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COVID pandemic repeats as year's top story

EAU CLAIRE — It’s very unusual for a single, ongoing event to top the list of major stories for two consecutive years. But the COVID pandemic’s continuing effects in virtually every aspect of life in 2021 made it the year’s top story.

The year began with signs of hope. In mid-December 2020, federal regulators authorized the first vaccine for use against the virus. Two more followed, and there were hopes widespread vaccinations would bring the pandemic to heel by mid-year.

When the Leader-Telegram spoke with people on New Year’s Day about what they wanted to see in 2021, an end to the pandemic was a common response. Colton Kupskey, then 6, said he hoped COVID “could be over.”

And, for a while, it looked like it could be. A minor surge of cases in Wisconsin peaked in January, but never threatened to hit the highs the state experienced two months earlier. And the number of new cases fell consistently, bottoming out at fewer than 50 cases per day statewide in June.

Something resembling normal life began to pick up again. The Eau Claire City Council rescinded its mask mandate in May. Other area governments did the same. Memorial Day saw parades and events return. Museums and libraries reopened.

Outdoor events saw record-breaking crowds in many cases. When Country Fest arrived, Kathy Mueller of Appleton said its 2020 absence had meant a “long two years.”

“We missed all our friends we camp with every year,” she said.

Rusty Volk, director of the Northern Wisconsin State Fair, crowed about the event topping 100,000 visitors.

“It kept building all week. And it was the largest crowd we ever had on a Sunday,” he said.

But, with vaccinations stalling out over the summer, the virus began to come back. The delta variant, which spread more easily, began to make itself felt. As Wisconsin’s average number of cases rose, debate over the vaccination statuses became more bitter.

As fall continued, event cancellations began to return. So did more urgent statements from health officials. Dunn County officials called the resurgence a crisis. By November, area hospitals were once again nearly full. Angela Weideman, Chippewa County’s public health director, said some patients were being airlifted to other regions that had beds available.

“I’m very, very concerned that we are at 98% full,” Weideman said during a press conference. “(Medical staff) are feeling very taxed and overburdened.”

The second year of the pandemic closed with another new variant emerging. Dubbed “omicron,” experts are still gathering information about how it differs from prior strains. It showed up in tests in Wisconsin not long after the variant was found in the United States.

Early information seems mixed. Omicron appears to spread more easily than even delta, but its symptoms seem considerably less severe. Officials remain wary.

“The current and present threat in the U.S. is delta, and it remains delta,” said Dr. Gregory Poland, founder and director of Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group, in a call with reporters Wednesday. “The growing threat — and it remains to be seen if omicron will outcompete delta — is omicron.”

As 2021 ended, health experts’ advice on how to respond to the pandemic wasn’t all that far from their advice 12 months earlier. Get vaccinated. Take basic precautions like washing your hands and limiting exposure to large crowds. The biggest shift was the addition of booster shots to help against omicron’s multiple mutations.

The hopes for 2022 seem similar, too. Two years in, people just want the pandemic to be over.

SAWDUST STORIES: A green-and-gold surprise
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My son and I traveled companionably on Highway 29 east towards Wausau. He under the impression we were off to perform yardwork for his grandma’s friend. But I knew we were en route to Lambeau Field to take in the Dec. 12 tilt against the hated Chicago Bears.

I’d known for a few months, sharing the secret with a scant few people. We woke that Sunday morning and I instructed him to dress warm and in his Packers gear (wearing Packers’ clothing on a Sunday is nothing novel around our house where Henry and I tend to be very superstitious about our gameday rites.) We were going to stack firewood, I explained, for some lady in grandma’s book club. I could see that Henry was dismayed by this plan, but he didn’t put up too much of stink. The Packers game was at night, after all. Even if we frittered away the afternoon, he’d surely have the evening to watch the game. My wife and I packed extra warm clothing, blankets and some seat cushions, but Henry took little heed of these supplies. When the appointed time came, we loaded into the vehicle together, tuned the radio to a game, and lit out to the east.

Outside Thorp, he turned to me and asked, “Where are we going, exactly?”

Now I smiled. I pointed at my LeRoy Butler jersey (#36) and again to his Packers knit cap. “You haven’t figured it out yet?”

“No,” he replied.

“We’re going to Lambeau,” I smiled.

He broke into an impossible grin, began squealing with delight, bounced up and down in his chair, and hugged me fiercely. For a parent, it doesn’t get much better. Surprises are few and far between in this life, almost as rare as firsts — those moments when we encounter something for the very first time. This day would be both. A surprise trip to Lambeau Field combined with his first time seeing an NFL game.

