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COVID-19 hospitalizations soaring in Chippewa Valley
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EAU CLAIRE — As a result of the recent surge of COVID-19 hospitalizations, Mayo Clinic Health System announced Tuesday that all of its beds are full in northwest Wisconsin.

That means that as of Tuesday afternoon, the regional health system had no intensive care or medical surgical beds available at its hospitals in Eau Claire, Menomonie, Barron, Bloomer and Osseo.

“The public urgently needs to treat COVID-19 as the health emergency it is to prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed. We are pleading for everyone’s help to wear a mask and follow all public health guidelines to limit the spread of this disease. ... This is a critically important message our community desperately needs to hear,” according to a joint statement by Regional Vice President Dr. Richard Helmers, Regional Chair of Administration Jason Craig and Chief Nursing Officer Pam White.

With all 36 medical-surgical beds at Marshfield Medical Center-Eau Claire also full as of Tuesday afternoon — 14 of them occupied by COVID-19 patients — Chief Administrative Officer Bill Priest said there should be no doubt the national health crisis “is in our own backyard right now.”

To accommodate patients needing care, Marshfield Clinic Health System is prepared to transfer some patients to its other facilities that have more breathing room.

“Patients are admitted and discharged every day, so it’s a dynamic situation,” Priest said. “While we certainly need to treat the COVID patients, we also have other medical patients we need to treat, so that’s our balancing act right now.”

Dr. Bill Melms, chief medical officer for Marshfield Clinic Health System, characterized the situation as severe and said system officials are very concerned about how the pandemic might progress. He noted that the Marshfield system had a total of nine COVID-19 inpatients two months ago when Wisconsin was averaging about 700 positive tests a day.

On Tuesday afternoon, Marshfield’s nine hospitals had 137 COVID-19 inpatients, and the state Department of Health Services reported a record 7,075 new coronavirus cases. More than 2,000 COVID-19 patients are hospitalized statewide, the agency indicated.

“We’re holding our own right now, but the problem is that the trajectory we’re on is unsustainable,” Melms said. “We will not see the light at the end of the tunnel until we see the number of positive cases drop.”

The best way to alter the dire prognosis, Priest added, is for the public to heed the calls by public health officials to wear masks, avoid gatherings, stay home as much as possible and practice social distancing and good hand hygiene.

Officials from HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire and HSHS St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chippewa Falls issued a statement Tuesday saying they were experiencing an increase in COVID-19-related hospitalizations consistent with other regional health care systems.

“Our hospitals are near capacity,” the statement said. “However, in anticipation of continued increases in COVID-19 cases, it is important the community is aware plans are in place at each hospital to ensure the needs of all our patients continue to be met through this pandemic.”

HSHS officials echoed the calls for the public to heed the guidance of public health agencies, saying such practices can make a big difference in the health of local communities.

“Now is not the time for any of us to become complacent,” the HSHS statement said.

Mayo Clinic Health System reported that 83 COVID-positive patients were hospitalized in its northwest Wisconsin facilities as of Tuesday afternoon, up from 73 at midnight.

“This is how rapidly we are seeing these cases increase,” Dr. Amy Williams, executive dean of the Mayo Clinic Practice in Rochester, Minnesota, said Tuesday in a briefing with reporters.

Wisconsin has been hit the hardest among the Upper Midwest states served by Mayo, Williams said, pointing to the state’s recent positive test rate rising exponentially in the past few weeks and now exceeding 30%.

“It used to be we’d get nervous if we had a 5% positivity rate,” she said, calling Wisconsin’s latest level “absolutely amazing.”

COVID-19 patients occupy about 50% of the the ICU capacity and 40% of the medical surgical beds at Mayo’s northwest Wisconsin hospitals.

The strain on resources is exacerbated by the reality that COVID-19 patients routinely have hospital stays two to three times longer than non-COVID patients, according to the Mayo statement.

Still, just because hospital beds are full doesn’t mean patients should avoid seeking emergency care when needed, Helmers said.

“Our bed situation is fluid,” Helmers said. “Our Emergency Department is open, and we treat the emergent needs and consider transfer to Rochester or another facility if we do not have an available bed.”

While the Mayo system is temporarily deferring elective procedures to free up beds for COVID-19 patients, the area facilities continue to care for patients needing trauma, emergency and urgent care.

