lifted and are not reimposed.

With all the uncertainty, most disease modelers aren’t looking that far ahead — at least officially.

Jeffrey Shaman, a public health expert at Columbia University, thinks the virus will spread more easily as the weather forces people indoors: “But what level of a bump? That’s hard to say.”

At Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, computer scientist Roni Rosenfeld’s team uses machine learning to project COVID-19 deaths. The team’s computer algorithm learns from patterns it finds in state and county data to improve its forecasts.

A five-time winner of a CDC competition for predicting flu season activity, Rosenfeld thinks his model’s COVID-19 projections aren’t very useful beyond four weeks because of the wild card of human behavior, including that of government officials.

“What happens very much depends on us,” he said. “People, myself included, don’t always behave rationally.” Presented with the same facts, “the same person might behave differently depending on how sick and tired they are of the situation.”

Like other disease modelers, Rosenfeld said the virus will still be with us at Thanksgiving, readily spreading at family gatherings. While his plans may yet change, he said he is going to travel with his wife to visit their adult children.

2 shootings, 2 days: In Kenosha, a microcosm of US strife

KENOSHA — A Black man, accosted by police on a domestic dispute call, is left with bullet wounds in his back that will likely keep him from ever walking again. A white 17-year-old, rifle in hand, strolls past authorities untouched amid cries that he just gunned down three people protesting the Black man’s shooting.

Two moments of bloodshed, two days and 2 miles apart in Kenosha. And in those two moments, this mid-sized Midwestern city seemed a stark microcosm of a nation wracked by discord over racial inequity, policing and the meaning of public safety.

The chain of events that began Aug. 23 with Jacob Blake’s shooting has become a disputed X-ray of a divided society — a black-and-white picture where some see racial injustice that proves the urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement, while others see rioting that spurred a teenager to try to defend a community against chaos.

But to many in Kenosha — taking stock of a convulsive week ahead of President Donald Trump’s planned visit Tuesday — it’s not as simple as that.

As people here navigate barricaded streets, boarded-up windows and their own place along some of the deepest fault lines cleaving the U.S., there are many more than two perspectives on what happened, what it means and the way forward.

“I wanted him to see this place”

Charles Stevenson pulled up to a quiet, green block 150 miles from his Green Bay home. There was something he wanted to show his 9-year-old son.

“See that apartment over there? No. 4? That’s where I grew up,” Stevenson said. He turned around, putting a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “And this is where they shot him.”

Both looked at the ground and fell silent.

“I wanted him to see this place to understand the problems we face in this world,” Stevenson said later.

It was the spot where Blake, 29, was shot in the back and paralyzed by Officer Rusten Sheskey, who grabbed Blake’s shirt as he leaned into an SUV. Inside were Blake’s children, ages 8, 5 and 3.

Taking on a coach’s tone, Stevenson, 47, who works in construction, told his son: This is what they do to us. This is what can happen. You have to be prepared, like I’ve been telling you.

Around the corner, Tireece Anderson said the shooting hadn’t surprised him.

Police don’t get along with Black residents like him, said Anderson, a 32-year-old warehouse worker who’s had his own encounters with the criminal justice system and with police he says wrongly targeted and were unduly harsh with him.

At the same time, he said, Black residents need safety and police as much as anyone else — especially after the shooting and the unrest and violence that followed, as rumors ricocheted around town that people were heading to Kenosha to cause more mayhem.

“We don’t know what to believe,” said Anderson’s girlfriend, Rose Cavin, 30, who is white.

“Or who to trust,” Anderson added.

“He just shot them!”

A couple of miles from the place where Blake was shot, gunfire erupted again two nights later.

This time, according to police, the shots came from the rifle of Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old from a nearby Illinois town.

Buildings had been torched and businesses vandalized in Kenosha as protests flared the previous night. A former member of a police cadet program, Rittenhouse told the conservative news outlet the Daily Caller that he was there to guard a business and to help if people got hurt, bringing a first-aid kit along with his rifle.

He would end up killing two people, Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber, and wounding a third, Gaige Grosskreutz, in a series of encounters that snowballed after Rosenbaum threw a plastic bag at Rittenhouse, according to a court complaint.

