Sara Proulx, a special education teacher at Jackson Elementary School, said she cannot wait to hug her students again.
Getting her first dose of COVID-19 vaccine Friday brings her one step closer to that, she said.
Proulx was one of 1,300 Janesville School District employees to receive their first round of vaccine Friday at Mercyhealth Hospital and Trauma Center, Janesville.
Vaccinations occurred one week after the school district, health care system and state Department of Health Services shared conflicting messages about whether the school district should receive vaccines so soon.
A state committee has recommended teachers and K-12 education workers be included in the state’s Phase 1B priority group and be prioritized higher than others in the 1B group, but the state Department of Health Services has not yet approved the recommendation.
State officials said Mercyhealth should not have pursued school district vaccinations so soon.
Mercyhealth’s goal is to get as many vaccine doses into arms as quickly as possible, said Don Janczak, director of pharmacy.
The health care system had enough doses to vaccinate school employees and felt it had made it through enough of the Phase 1A population to move on to some of the people expected to be in Phase 1B, Janczak said.
Logistics for accessing school district employees were simple, making it easy to vaccinate a large number of people quickly. That was a factor in Mercyhealth’s decision to offer them vaccines, Janczak said.
A lot of people in the community don’t understand how hard teachers have had to work during the pandemic, Proulx said.
Teaching elementary-aged children virtually in the spring was challenging because teachers had to teach themselves and their students how to use the virtual platform and try to coach young kids through technical difficulties, she said.
Instead of handing out papers and giving instructions, Proulx has to upload documents, record herself giving instructions and go through several other extra steps for each assignment, she said.
Teachers love what they do and don’t mind a challenge, Proulx said, but the extra work needed to teach virtually is exhausting.
Proulx said she was both happy and nervous when she learned school would be held in person last fall.
She was happy because students need in-person attention, she said, but nerve wracking because she was soon to be in a room with kids who had been exposed to a lot of people she didn’t know, therefore increasing her risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
Students have been resilient and have learned how to clean their work stations, wear masks and distance, Proulx said, but she cannot wait until the kids no longer have to worry about those extra steps.
Lauren Marx, a pathways teacher at Franklin Middle School, said this is her first year teaching, and the pandemic brought with it plenty of challenges.
Marx thought she was technology proficient before the pandemic, but temporary virtual learning tested her skills, she said.
Marks looks forward to eventually being able to let her students mix and mingle more socially during school, once they can go back to learning outside of designated cohorts.
Mercyhealth has ramped up to vaccinating 800 to 900 people a day across multiple facilities, a feat Janczak said is testimony to a well-planned process.
The health care system will now switch its focus to vaccinating its 65 and older community, which will require more logistical work compared to current efforts to vaccinate people within organizations, Janczak said.
The 65 and older population will take precedence for the time being, then Mercyhealth will shift gears to aiding those in other 1B priority groups, Janczak said.
When COVID-19 temporarily closed the curtains last summer on Casual Joe’s barbecue restaurant in Whitewater, owner Mike Hudec outfitted a mobile food truck and hit the road.
Last fall, during a catering job in downtown Janesville, Hudec pulled up along South Main Street with a load of smoked brisket and dry-rubbed pork ribs.
He got out to stretch his legs and spied his future: a vacant storefront on the downtown riverfront.
Four months later, Hudec says he’s within a few weeks of launching a new Casual Joe’s location in a former optometry office at 30 S. Main St., a space he’s rehabbing to include a kitchen, a lunch counter and dine-in seating.
Faced with the same adapt-or-else circumstances that many small restaurants have confronted during the pandemic, Hudec, a self-taught barbecue master, has decided to pivot into expansion.
The Whitewater resident sees the new Janesville location as a test patch in his effort to transform Casual Joe’s into a small regional chain of barbecue restaurants.
A former carpenter, Hudec is by nature a builder. This time, he’s building with barbecued meats, barbecued mac-and-cheese smash bowls and pulled pork pizzas.
Under Hudec’s plan, he’ll continue running his Whitewater location as a restaurant and banquet hall and as the hub of his cooking and smoking operations.