It had been more than 15 years since the last time I’d visited Lambeau.

Those were the final games of Brett Favre’s reign and my mom had secured our tickets through her place of work. We have different memories of that game, but we both recall incredible fall weather and a Packers victory. But this game promised many differences: a 7 p.m. kickoff, December chill, and all the improvements to Lambeau Field and the Titletown District, which did not even exist when I last visited the stadium.

We arrived at Lambeau about four hours before kickoff and found parking in the muddy front yard of a decidedly blue-collar residence. Then we walked to the stadium, which in and of itself is an experience. It’s one thing when you’re an adult and seen your share of professional or college games. You’re prepared for the pomp. The tailgating, the drinking, the music, the costumes ... But if you’ve never seen it before, if you’re a child, it’s magical. Celebration and exuberance are in the air, yes, but so too is a mild undercurrent of danger and recklessness. So too is confrontation. And especially so when the Chicago Bears come to town. Especially since Aaron Rodgers recently reminded the Soldier Field faithful that their squad was in his possession much like a tiresome toy he can only be bothered to play with, and ultimately break, twice a year.

That said, the pregame atmosphere was entirely positive. We watched an eight-piece Mexican brass band. Henry had his picture taken beside Jeff Kahlow of Fond du Lac, aka “Frozen Tundra Man”, a superfan who has designed what might be the NFL’s most recognizable costume. We spied kicker Mason Crosby driving into the stadium. Eventually we filed into Lambeau, took the Hall of Fame tour, and then dutifully waited for the gates to open. Our seats were incredible. Section 105, 10 rows off the end-zone on the north side of the field. Close enough to the field to really hear the football hit the hands of a receiver. Close enough to hear the players talking as they warmed up.

When the Bears jumped out to an early first-half lead, I was privately concerned that perhaps Henry’s first game would also be an exercise in disappointment and frustration. But with 5:09 remining in the first half, Bears rookie quarterback Justin Fields threw a pass that was intercepted by Packers cornerback Rasul Douglas who returned the ball all the way for a touchdown, giving the Packers their first lead of the game. Of course, temporary pandemonium ensued, with neighboring fans giving us high-fives and everyone cheering and hollering, including my kind, sensitive, son, who turned to me, and screaming, bellowed, “We still own you! We still own you!”

A person could attend a hundred or even a thousand NFL games in person and never witness a game more entertaining than the one we watched. A game with an embarrassing amount of special-teams blunders, but also four Aaron Rodgers touchdowns, Davante Adams gobbling up over a hundred receiving yards, De’Vondre Campbell securing 16 tackles, and Preston Smith recording two sacks. The two teams scored a combined 75 points, 45 of which came in the second quarter alone.

By the time we returned home, it was two o’ clock in the morning and we had been fortunate to encounter only dry, sparsely trafficked roads between Green Bay and Eau Claire. But it did feel so good to stand in that old stadium, amidst tens of thousands of likeminded fans, cheering on our team. There are so few opportunities in our lives to release the pressure that builds in our everyday lives. Too few opportunities to scream, to jump up and down, to allow the frivolous to distract from the serious, to agree, if only for a matter of hours, to drop all politics aside and join together screaming, “Go, Pack, Go!”

Biden presses Putin to de-escalate Ukraine crisis

WILMINGTON, Del. — Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin spoke by phone on Thursday about the Russian troop buildup near Ukraine, a new round of leader-to-leader talks that come as the Kremlin has stepped up its calls for security guarantees and test fired hypersonic missiles to underscore its demands.

Putin requested the call, the second between the leaders this month, ahead of scheduled talks between senior U.S. and Russian officials set for Jan. 10 in Geneva.

Russia has made clear it wants a written commitment that Ukraine will never be allowed to join NATO and that the alliance’s military equipment will not be positioned in former Soviet states, demands that the Biden administration has made clear are non-starters.

Biden would reiterated that a diplomatic path remains open even as the Russians have moved an estimated 100,000 troops toward Ukraine and Kremlin officials have turned up the volume on its demands for new guarantees from the U.S. and NATO.

Those demands are to be discussed during the talks in Geneva, but it remains unclear what, if anything, Biden would be willing to offer Putin in exchange for defusing the crisis.

Draft security documents Moscow submitted demand that NATO deny membership to Ukraine and other former Soviet countries and roll back its military deployments in Central and Eastern Europe.

