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Rock County health officials say increased COVID-19 vaccine eligibility will help, not harm

Expanded eligibility for COVID-19 vaccines, announced Tuesday by the governor, will help efforts to get people vaccinated and stop the spread of coronavirus, local health officials say.

Gov. Tony Evers announced Tuesday that all Wisconsinites 16 and older will be eligible to receive vaccine beginning Monday.

State health officials had planned to open up vaccinations to the general public May 1, but case rates have been rising over the past two weeks, mirroring a national rise in infections.

The expanded eligibility will help get people vaccinated by eliminating questions or concerns about whether or not they are eligible, said Jessica Turner, Rock County public health communications specialist.

“I think that our providers are going to be very excited with this announcement that everyone will be eligible,” Turner said.

The change will remove more challenges than it creates, Turner said, but there will still be wait times for some people to get vaccine appointments.

Some providers might continue to prioritize certain vulnerable or highly exposed populations, she said.

Eric Thornton, president of SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital-Janesville, said people should be patient when looking for vaccine appointments.

Current appointment schedules were built to accommodate previous eligibility criteria, so finding an appointment could take time, he said.

Department of Health Services Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk made no mention of the recent statewide uptick in COVID-19 cases or the looming court decision on Evers’ mask mandate when asked during a news conference why the state decided to accelerate vaccinations for the general public.

She said the department is confident in the Biden administration’s long-range estimates of vaccine supply for the state. She said 75% of those older than age 65 have received at least one dose, and more than 1 million people have completed their vaccinations.

In Rock County, 43,941 people—26.9% of the population—have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, according to state data. That includes about 75% of the county’s senior population.

Van Dijk acknowledged later in the news conference that Wisconsin is seeing warning signs of a surge, noting the seven-day case average stood at 501 on Tuesday, up from 363 on March 11.

Rock County is no exception. Active and confirmed cases of the disease increased from 126 on March 19 to 211 on Tuesday, according to the health department.

Eight people were hospitalized for COVID-19 in Rock County as of Tuesday afternoon, double the number of people hospitalized on March 19, according to the data.

The county reported one new COVID-19 death Tuesday, bringing the total to 164.

Meanwhile disparities in vaccine access continue for people of different races and ethnic groups.

In Rock County, 15.2% of Asian people, 9% of Black people and 7.5% of Hispanic people have received at least one dose of vaccine.

In comparison, 25% of the white Rock County population has been vaccinated, according to state data.

The state reports 8.2% of Rock County vaccine recipients are of unknown race and 3.1% are considered “other race,” according to state data.

Opening up eligibility will reduce barriers for those working to ensure equitable access to vaccine, Turner said.

Also Tuesday, state health officials announced seven more pharmacy chains will receive vaccine this week as part of the federal retail pharmacy program. They are Costco; CVS; Hy-Vee; Good Neighbor and AmerisourceBergen Drug Corp.; Health Mart; Medicine Shoppe and Cardinal Health; and Topco.

The Community Pharmacy Enhanced Services Network, which includes some Hometown Pharmacies, and Walmart will receive additional doses, allowing them to offer vaccinations at more locations.

Vaccines have been approved for emergency use by the federal Food and Drug Administration for adults 18 and older. The vaccine created by Pfizer is the only one approved for teenagers age 16 and 17.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

A familiar ring: Nativity of Mary Church in Janesville refurbishes its long-silent bells


Todd Hultzman and Kraig Rapp worked in the bell tower of Janesville’s Nativity of Mary Church on Tuesday, preparing three massive bells to make sounds they have not performed for years.

They worked in cramped quarters, sharing the small space as wind rushed through louvered openings about 100 feet above the street.

They were working under deadline. The Rev. Dan Ganshert plans to start a traditional daily series of peals as early as today.

The bell technicians went to work by climbing six flights of narrow wooden stairs, likely original to the 118-year-old church building, which is commonly referred to as St. Mary’s.

The bells, tarnished over time, hang about halfway up the 200-plus-foot tower. A shiny, gold-colored metal ball hangs in the middle of the largest bell, the 2,000-pounder named St. Cecilia.

“That’s a brand-new clapper in there, with new springs,” Hultzman said. “All three bells have new swinger assemblies, and we put new bearings on the little bell, which is way up there (overhead). And now we’re putting a striker on the big bell here.”

The “little” bell is the 600-pound St. Joseph. The third bell weighs 1,000 pounds and is called St. Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney.

The workers also replaced the motors that swing the bells, along with associated hardware, all likely original equipment about 74 years old.

Clappers develop flat spots over time, so the new clappers should produce clearer tones, Hultzman said.

The three bells can produce a variety of sounds. The clappers hang inside the bells, producing tones when the bells swing. The striker hits the bell when it’s not swinging, producing a funereal tone, among other uses, Hultzman said.