After the gunfire, with his AR-15-style rifle over his shoulder and his hands in the air, Rittenhouse walked toward police vehicles that kept going past him, even as a witness shouted, “He just shot them!” Police Chief Daniel Miskinis has explained the response as officers dealing with a chaotic scene.

Rittenhouse, a sometime lifeguard, later turned himself in, his lawyers said, and is now jailed on homicide charges. While prosecutors call his conduct criminal, his lawyers say he defended himself against a mob trying to disarm and hurt him. They and other supporters portray him as a hero who stood up to lawlessness.

“He is a brave, patriotic, compassionate, law-abiding American who loves his country and his community. He did nothing wrong,” said one of his lawyers, John Pierce.

Meanwhile, Huber’s girlfriend helped plan the 26-year-old’s funeral and ran over what-ifs in her mind. He had shepherded her into an alley, she said, before running after Rittenhouse when Rosenbaum was shot.

“He knew the potential consequences of his actions, and he was prepared to die so that other people wouldn’t,” said the woman, Hannah Gittings. “That’s a hero.”

“This is different”

Set along Lake Michigan between Chicago and Milwaukee, Kenosha is to some extent a demographic slice of the U.S.

Its 100,000 residents are 80% white, 12% Black and 18% Hispanic (an ethnicity that can include any race) — somewhat but not overwhelmingly whiter than the country as a whole, census figures show. The median household income of about $54,000 is about 10% below the national median. Trump won Kenosha County over Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 by about 250 votes.

A former auto-manufacturing hub, the city has grown in recent decades, with an Amazon distribution center and the planned Foxconn electronics factory nearby providing new opportunities. Condos and museums have been built on one lakefront site that had been devoted to manufacturing.

But residents are still quick to say Kenosha has a small-town feel, and many have been stunned to see their heartland city stricken by a level of conflict they had been watching from afar this summer, in cities from Minneapolis to New York to Portland, Oregon.

“I’ve been the mayor for a long, long time. But this isn’t what I’m used to,” said John Antaramian, a Democrat who returned to office in 2016 after serving from 1992 to 2008. “This is different.”

“There’s two justice systems”

“There’s two justice systems. There’s one for that white boy ... and then there is a justice system for mine,” Blake’s father, Jacob Blake Sr., told a diverse crowd of about 1,000 people at a rally Saturday.

“Racism is the system,” he added to reporters later.

Blake’s family and police representatives dispute much of what happened. State investigators say it began with a call from a woman who said her boyfriend wasn’t supposed to be there.

A police union said Blake fought with officers, refused to drop a knife and didn’t respond when they stun-gunned him twice. His family’s lawyer, Ben Crump, said Blake was just trying to break up an argument, didn’t provoke police and wasn’t seen with a knife. State investigators have said only that officers saw a knife on the car floor.

Blake’s family has called for attempted homicide charges against Sheskey and the firings of two other officers involved in the encounter.

Lying in his Milwaukee hospital bed this week, Blake clutched his father’s hand and asked, “Why did they shoot me seven times?” the elder Blake told the rally.

“I said, ‘Baby, they weren’t supposed to shoot you at all.’”

“The police are the good people”

The morning after the rally for Blake, a far smaller group gathered in the same plaza to send a different message: “Back the Blue.”

To these demonstrators, most of them white, what had happened in their city was a travesty of destruction and criminality that was able to unfold under the cover of protest.

“The police are the good people. They should be left to do their jobs,” Amy Busick said.

She and her partner, Dustin Bose, live close to the center of the protests and the fires earlier in the week. The two said they had spent nights on their porch with their guns loaded, feeling they needed to protect their home and family, including a 5-year-old child and a disabled 19-year-old.

They don’t fault Rittenhouse; he was defending himself, they say: “I think the kid’s a patriot,” said Bose, 40, who works in a metal fabrication shop.

The white couple expressed some misgivings about the shooting of Blake, particularly seven times, but they also noted that police said he was resisting them. Bose has been in trouble with the law himself, but he says the consequences were “my doing.”

The two don’t see Blake’s shooting as a function of race.

“I know racism exists,” said Bose, whose stepfather is Black. “I support what people are trying to be out here protesting, but at the same time, I also support law and order.”

“People need to understand it’s not Black against white,” added Busick, 41, a restaurant server. “It’s good against evil. Period.”

