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COVID cases surge in Eau Claire County Tuesday
  • Updated

EAU CLAIRE — At least 240 residents of Eau Claire County tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday, the third-highest daily case number the county has ever recorded.

The county has only seen higher case counts on two other days: 275 new cases on Nov. 16, 2020, and 345 new cases on Nov. 18, 2020.

“We do expect to see rapidly increasing case numbers with this new variant,” said Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, in an email.

“The current situation in the U.S. is that we have well-over one million cases of omicron a day,” said Dr. Gregory Poland, founder and director of Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group, in a call with reporters Tuesday. “...This is an exponential surge, as our others have been. What’s different about this is the relatively lower risk of hospitalization. Nonetheless, we still have over 100,000 hospitalizations in the U.S. (right now).”

The omicron variant is now the dominant strain in Wisconsin, according to data from the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene. Health experts say omicron – which Poland said is likely two-to-six times as transmissible as the previously-dominant delta variant – is responsible for the explosive growth of COVID-19 in the U.S. and in Wisconsin, though it may cause comparatively milder illness.

Eau Claire County’s surge in cases is not a perfect mirror of the drastic peak the county saw in November 2020. Then, cases began to rise in September, peaked dramatically in November, but fell rapidly in December. By mid-February 2021, the county was consistently sitting at 15 new cases per day, according to county COVID data.

In August 2021, daily cases in Eau Claire County began rising again. From September through December 2021 the county averaged around 50 new cases per day; now, in early January, its weekly average is nearing 100 new cases per day.

The country is also recording unprecedented case numbers. More than one million new COVID-19 cases were recorded in the U.S. on Monday alone, a new record, though case backlogs from the holiday weekend could be driving that number up.

Even though early studies indicate omicron might not make most people as sick as earlier variants, it still poses a significant risk to health care systems because it spreads so much faster than other variants, Poland said Tuesday.

“The number of people getting infected – we’re now talking well over one million a day – even though there’s a smaller percentage that may have more severe disease, that smaller percentage multiplied against millions means a massive surge in people seeking medical care or having complications from COVID,” Poland said. “The hair on the back of my neck almost stands up when I hear people say that omicron’s no delta, it’s mild. It is if you’ve been fully vaccinated, if you’re boosted. It might be if you’re not, but odds are you’re playing Russian roulette and you may not be that lucky.”

Eyeing hospitals’ numbers

Some experts say COVID-19 hospitalization numbers, instead of case counts, are a more accurate way to track the virus’ trajectory at this point in the pandemic. Around 62% of people in the U.S. are vaccinated, and early data suggest the vaccines blunt omicron’s impact on hospitalizations and deaths. People who test positive via at-home rapid tests also aren’t included in case numbers, which will skew official case counts.

Giese said she believes cases are underrepresented in the county’s official data.

“We know that there is a lot of COVID-19 in our community not only from the case numbers but also from the positivity rate, which has been above 10% since mid-September,” Giese said. “...And not all cases get tested and reported to us, so we suspect this is an underrepresentation of how many people do have COVID-19. With this new variant we are expecting that many people are positive. We encourage everyone to get tested that has symptoms.”

Though local health officials for months have cautioned that hospitalizations are a lagging indicator of the virus’ spread, hospitalizations in Eau Claire County have appeared to remain steady as of Tuesday. Nine county residents were hospitalized with COVID-19 in the last week, according to county data.

Despite no rise in local hospitalizations yet, the surge in cases means the health department’s contact tracers aren’t able to contact people who have been exposed to COVID-19.

“With the current high number of cases, the health department is attempting to contact all positive cases to assure they are isolating,” Giese said. “We are requesting that people notify their household and close contacts for quarantine needs. We are asking anyone that gets tested to understand what they need to do if positive. We are also sending letters to all positive cases with basic information.”

People who test positive via a rapid, at-home test should also follow up with a test from a community testing site or a health care provider, Giese said.

Though the summer brought only a few COVID-19 deaths in Eau Claire County, that number began rising steadily again in the fall. As of Tuesday, 150 county residents have died of COVID-19; 34 of those deaths have happened since Sept. 1, according to county data. The state crossed the threshold of 10,000 deaths from COVID-19 on Dec. 22.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Recycling season

Randy Rieder of Eau Claire drops his holiday tree off Tuesday at the city of Eau Claire’s brush site at 5710 Jeffers Road. The site is accepting trees from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily through Jan. 31. Decorations, stands and artificial trees are not accepted, as the trees will be recycled into mulch for use around new trees and in gardens this spring. In Altoona, trees and wreaths, which also must be free of decorations, are being collected from 12:30 to 3 p.m. today in the 800 block of Garfield Avenue. Proof of Altoona residency is required.

Police: Woman threatened, sexually assaulted in Oakwood Mall bathroom
  • Updated

EAU CLAIRE — A woman was sexually assaulted at an Oakwood Mall bathroom after being blackmailed by an Eau Claire man, police say.

The man had threatened to make public nude photos the woman had previously sent to him, authorities said.

David J. Allen, 31, 132 Hudson St., was charged Tuesday in Eau Claire County Court with felony counts of first-degree sexual assault, false imprisonment and threatening to communicate derogatory information, and misdemeanor counts of battery and disorderly conduct.

A $10,000 cash bail was set for Allen, which prohibits him from having contact with the woman or Oakwood Mall. Allen also cannot have a presence on social media or use the internet except for school, employment or legal defense purposes.

Allen returns to court on Feb. 15.

