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County data: Beloit has more COVID-19 cases; Janesville tops in mortality rate

More Beloit residents have tested positive for the coronavirus than in any other Rock County municipality, but Janesville claims the higher mortality rate.

After months of back and forth between county and municipal leaders, the Rock County Public Health Department has started publishing community-specific data on its website for Janesville and Beloit.

The county’s remaining cities, villages and towns have been lumped together in a separate category.

Epidemiologist Nick Zupan said health department officials hope to offer data for smaller municipalities in the future.

Municipal data confirms the coronavirus has reached more Beloit residents.

As of Monday, Beloit had 200 more confirmed cases than Janesville: 484 and 284 cases, respectively. The rest of the county has 98 cases.

However, Janesville, has more than double Beloit’s COVID-19 mortality rate: 4.93% compared to Beloit’s 1.86%, according to the data.

Janesville Fire Chief Ernie Rhodes said the data supports evidence that Beloit residents with the virus have been younger and relatively more healthy compared to Janesville residents with the virus.

Janesville has seen several virus outbreaks in nursing homes. Elderly people and those with pre-existing health conditions are considered most at risk for serious complications from the disease.

Of the six Rock County nursing homes reported to have been investigated by the state Department of Health Services for outbreaks, three are in Janesville, two are in Beloit and one is in Evansville, according to state data.

The municipal data is updated weekly and does not reflect the most recent case totals.

As of Tuesday, Rock County reported 864 confirmed cases of the virus and one new death, bringing the county’s death toll to 24.

The state Department of Health Service’s data shows the 24th death happened Monday.

The health department started publishing municipal data after conversations with local leaders during the county’s phased reopening planning, said Zupan, the county epidemiologist.

Community leaders had expressed interest in being able to monitor local trends, he said.

However, Beloit and Janesville officials have asked the health department to provide more municipal-specific data since the early days of the pandemic.

Rock County Administrator Josh Smith said in April that sharing data threatened patients’ privacy and that the data did not represent the actual situation.

At the time, health department officials maintained that people should act like the virus is everywhere, regardless of what the data showed. But city leaders argued localized data would help officials track trends and make decisions.

Rhodes said he would have liked the data to come sooner, but he thinks Janesville can use what it now has to “keep an eye on things” and watch for surges and spikes.

The data did not reveal any shocking trends, Rhodes said.

The city continues to hold internal virtual conference calls to discuss data and track city resources, Rhodes said.

A public testing site, similar to the one held in Beloit in May, is still a possibility for Janesville, he said.

The increase in cases across the country in communities that have reopened indicate Janesville might need public testing at some point in the future, Rhodes said.

The municipal data has helped the health department identify trends in racial and ethnic communities, Zupan said. It shows Hispanic or Latino individuals account for more than half of Beloit’s cases, which Zupan said is linked to outbreaks at local manufacturing plants.

Janesville’s Hispanic community has been less affected, with only 21% of cases involving Hispanic or Latino individuals, according to the data.

That has prompted the health department to translate more materials and resources into Spanish and find ways to get that information to Spanish-speaking communities, Zupan said.

Rhodes said Janesville’s goals for preventing the spread of disease and maintaining city services have not changed.

Going into the holiday weekend, Zupan urged people to be cautious with traveling and avoid areas where cases of the disease are increasing, such as Texas and Florida.

Rhodes said people need to wear masks when in public and social distance from others.

“We gotta put everyone in a mask,” he said.

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SSM Health begins ‘tele-chaplaincy’ to combat loneliness of pandemic

Chaplain Randy Booth is not sure “tele-chaplaincy” is a word, but it might be the best way to describe a new way to keep people connected during the pandemic.

With help from a private donation, SSM Health bought iPads for each of its hospitals across Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri and Oklahoma so chaplains can help patients bond with family and friends, Booth said.

It started as a way to let chaplains talk to patients receiving intensive care for COVID-19. Such patients are treated in isolation rooms, and any doctor or nurse coming in or out has to wear full isolation gear.

Chaplains are not allowed inside such rooms, which contradicted the increased demand for chaplain services, Booth said.

When the iPads were delivered three weeks ago, Booth started letting COVID-19 patients talk to him virtually through apps such as Zoom.

But he soon realized the patients weren’t the only people who could benefit.

Angela Major 

Chaplain Randy Booth helps patient Anna LaCourse find a video calling application on her phone Wednesday at SSM Health St. Mary's Hospital-Janesville.

Booth expanded access to the iPads to allow patients to contact friends or family while in the hospital. The pandemic has forced SSM Health to restrict its visitor policy, so most patients can see one visitor at a time—if any.

