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Rock County COVID-19 hospitalizations more than double in one week

Rock County health officials worry a coronavirus variant strain might be driving a jump in local COVID-19 hospitalizations.

The county’s COVID-19 hospitalizations more than doubled in one week—from seven on April 5 to 17 on Monday, according to data from the Rock County Public Health Department.

The last time the county saw hospitalization numbers that high was Feb. 10, as hospitalizations were declining after fall and winter surges.

Epidemiologist Nick Zupan said Monday he fears the B.1.1.7 variant coronavirus strain, which was detected in Rock County in recent weeks, might be driving hospitalizations up.

The variant spreads more easily than the traditional virus that causes COVID-19. It also can contribute to more severe illness, Zupan said.

It is difficult to know how much variant strain is circulating through the community because not all coronavirus test samples are sent to the state lab for genetic sequencing, he said.

Most recent COVID-19 hospitalizations have involved people between the ages of 50 and 65 who have not yet been vaccinated for COVID-19, Zupan said.

Anybody can become seriously ill from the coronavirus. Zupan urged people to continue taking precautions, such as wearing masks and social distancing, and to get vaccinated as soon as they can.

An increase in hospitalizations typically occurs three to four weeks after case numbers begin rising, Zupan said.

Active and confirmed cases of COVID-19 began increasing steadily in late March. On March 19, the county reported 126 active and confirmed cases—174 fewer than the 300 active and confirmed cases reported Monday.

An increase in deaths could follow in the weeks to come, Zupan said.

Many people considered especially vulnerable to COVID-19 because of age or medical condition have been vaccinated, he said. That could mean fewer hospitalized people will die, but Zupan said it is too soon to predict.

The health department does not anticipate tightening capacity recommendations for businesses and gatherings anytime soon, despite the increases in case activity and hospitalizations, Zupan said.

He said health officials want to keep businesses open as much as possible and strike a balance between disease prevention and economic health.

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Volunteers return to SSM Health, bringing sense of normalcy to Janesville hospital


Betty Johns and Annie Kessler can be found Thursday afternoons in the gift shop at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital-Janesville, where they argue about rival baseball teams or pore over cooking magazines when they’re not helping customers.

The pair chat like lifelong friends, but they met just a couple of years ago while volunteering at the hospital.

Their responsibilities include the gift shop and baking cookies in the lobby during the highly anticipated monthly cookie days.

Their post at the gift shop involves more than just sales. They’re there to provide a listening ear or word of advice for people who are visiting loved ones on some of their best—or worst—days.

“(We) solve a lot of the world’s problems,” Johns said.

Johns, Kessler and dozens of other volunteers have been absent since last year, when the hospital temporarily halted its volunteer program because of the coronavirus pandemic.

If the hospital was a cake, volunteers would be the icing on top, said Dona Hohensee, director of the St. Mary’s Hospital Foundation.

Over the last couple of weeks, St. Mary’s started layering on its icing again by bringing back some of its volunteers, including Johns and Kessler.

The absence of volunteers meant staff had to do tasks such as folding linens, assembling information packets and holding babies in the birthing center, Hohensee said.

Departments had to prioritize tasks. Some areas that are run almost solely by volunteers, such as the gift shop, didn’t open at all for about a year.

Patient-facing volunteers have not yet returned. But most others have, giving the hospital needed support and giving volunteers a reason to get out of the house, Hohensee said.

As each volunteer returns, a bit more normalcy is restored, she said.

Pam Droster began volunteering at the hospital two years ago, shortly after she retired from the human resources department.

Droster volunteers in the gift shop. Hohensee describes her as a behind-the-scenes organizer who is key to making the shop run smoothly.

Being away from the hospital for a year got Droster out of her routine, which got boring. But she said she still found ways to help others from home, gathering food and other goods for local food drives as often as possible.

Droster volunteers, in part, to set a good example for her two grandchildren, who sometimes accompany her on trips to buy goods for charity drives.

The hospital provides a range of opportunities for volunteers, which can be appealing to those who might be volunteering for the first time, Hohensee said.

For Bob Miller, the hospital was a familiar environment after he retired from the Milwaukee VA Medical Center, where he worked in administration.

Miller enters inventory for the gift shop. He said he started volunteering three years ago as a way to get to know Janesville after he moved here.

Returning to the hospital felt good, he said, because he could get out of the house and talk to people again.

The pandemic and subsequent hiatus for volunteers gave the hospital time to reevaluate its volunteer positions and opportunities, Hohensee said.

She wants to see more volunteers working in nursing departments, and she hopes to bring back the eleventh-hour program, which recruits volunteers who ensure nobody dies alone in the hospital.

A year of isolation seems to have inspired people, and Hohensee said she is already seeing increased interest in volunteer positions. She is working with Blackhawk Technical College to get more students involved.

“It’s great to be back,” Johns said. “We love it.”

Obituaries and death notices for April 13, 2021

Jamie A. Lippens

Robert James Nordeng

Sue Ann Rinden

Keith W. Swartwout

Whitney Lynn Ward-McClary

Police: Minnesota officer meant to draw Taser, not handgun


The police officer who fatally shot a Black man during a traffic stop in a Minneapolis suburb apparently intended to fire a Taser, not a handgun, as the man struggled with police, the city’s police chief said Monday, as police clashed with protesters for the second night in a row.

Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon described the shooting death Sunday of 20-year-old Daunte Wright as “an accidental discharge.” It happened as police were trying to arrest Wright on an outstanding warrant. The shooting sparked protests and unrest in a metropolitan area already on edge because of the trial of the first of four police officers charged in George Floyd’s death.

“I’ll Tase you! I’ll Tase you! Taser! Taser! Taser!” the officer is heard shouting on her body cam footage released at a news conference. She draws her weapon after the man breaks free from police outside his car and gets back behind the wheel.

After firing a single shot from her handgun, the car speeds away, and the officer is heard saying, “Holy (expletive)! I shot him.”

Crowds began gathering outside the Brooklyn Center police station late Monday afternoon, with hundreds there by nightfall despite the governor’s dusk-to-dawn curfew. A drum beat incessantly, and the crowd broke into frequent chants of “Daunte Wright!” Some shouted obscenities at officers.

About 90 minutes after the curfew deadline, police began firing gas canisters and flash-bang grenades, sending clouds wafting over the crowd and chasing some away. Some protesters picked up smoke canisters and threw them back toward police. Others shot fireworks toward police lines. A long line of police in riot gear, rhythmically pushing their clubs in front of them, began slowly forcing back the remaining crowds.

“Move back!” the police chanted. “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” the crowd chanted back.

Law enforcement agencies had stepped up their presence across the Minneapolis area after the Sunday night violence. The number of Minnesota National Guard troops was expected to more than double to over 1,000 by Monday night.

Brooklyn Center Mayor Mike Elliott called the shooting “deeply tragic” and said the officer should be fired.

“We cannot afford to make mistakes that lead to the loss of life of other people,” he said. “We’re going to do everything we can to ensure that justice is done and our communities are made whole.”

Elliott later announced that the city council had voted to give his office “command authority” over the police department.

This “will streamline things and establish a chain of command and leadership,” he wrote on Twitter. He also said the city manager had been fired, and that the deputy city manager would take over his duties.

The reason behind the firing was not immediately clear, but the city manager controls the police department, according to the city’s charter. Now-former City Manager Curt Boganey, speaking earlier to reporters, said the officer who shot Wright would get “due process” after the shooting.

“All employees working for the city of Brooklyn Center are entitled to due process with respect to discipline,” he said.

Brooklyn Center is a modest suburb just north of Minneapolis that has seen its demographics shift dramatically in recent years. In 2000, more than 70% of the city was white. Today, a majority of residents are Black, Asian or Latino.

Elliott, the city’s first Black mayor, immigrated from Liberia as a child.

Organizers from the Movement for Black Lives, a national coalition of more than 150 Black-led political and advocacy groups, pointed to Wright’s killing as yet another reason why cities must take up proposals for defunding an “irreparably broken, racist system.”

“The fact that police killed him just miles from where they murdered George Floyd last year is a slap in the face to an entire community,” said Karissa Lewis, the coalition’s national field director.

The body camera footage showed three officers around a stopped car, which authorities said was pulled over because it had expired registration tags. When another officer attempts to handcuff Wright, a second officer tells him he’s being arrested on a warrant. That’s when the struggle begins, followed by the shooting. Then the car travels several blocks before striking another vehicle.

It “is my belief that the officer had the intention to deploy their Taser but instead shot Mr. Wright with a single bullet,” Gannon said. “This appears to me from what I viewed and the officer’s reaction in distress immediately after that this was an accidental discharge that resulted in the tragic death of Mr. Wright.”

Wright died of a gunshot wound to the chest, the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s office said in a statement.

A female passenger sustained non-life-threatening injuries during the crash, authorities said. Wright’s mother, Katie Wright, said that passenger was her son’s girlfriend.

The state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which is investigating the shooting, identified the officer as Kim Potter, a 26-year veteran who has been placed on administrative leave.

Gannon would not say whether she would be fired.

“I think we can watch the video and ascertain whether she will be returning,” the chief said.

Court records show Wright was being sought after failing to appear in court on charges that he fled from officers and possessed a gun without a permit during an encounter with Minneapolis police in June.

Wright’s mother said her son called her as he was getting pulled over.

During the call, she said she heard scuffling and then someone saying “Daunte, don’t run” before the call ended. When she called back, her son’s girlfriend answered and said he had been shot.

His brother, Dallas Bryant, told about a hundred people gathered for a candlelight vigil Monday evening that Wright sounded scared during the phone call and questioned how the officer could accidentally reach for a gun instead of a Taser.

“You know the difference between plastic and metal. We all know it,” he said.

President Joe Biden urged calm after watching the body camera footage.

“We do know that the anger, pain and trauma amidst the Black community is real,” Biden said from the Oval Office. But that “does not justify violence and looting.”

Demonstrators began to gather shortly after the shooting, with some jumping atop police cars. Marchers also descended on the city’s police headquarters, throwing rocks and other objects. About 20 businesses were broken into at the city’s Shingle Creek shopping center, authorities said.

At least a half-dozen businesses were boarding up their windows along Minneapolis’ Lake Street, the scene of some of the most intense violence after Floyd’s death. National Guard vehicles were deployed to a few major intersections. Several professional sports teams in Minneapolis called off games because of safety concerns.

The trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis officer charged in Floyd’s death, continued Monday. Floyd, a Black man, died May 25 after Chauvin, who is white, pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck. Prosecutors say Floyd was pinned for 9 minutes, 29 seconds. The judge in that case refused Monday to sequester the jury after a defense attorney argued that the panel could be influenced by the prospect of what might happen as a result of their verdict.