The three bells rang solemnly for funerals or joyously for Easter for decades, but the mechanisms started failing over time, limiting the bells’ use before they fell silent, Ganshert said.

The bells were first installed in June 1947 after congregants raised $8,000, the equivalent in today’s dollars of $94,000.

The bells worked when Ganshert served at St. Mary’s in 1979-82. He was recently appointed pastor here, and when he asked about the bells, he was told substantial repairs were needed.

Parish members Carol and Thomas Berner included St. Mary’s in their will but Thomas died last year, and Carol was looking for a way to donate sooner rather than later. She asked Ganshert.

“He told me about the bells, and I said, ‘Count me in,’” Berner said.

The Berner family has a special connection to the project. Thomas and his father, Louis, both graduated from the church school, and Louis loved to recount that when he was an eighth-grader, he locked eighth-grade girls in the tower, Carol said.

There was talk of the monsignor grabbing Louis by the ear afterward.

Names and dates written on the brick walls show that students still find their way into the tower. The donation is in the names of Thomas, Louis and Louis’ wife, Josephine.

Berner paid $35,000 for the repairs.

“I just thought it would be a perfect tribute to a very devout, longtime family of the church,” Berner said.

The Verdin Co. of Cincinnati installed the bells nearly 74 years ago, Ganshert said. The same company sent Hultzman and Rapp to complete the repairs and updates this week.

Janesville’s Westphal & Co. replaced the old electrical cables and controls.

“People miss them,” Ganshert said of the bells, which he plans to program so they will peal for the daily Angelus, a call to prayer traditionally done at 6 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. He plans to shift the morning chimes to 8 a.m. so as not to disturb the neighbors.

Ganshert hoped to restart the Angelus today. The bells will also ring Saturday evening, signaling the eve of the holiest of days on the Christian calendar.

Madison Diocese Bishop Donald Hying is scheduled to rededicate the bells at 3 p.m. Mass on Sunday, April 11.

Berner said she lives too far away to hear the bells, but she grew up in a different state, where she heard them all the time, living three blocks from her church.

“There’s something comforting about that, to know, no matter where I am, if I hear church bells, that’ll bring my family home to me. It doesn’t have to be these bells,” she said.

Janesville Craig’s Bryan Bloomquist and Parker’s Aidah Schuh compete during a triangular cross country meet at Rockport Park in Janesville on Tuesday, March 30.

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Milton City Council weighs options for fire coverage, emergency medical services

The Milton City Council voted Tuesday to pursue two options for fire and emergency medical services: complete consolidation with the Janesville Fire Department or a standalone department that would not include Janesville or the town of Milton.

Currently, the town and city of Milton have 50-50 ownership of the Milton Fire Department.

The city council initially considered three options for services but decided not to consider a previously presented option that factors in contributions from other municipalities.

“It’s not that we’re not interested in what the towns do or what Janesville does, but at the end of the day, the decision is the city of Milton’s and the city of Milton’s alone to make,” Milton City Administrator Al Hulick said.

Ultimately, city voters will make the decision because the options presented Tuesday night will require the city to conduct a referendum.

“Janesville has told us that at the end of this year, they are done with the shared services agreement,” Hulick said. “Something has to change. We cannot stay the same.”

Robust conversations need to take place, he said.

“We need to continue to move forward,” Hulick said. “I believe it is our council’s opinion that we should chase solutions, not dollars.”

In March, officials from the town of Milton expressed interest in negotiating with Janesville to completely consolidate the two departments, as it had in December, but said it also is seeking to negotiate with other departments, possibly Edgerton.

The Milton City Council at a meeting earlier this month said it would negotiate unilaterally with Janesville.

“We cannot as the city of Milton negotiate on behalf of other entities,” Hulick said.

If the town of Milton decided to break with the city on fire and EMS coverage, Hulick said the city would have to find its own solution for protection.

If other departments are interested, Hulick said they could negotiate with Janesville, as well, and that the city of Milton would welcome that.

At the March Joint Fire Commission meeting last week, the town commission members wanted to go into closed session to discuss union negotiations and changes to the intergovernmental agreement. City representatives did not.

“There was a lot of uncertainty about where things were going—discussion of a union negotiation for a department that may not exist in six months, changes to the intergovernmental agreement that we weren’t even aware of,” Hulick said.

City council members expressed concern that the consolidation model would mean no ambulance in Milton and instead a fire truck with advanced lifesaving equipment.

Council member Bill Wilson suggested there might be an option to include an ambulance.

“The city really does have to act somewhat independently,” Wilson said. “We can’t go to referendum on the basis of hoping (other municipalities) will participate.”

Obituaries and death notices for March 31, 2021

Robert B. Daniels

Richard Allan “Dick” Elliott

Christine M. Hanson

Clark A. Hofer

Machaele E. (Hatlevig) Lloyd

Carla Jean Lyons

Rita J. Soetaert

Clarence D. “Butch” Wendtland

Stanley L. Wygans Jr.