The U.S. and its allies have refused to offer Russia the kind of guarantees on Ukraine that Putin wants, citing NATO’s principle that membership is open to any qualifying country. They agreed, however, to hold talks with Russia to discuss its concerns.

The security proposal by Moscow has raised the question of whether Putin is making unrealistic demands in the expectation of a Western rejection that would give him a pretext to invade.

Steven Pifer, a career foreign service officer who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in the Clinton administration, said the Biden administration could engage on some elements of Russia’s draft document if Moscow is serious about talks.

Key NATO members have made clear there is no appetite for expanding the alliance in the near future. The U.S. and allies could also be receptive to language in the Russians’ draft document calling for establishing new consultative mechanisms, such as the NATO-Russia Council and a hotline between NATO and Russia.

“The draft treaty’s proposed bar on any NATO military activity in Ukraine, eastern Europe, the Caucasus, or Central Asia is an overreach, but some measures to limit military exercises and activities on a reciprocal basis might be possible,” Pifer, who is now a senior fellow at Brookings Institution, wrote in an analysis for the Washington think tank.

Biden will reiterate to Putin that for there to be “real progress” in the talks they must be conducted in “a context of de-escalation rather than escalation,” according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters before the call. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The call was set up on Putin’s initiative, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Thursday.

“The goal of the conversation is clear — to continue discussing the issues that were on the agenda during the recent conversation via video conference,” Peskov told reporters. That Dec. 7 call focused on the Russian troop movements, which have unsettled Ukraine and other European allies, as well as Moscow’s demand for security guarantees.

Peskov noted that since that call, Moscow submitted its security proposals to U.S. and European officials and now “from our point of view, from the point of view of President Putin, the need has arisen for another telephone conversation, which would preface the upcoming talks.”

Biden and Putin, who met in Geneva in June to discuss an array of tensions in the U.S.-Russia relationship, are not expected to take part in the January talks.

In the Dec. 7 video call, the White House said Biden put Moscow on notice that an invasion of Ukraine would bring sanctions and enormous harm to the Russian economy. Russian officials have dismissed the sanction threats.

Last week, Russia test-fired Zircon hypersonic missiles, a provocative move that Peskov said was meant to help make Russia’s push for security guarantees “more convincing.” The test was the first time Zircon missiles were launched in a salvo, indicating the completion of tests before the new missile enters service with the Russian navy next year and arms its cruisers, frigates and submarines.

Moscow and NATO representatives are expected to meet in the days after the Geneva talks, as are Russia and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which includes the United States.

Russia has denied an intention of launching an invasion and, in turn, accused Ukraine of hatching plans to try to reclaim control of the territories held by Moscow-backed rebels by force. Ukraine has rejected the claim.

At the same time, Putin has urged the West to move quickly to meet his demands, warning that Moscow will have to take “adequate military-technical measures” if the West continues its “aggressive” course “on the threshold of our home.”

As Biden prepared for the talks with Putin, the administration also sought to highlight the commitment to Ukraine and drive home that Washington is committed to the “principle of nothing about you without you” in shaping policy that affects European allies.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke on Wednesday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Blinken “reiterated the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s military buildup on Ukraine’s borders.”

In Thursday’s call, Biden is expected to stress to Putin that the U.S. is united with its allies but will demonstrate a willingness to engage in “principled diplomacy” with Russia, the administration official said.

But past military incursions by Putin loom large.

In 2014, Russian troops marched into the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea and seized the territory from Ukraine. Russia’s annexation of Crimea was one of the darker moments for President Barack Obama on the international stage.

The U.S.-Russia relationship was badly damaged near the end of President George W. Bush’s administration after Russia’s 2008 invasion of its neighbor Georgia after Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili ordered his troops into the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

The two leaders are also expected during Thursday’s call to discuss efforts to persuade Iran to return to the 2015 nuclear accord, which was effectively scrapped by the Trump administration.

Despite differences on Ukraine and other issues, White House officials have said the Iran nuclear issue is one where they believe the U.S. and Russia can work cooperatively.

Biden, who is spending the week in his home state of Delaware, is expected to speak to Putin from his home near Wilmington.

Ahead of the call, Putin sent a telegram to Biden with New Year’s and Christmas wishes, which was posted on the Kremlin site on Thursday, along with other holiday messages to world leaders.

“I am convinced that in the development of our agreements reached during the June summit in Geneva and subsequent contacts that we can move forward and establish an effective Russian-American dialogue based on mutual respect and in consideration of each other’s national interests,” Putin wrote.


Associated Press writers Dasha Litvinova and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.