“We need your help and we need it now,” Mayo system officials said in the statement.

COVID-19 testing operations at the Mayo system’s regional operations are generating greater than 1,000 positive tests per week.

The high community spread rate of the coronavirus also affects staff at regional medical facilities, as some have tested positive, some are caring for someone who has tested positive and some are isolating because of a possible exposure.

“It’s a team sport,” Priest said. “The more it affects the community, the more if affects our staff because they’re part of the community.”

Mayo Clinic Health System reported Tuesday that it had about 300 staff members on work restrictions due to COVID-19 exposures. Melms said hundreds of employees are affected at Marshfield Clinic Health System as well.

“The most critical worry we have right now as far as our ability to care for patients is staffing,” Williams said, noting that Mayo Clinic is moving staff around as needed.

Hospitals can create new ICU beds, Melms said, but they can’t create the ICU nurses capable of staffing those spaces.

The Marshfield system had some nurses volunteer to work in New York last spring when cases there were at a crisis point, but it isn’t able to receive the same treatment now because cases are surging across the country, Melms said.

In a Tuesday evening speech, Gov. Tony Evers reiterated the calls for Wisconsinites to take the recommended actions to slow the spread of the virus, saying that the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates 2,500 more people could die from COVID-19 in Wisconsin by Jan. 1 if no further actions are taken. State Department of Health Services statistics show that the virus has killed 2,395 people so far this year, including 35 in Eau Claire County and 31 in Chippewa County.

Melms said health officials know there is less than perfect compliance when residents with an exposure are ordered to quarantine or asked to wear masks.

“It’s heartbreaking,” he said. “It’s become a political issue, and unfortunately public health should not be a political issue.”

Veterans Day salute continues at care facility despite pandemic
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CHIPPEWA FALLS — A Chippewa Valley Veterans Day tradition continues despite a worldwide pandemic.

Chippewa Manor, a Chippewa Falls nursing/assisted living facility, held their annual Veterans Day event Tuesday morning. The outdoor event featured a salute from area veterans, a free breakfast for the veterans in attendance, a four plane flyover and speeches from local veterans and Chippewa Manor staff. Due to COVID-19, the event was livestreamed for residents to enjoy and social distancing was maintained throughout the duration of the outdoor event.

Jill Gengler, president of Chippewa Manor Corp. said it was important to hold the event despite coronavirus spreading rapidly throughout the country because veterans deserved to be recognized and appreciated regardless of any given situation.

“It’s been a longstanding tradition at Chippewa Manor to honor the vets in the community and those who live with us,” Gengler said.

“We didn’t want COVID-19 to stand in the way of that, so we came up with a new and creative way to carry on. The dedication of our new flag pole and plaque is a strong way of showing that we are committed to showing our support for veterans in our area.”

In addition to the traditional Chippewa Manor Veterans Day celebration activities, a new flag pole and plaque were dedicated on the Chippewa Manor grounds saluting the veterans who have lived and worked at the facility. The 100 plus pound aluminum pole will display the American flag 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year.

David Oelkers, commander of American Legion Post 77, said being able to be a part of the annual celebration every year is an opportunity he never passes up, as it means the world to him and his fellow veterans.

“This event means a lot to us,” Oelkers said. “Chippewa Manor always does such a great job of putting an event together every year and recognizing all of the veterans in our area. I know all of the veterans who were here today certainly appreciate being recognized.”

Also on display during the event Tuesday was the 6-foot post-it Veterans Day thank you card. Over 2,000 messages from area schools and community centers adorn the massive card. In addition to being on display Tuesday at Chippewa Manor, the card will be viewable at Mason Shoe Co., American Legion Post 1038 and the Chippewa Falls Public Library over the course of the next week.

Chippewa Manor currently has 18 residents who served in the United States Armed Forces and three staff members who are veterans as well. Gengler said Tuesday’s Veterans Day event meant a lot to them as COVID-19 has already claimed the majority of events/gatherings in 2020, so getting at least one was a win their book.

“So much of our residents’ lives have been disrupted by COVID-19,” Gengler said. “Things have been canceled or postponed time and time again, so the fact we were able to hold this event for them today meant a lot to them.”