“The American problem”

After George Floyd’s May 25 death at the hands of Minneapolis police ignited protests around the country, Isaac Wallner urged his hometown Kenosha police to start conversations with Black residents to avoid possible unrest later.

“But they didn’t,” said Wallner, a Black truck driver, an activist and an aspiring police officer himself.

“I want to tell the officers, ‘My goal is to be one of you ... well, not you, but a better you,’” says Wallner, 30.

That goal stands, though Wallner says he’s had his own share of run-ins with officers and sometimes feels targeted because he’s Black.

But never, he says, has systemic racism felt so stark as during the recent protests.

At points, Kenosha County sheriff’s deputies fired pepper balls at protesters — including Wallner as he provided medical aid to demonstrators, he said — and arrested some for breaking curfew. Yet authorities in an armored vehicle were recorded tossing bottled water to a group of armed civilians, Rittenhouse among them, and thanking them for being there.

“We appreciate you guys. We really do,” said an unidentified voice from the vehicle. Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth later said the remark “doesn’t mirror all of law enforcement’s perspective on what happened.”

Still, “if that doesn’t scream the American problem,” Wallner says, “I don’t know what does.”

“I can see why race is being thrown into that”

Looking out on Kenosha’s prized lakefront, James White and his girlfriend dissected the events that have shaken their hometown.

“You have a Black man who’s been shot, innocent. You have a white man that’s shooting people ... and then walking past the police,” said White, 18. “I can see why race is being thrown into that.”

The soon-to-be college freshman, who is Black, sees his hometown as a friendly place where people forge connections with others. Still, he supports the protests.

But he’s galled by the fires and window-smashing that he — like many others here — sees as people from out of town “destroying our city”; police say 58% of the 175 people arrested from Aug. 24 through midday Sunday had out-of-town addresses.

One night White was at a friend’s house, listening to police scanner traffic about an approaching crowd, and they got worried enough to turn out the lights and sit in silence. Word had gone around that a crowd was out to attack white people’s homes in the friend’s racially mixed neighborhood, he says.

“They say, at least because (Blake) got shot by a white man, that white people are the problem,” says White, who doesn’t see absolutes. His girlfriend is white.

“I don’t feel like you have to take an extreme side”

On a sticky afternoon, Lisa Pugh and two other moms she’d just met painted some of the many murals that have sprung up on plywood-girded shop windows around Kenosha.

“Love heals,” the women wrote, their children helping where they could reach. “Stay strong.” “Tolerance.”

To Pugh, it was a way to do something positive to respond to the city’s pain, to show the kids that people could come together.

The violence, the vandalism, all of it, had brought her to tears the day before. She sees residents channeling anger into peaceful protests, “and they should be,” she said. But the destruction broke her heart.

She’s seen online commenters ask: How can you be upset about that? Doesn’t fighting for people’s lives matter more than things?

“I don’t feel like you have to take an extreme one side or the other,” said Pugh, 32, a white graphic designer. “You can be mad about people dying and about your community burning down.”

For all the hopeful murals, more trenchant messages were written on Kenosha walls too. Graffiti on a downtown school declared that police “helped the murderer escape” and asked: “How many more have to die?”

It was removed.

“We need a united front, for a united cause”

It was a long week for John and Patricia Baldwin.

For days they stayed in their cellphone store nearly all night, John carrying his long gun, to guard the place as vandals hit neighboring shops. Finally, reassured by Wednesday’s announcement of an increased National Guard influx, the exhausted couple went home for a night.

Sometime that night, the glass door was broken and some phones were taken. Tears welled in John’s eyes the next morning as he looked at the store he managed to buy 15 years ago, two years after a knock on the door of a soon-to-open cellphone shop turned into a job, promotions and an ownership opportunity for a man with no college education.

“What would make you think that tearing up my store is going to benefit the cause?” wondered John, who is Black. “We’re fighting for the same reasons, and we shouldn’t be the victim.”

Nevertheless, the Baldwins joined the peaceful protests this week, balancing their frustration against their own experiences of racial inequity. They sensed that the moment demanded taking it on.

“If we don’t try now, we’ll never know,” John said. “This nation feels so broken right now.”

It needs law and order, he says, but it also needs police officers who do the right thing and treat people fairly. It needs new laws to ensure they do.

And most of all, “we need change. We need a united front, for a united cause, for a united nation,” he said.

“One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”