That will create a bigger box for Hudec, but he hopes it will grow the geographic reach of his barbecue.
“I’m not one to roll over. Instead, I adapt,” he said. “I’ve had to shut down my Whitewater location because the pandemic meant too little business coming in, so I built a food truck and got out there. I kept my business afloat. Before winter hit, I looked into what else I’d have to do to survive. Opening this new place in Janesville means more options, more ideas and more customers.”
The 39-year-old bought Casual Joe’s in 2019 and revamped the restaurant’s recipes with ideas and approaches gathered from barbecue sojourns he has made across the deep South.
Hudec is tackling his own build-out in the leased South Main Street space alongside his search for new staff. He’s still mulling what amenities the new location might have.
Pre-pandemic, the Whitewater location operated as part restaurant, part bar and entertainment venue. Hudec is not sure how many days a week the Whitewater location will operate as a restaurant. But he said he wants to run the Janesville location six days a week as a lunch and dinner spot.
Without knowing what the second summer of the pandemic will spell for restaurants, Hudec is contemplating options, which might include conversion of part of the front façade so it can be opened in nice weather.
And he has eyed the storefront’s flat roof, which he thinks might have potential for rooftop dining.
“With all the work that’s been done along the riverfront in Janesville’s downtown, the surroundings and the view of the Rock River, it’s all so great. Maybe rooftop dining could be a success,” he said.
Whatever initial shape the Casual Joe’s dining experience might take, Hudec said he believes a “blue-collar” barbecue restaurant will strike a chord with Janesville’s dining crowd.
He hopes to capture growing foot traffic along the riverfront and build a bigger name for his barbecue. He hopes those things happen as people become more comfortable eating inside restaurants—whenever that happens.
Look for the downtown Casual Joe’s to open sometime this winter. Hudec said that the grand opening will announce itself with the aroma of smoked, dry-rubbed ribs.
“That’s what’s different about this type of establishment. It’s one of those where you want to come in just because of that barbecue smell,” Hudec said. “You’re almost inviting people in with the old cartoon smoky finger, just beckoning them in.”
The Wisconsin National Guard will help the Rock County Public Health Department give COVID-19 vaccinations to the remainder of the county’s Phase 1A priority group.
An appointment-only vaccination site for people in the Phase 1A group will run from Jan. 26 to 29 at Blackhawk Technical College, 6004 S. County G, Janesville. A second clinic will be set up weeks later to give the necessary second doses to those who participate, according to a news release.
The site’s 900 doses will be given first to anyone who is eligible for the Phase 1A priority group but has not already received the vaccine.
Those from other eligible groups might be offered doses if supplies are available, according to the release.
Individuals or organizations that qualify under Phase 1A and have not yet received vaccines are encouraged to sign up through the county’s new online vaccine request form at www.co.rock.wi.us/publichealth.
Those who cannot access the form online can call 608-352-6727 for assistance.
The goal of the online vaccine request form is to reach health care workers who might not be affiliated with a major health care organization, or whose organization has not yet been connected with a vaccine provider, according to a news release.
The vaccination site at Blackhawk Tech will accommodate appointments only and will not offer walk-in appointments.
County officials have not publicly provided insight on how many Rock County residents in Phase 1A are awaiting vaccinations.
As of Friday morning, 7,906 Rock County residents had received their first doses of COVID-19 vaccine, and 2,129 residents had received both doses of the vaccine.
About 6% of the county’s population has started the vaccine process, based on population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Beginning Monday, Wisconsinites ages 65 and older will be eligible to get the vaccine. Administration of those doses has been left mostly in the hands of health care providers for now.
Mercyhealth and SSM Health have announced they will begin reaching out to patients older than 75 to schedule appointments and then will work down to patients ages 65 to 74.
The quickest way for patients at either health care system to get appointments is to sign up for and monitor a MyChart account, which is an online portal for health care communications and billing.
Rock County has not yet created a process to help older people who don’t have a health care provider get vaccinated.
Walworth County has offered an online registration form to do that.
Pharmacies will be able to give vaccines to people ages 65 and older, but local pharmacies do not yet have the supplies to do so.