A 92-year-old woman recently got to see and talk to her three daughters and two granddaughters across four states while at St. Mary’s, Booth said.

The idea of a video call can be confusing for older people, but Booth helps patients however he can so they can feel bonded to their loved ones.

“(It) makes the patient feel real human again,” Booth said. “... Your family makes you feel that way again.”

In one instance, Booth was able to virtually connect a woman in intensive care with her husband so the husband could talk to the doctor about her worsening condition and the care she was receiving.

A younger man recently was admitted to the emergency room with a cellphone with 3% charge on it and no charger. Booth said he was able to give him an iPad to connect with his family.

Booth said his services have been in higher demand since the pandemic started.

Visitor restrictions and mandated isolation make patients feel lonely, and they crave conversation, he said.

A chaplain is well-versed in prayer and religious conversations, but all chaplains know the priority is talking about what is important to that person, which might not be related to religion at all, Booth said.

Booth said he has had deep conversations with many patients, some not involving religion.

Almost every patient he has spoken to recently has brought up the pandemic. People have expressed opinions on safety protocols and politics or have wanted to talk about their fears, anxieties and loneliness, Booth said.

“Not everyone has COVID, but everyone has quarantine,” he said.

Booth finished his chaplaincy course March 4. Not once was a pandemic, lockdown or quarantine mentioned, he said.

But sadness and grief are part of his job, regardless of the pandemic, Booth said.

“As far as helping people find hope in midst of a crisis, that is what I have trained for.”

American soldiers wait on a tarmac in Logar province, Afghanistan, in November 2017. The Trump administration briefed congressional Democrats on Tuesday about reports of Russia offering bounties to Taliban fighters in exchange for killing American soldiers.

A woman wearing a mask passes a sign for Wall Street, Tuesday, June 30, 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Obituaries and death notices for July 1, 2020

Matthew Joseph Bunker

Jeff George Hassinger

Verity Hellmich

Martha Jo Hereford

Russell Jenks

John E. Kath

James M. “Jim” Makos

Joel Ollerich

Josiah P. Retzlaff

Zane Walters

Trump’s deference to Putin back under harsh scrutiny after Russian bounty reports


President Donald Trump’s deference to Vladimir Putin is back under the microscope amid accusations that he ignored intelligence that Russia offered to pay Taliban militants to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Democrats returning from a classified briefing at the White House on Tuesday pledged to get to the bottom of the matter and questioned whether the president was unaware of the intelligence and why he hadn’t taken a harder line against Moscow.

“The president called this a hoax, publicly,” said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., the House majority leader. “Nothing in the briefing that we have just received led me to believe it is a hoax.”

Trump tweeted two days earlier that reports of Russian bounties could be “another fabricated Russia Hoax” and claimed that intelligence officials “did not find this info credible, and therefore did not report it to me.”

The president has said nothing critical of Moscow or indicated that he would take new steps to protect troops serving in Afghanistan, where he is focused on withdrawing U.S. forces after nearly two decades of conflict.

The New York Times reported Monday that information about Russian bounties had been included in February in the presidential daily brief, a top secret summary of the nation’s intelligence. According to an Associated Press report, intelligence on the topic began circulating in the White House last year.

Joe Biden, the former vice president and Trump’s presumptive Democratic opponent in this year’s election, said it was “a dereliction of duty” if Trump refused to read his intelligence report or failed to take action if he was briefed on the issue.

“This president talks about cognitive capability. He doesn’t seem to be cognitively aware of what’s going on,” Biden said during an appearance in Wilmington, Delaware.

A senior U.S. official said Tuesday there was a strong circumstantial case that a Russian military intelligence unit was providing funds to Afghans with ties to the Taliban, ostensibly for bounties for killing American troops.

“The evidence isn’t ironclad, but then it never is,” the official told the Los Angeles Times. The intelligence about the bounties originated from interrogations of Taliban militants.

Afghan security forces, with assistance from the U.S., raided several houses in the northern city of Kunduz in March in an effort to capture two Afghans involved in the bounty effort, the official said. The pair had already fled the country, but more than a dozen others were arrested, added the official, who agreed to discuss the intelligence in return for anonymity.

It appeared that funds provided by Russia went to the two Afghans, but tracing the money has proved difficult, he said.

U.S. spies and analysts are reportedly examining whether Russian payments can be tied to the death of any U.S. troops, with the deaths of three Marines killed by a car bomb on April 8, 2019, being a main focus. Moscow has denied any role.

“I find it inexplicable in light of these very public allegations that the president hasn’t come before the country and assured the American people that he will get to the bottom of whether Russians are putting a bounty on the heads of American troops, and that he will do everything in his power to make sure that we protect American troops,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., chair of the House Intelligence Committee.