According to the criminal complaint:

Eau Claire police officers were sent to Oakwood Mall on Tuesday, Dec. 28, for a reported sexual assault that had occurred in a restroom.

A woman told officers she was a broke 18-year-old college student in March 2020 when a man added her on Facebook. The woman said she did not know the man, but that they had some mutual friends.

A few days later, the man messaged the woman, asking if she wanted money. The man said he would pay her $1,000 if she sent him three to five topless photos of herself.

The woman said she declined the offer, but later reconsidered because she “really needed the money.”

A few weeks later, the man thanked the woman for the photos and demanded more. She refused. The man then said he would release the photos to her family, friends, work and school if she did not send more.

The woman then sent the man more photos. And this scenario continued for the next 18 months. The man’s continued demands included how many photos to send, what poses she had to be in, and what parts of her body that had to be exposed.

In December, the man offered the woman $40,000 if he could see her naked in person. He said he would then delete all the photos he had of her.

The woman said she didn’t really want to meet the man. But she wanted the photos deleted and this had been going on for more than 18 months.

The woman said she and the man agreed to meet near the family bathrooms at Oakwood Mall.

The woman met the man near the food court on Dec. 28. The woman said she made the man promise to only look at her and not touch her.

The woman, who was holding pepper spray, let the man into the bathroom. She threatened to spray him if he touched her.

The woman removed her shirt and bra. The woman then removed her pants and underwear after the man demanded her to do so.

The man told her to put the pepper spray down because it was making him nervous. The man took off his coat, which revealed a black holstered handgun. The woman said she put the pepper spray down because she was afraid of the gun.

The man rapidly advanced toward the woman and pinned her body against the bathroom wall. He then sexually assaulted her. The woman said she complied out of fear.

The man fled out the bathroom door following the sexual assault.

Following an investigation, police determined Allen matched the photo provided by the woman.

Police arrested Allen on Thursday. Allen made several unsolicited statements including, “Whatever was said makes me seem like a big scary thing,” “I don’t feel like I have done like anything horribly mean and abusive to somebody,” “I don’t feel like I have done anything scary,” and “It feels like something got blown way out and it needs to be addressed and sorted out.”

If convicted of the felony charges, Allen could be sentenced to up to 44 years in prison.

Financial incentives among GOP-sponsored law enforcement bills
  • Updated

EAU CLAIRE — Financial incentives are among a bill package from state Republican legislators intended to improve training, recruitment and retention of law enforcement officers.

The proposals include hiring bonuses, increasing state reimbursement for annual officer training and reinstating a law enforcement training program for nontraditional students. The bill package also would not allow a county or municipality to ban no-knock search warrants.

About $25 million in federal COVID-19 pandemic relief would be used to fund the initiatives.

Standing by regional sheriffs and police chiefs, several western Wisconsin Republican lawmakers announced the bill proposals during a press conference Tuesday in Eau Claire.

One aspect of the bill package would create $5,000 signing bonuses for new officers and $2,000 retention bonuses for officers who stay on the job for at least a year. Local departments would have to pay half of the retention bonus, and the state would cover the rest. Officers who relocate to Wisconsin from out of state and stay on the job for at least three years would be eligible for annual bonuses capped at $10,000.

Rep. Warren Petryk, R-town of Washington, mentioned a recent failed proposal that would have disbanded the Minneapolis Police Department and replaced it with a public safety department. He said the proposed bonuses could entice Minnesota officers to accept jobs in Wisconsin.

“Our message here on this side of the river to all law enforcement officers is, ‘If you’re not welcome there, Wisconsin will welcome you,’ ” Petryk said.

Rep. Treig Pronschinske, R-Mondovi, agreed, saying officers are crucial aspects of communities.

“Law enforcement agencies are the stitches that hold the fabric together,” Pronschinske said. “We are stretching at the seams right now. We need to get more people into law enforcement. We need to reward the ones who are already in law enforcement.”

Recruitment and retention of law enforcement officers was a challenge mentioned several times during the press conference.

Rep. Jesse James, R-Altoona, said a negative stigma around law enforcement has caused some of the recruitment and retention challenges.

He added that the proposal barring local governments and agencies from banning no-knock warrants would likely make officers feel safer on the job.

“It’s scary out there being a cop today, I’m not gonna lie,” said James, former Altoona police chief.

James said he has not heard much opposition to the bills and hopes they will soon arrive on Gov. Tony Evers’ desk. However, several Democratic lawmakers expressed issues with the proposals.

Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, and Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, released statements Tuesday noting that the proposed law enforcement funding package is far less than the money for local communities included in Evers’ 2019-21 and 2021-23 budget proposals that state Republicans did not approve.

“This package is a slap in the face to the municipalities that have been working hard to keep their communities safe while Republicans slashed funding,” Emerson wrote.

Sen. Jeff Smith, D-town of Brunswick, released a statement saying the bill package is the “wrong approach” to address law enforcement challenges.

“If Republicans were serious about supporting Wisconsin’s law enforcement, they’d spend our surplus instead of playing politics with COVID relief funding, which we very much need as COVID-19 is spreading dangerously in our communities,” Smith wrote.

Eau Claire County Sheriff Ron Cramer said the pandemic has worsened recruitment and retention issues, which had already presented difficulties for about a decade. Cramer said a recent job opening in his department received fewer than 10 applicants, while in the 1980s that job would have received more than 100 applications.

Cramer also hopes the bills can incentivize people in different careers to become law enforcement officers.

“We’ve got to find a way to make this (profession) look tantalizing to them,” Cramer said.