Eau Claire lowers backyard chicken, honeybee licenses
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EAU CLAIRE — Beekeepers and backyard chicken enthusiasts in Eau Claire will pay less for their licenses next year through last-minute amendments made to the city’s 2021 fee schedule.

Councilman Andrew Werthmann spearheaded efforts to lower the costs of those licenses during Tuesday afternoon’s Eau Claire City Council meeting, seeking to make it more affordable for residents to produce their own honey and eggs.

“We’ve heard numerous times that cost is a burden for people,” he said.

The annual $90 chickenkeeping license will go down to $60 next year. The license for keeping honeybees had cost $75 annually, but it will decrease to $45.

Supporters of the fee decreases said they could help more people take up the activities, which have so far only seen a handful of residents apply for either license.

“It hasn’t met my expectations in the number of applicants,” Councilman Jeremy Gragert said, who did vote in favor of the fee reductions.

There were opponents, though, to reducing the cost of the licenses on Tuesday evening. Those council members wanted a broader debate on the pricing of license fees at a future meeting, as opposed to reducing a couple of them via an amendment.

“In this case I think we’re reacting without the discussion we’d hoped to have,” Council President Terry Weld said.

The fees were first established to pay for city staff time spent on license applications. By lowering them, city finance director Jay Winzenz said the city would not fully recover its costs for granting the licenses. But with the low numbers of people who have applied for the licenses in prior years, Winzenz said lowering the prices would have a “nominal” impact on the city’s budget.

Weld was in the dissenting minority in the 7-4 vote that lowered the chicken licenses and 8-3 vote on the cheaper beekeeping fees.

The swing vote between the two animal licenses was Councilman David Klinkhammer. He agreed with Weld that a broader discussion on city licenses should be held, but Klinkhammer admitted his votes on Tuesday were influenced by which of the animals he prefers.

“I like bees,” Klinkhammer said. “I’m not as infatuated with chickens.”

Lower bus fare

Low-income residents who use Eau Claire Transit can get a 50% discount next year on their bus fares.

The council voted 11-0 Tuesday afternoon to offer the lower rates for people who fill out a form that verifies they earn an income level low enough to qualify them for Badger Care and other public assistance programs.

“I really see the value, the impact this is going to make for families in our city,” Councilwoman Catherine Emmanuelle said.

The city has offered a smaller reduction in bus fares for income-eligible riders since mid-2018, which cuts the regular bus fare of $1.75 down by 25 cents.

Based on usage of that smaller discount to date, the city anticipates the new, larger price cut will reduce bus revenues by $4,100 annually.

Councilman Jeremy Gragert, who led the amendment to reduce the bus fares, said the city will be easily able to afford that between lower diesel costs and the more fuel-efficient buses it has been running.

“There’s plenty of wiggle room in our budget for diesel, and we’re adding more hybrid buses to our fleet,” he said.

For income-qualifying riders, the cash fare will decrease to 85 cents next year. Their monthly passes will be $25 — half of the regular $50 price.

Offering his support, Weld commended Gragert’s long-running efforts to make public transit more affordable to residents.

“It’s been a pleasure and a privilege to watch your passion for that,” Weld said.

Budget approval

A series of unanimous votes approved Eau Claire’s 2021 city budget, which calls for $133.7 million in spending on operations plus nearly $41 million for capital projects.

Property taxes will pay a portion of the city’s budget — $42.97 million in 2021, up from $42.24 million this year.

The average Eau Claire home valued at $174,000 will see its portion of the tax bill for city services increase by $8.25 next year. Other portions of property tax bills pay for public schools, county government and Chippewa Valley Technical College.

Homeowners also will pay more on their utility bills next year. A sewer rate increase approved Tuesday by the council is expected to add $4.80 to quarterly bills for the average Eau Claire home.

Other business

Also during Tuesday’s meeting:

• Officials provided an update on Eau Claire County’s COVID-19 cases, which have risen to 5,223 people who have tested positive for coronavirus, including 35 who have died.

Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, noted that the positive cases have increased rapidly since early October.

“About half of our total cases have occurred in the last four weeks,” she said.

• The council voted 7-4 to change its zoning ordinances to allow light commercial uses in buildings zoned for commercial businesses. Industrial businesses will still need to seek a conditional use permit from the city Plan Commission before moving into a building originally intended as a retail store.