Trump’s refusal to confront Putin continues a pattern of submissive behavior toward the autocratic Russian leader. Trump welcomed Moscow’s interference in his successful campaign for the presidency and then sought to limit the subsequent investigation, led by Robert S. Mueller III.

And Trump withheld military assistance for Ukraine, which is battling Russian aggression, as he attempted to force the Eastern European country to investigate his political enemies, including Biden.

Republicans did not criticize Trump directly, but they expressed concern about the intelligence collected on Russian bounties.

“I want to be absolutely clear that America’s adversaries should know, and they should have no doubt, that any targeting of U.S. forces—by Russians, by anyone else—will face a very swift and deadly response,” said Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Russia should “absolutely not” be allowed back into the Group of Seven leading industrial nations, an idea floated by Trump. Moscow was booted after its invasion of Crimea six years ago.

Facing an escalating controversy, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany called a briefing Tuesday where she attacked the media for reporting on intelligence that she said “still has not been verified.” She said Trump had now been briefed on the issue but avoided saying whether he was considering any response to Russia.

She ended the briefing after just 15 minutes, appearing frustrated with repeated questions about why Trump would be unaware of such intelligence and whether he read his daily briefings.

“The president does read,” McEnany said, calling him “the most informed person on planet Earth when it comes to the threats that we face.”

The latest controversy threatens to exacerbate the partisan divide over intelligence issues that has widened since Trump’s election. Although there’s a bipartisan tradition of holding joint briefings, administration officials met with Republicans on Monday and Democrats on Tuesday.

Mike Rogers, a former Republican congressman from Michigan who chaired the House Intelligence Committee, said the separation was “unfortunate” because “you want everybody to hear the same thing.”

Holding separate sessions raises the question, “Are they crafting a message? Or are they getting a briefing?” he said.

Administration officials have reserved their harshest condemnation for the media and their anonymous sources. Robert O’Brien, Trump’s national security adviser, said late Monday night that officials who leak classified information “betray the trust of the people of the United States.”

He also claimed that the allegations regarding Russian bounties “have not been verified or substantiated,” and Trump “had not been briefed on the items.”

Officials appear to be drawing a distinction between a verbal briefing and inclusion in the president’s daily brief. Trump is widely known to avoid reading the document, which has alarmed national security experts who fear the president’s ignorance is leaving the country vulnerable. He also meets with intelligence officials for briefings less often than his predecessors did.

“A president who neither reads the PDB nor takes daily in-person briefings on its content is like a wrestler who puts on a blindfold and earmuffs before a match,” tweeted David Priess, a former CIA official who wrote a book about how presidents receive intelligence.

Schiff said including intelligence about Russian bounties in Trump’s written briefing was no excuse to avoid directly confronting the president with the information.

Administration officials may be reluctant “to brief the president on things he doesn’t want to hear, and that may be more true with respect to Putin and Putin’s Russia than with respect to any other subject matter,” Schiff said.

“You brief the president in the manner in which he or she receives information. If a president doesn’t read the briefs,” he said, “it doesn’t work to give him written product and not tell him what’s in it.”

Schiff added, “If he doesn’t read, he doesn’t read. They should know that by now. And if something the president needs to know before he talks to Putin needs to be shared with him, it needs to be shared with him in the form that he takes it.”

Reports of Russia-financed violence against U.S. troops come as Washington is gradually withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan. Pentagon officials said the number of troops had been brought down to about 8,600 troops, from 12,000, ahead of schedule.

At the same time, U.S. diplomats are working to launch “intra-Afghan” talks as the next step in a peace process that envisions a role for the Taliban in government.

The talks were supposed to begin March 10, but the Taliban and Afghan officials have continued to bicker over prisoner releases and bomb attacks that have killed dozens of people, mostly civilians, in recent weeks. The Taliban blamed those massacres on al-Qaida.

Under the peace deal reached with Washington, the Taliban agreed to disavow al-Qaida and prevent it from harboring inside Afghanistan. But a recent report from the United Nations said the Taliban has not broken its ties to the terrorist group behind the 9/11 attacks.

A spokesman for the Taliban, Suhail Shaheen, said Tuesday that U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo telephoned the chief Taliban negotiator late Monday to urge an end to violence, according to news agencies’ translation of Shaheen’s Twitter feed.

Shaheen said the reports on bounties did not come up in the conversation, but he quoted the negotiator, Abdullah Ghani Baradar, as saying, “according to the agreement, we do not allow anyone to use Afghan soil against the U.S. and other countries.”

Pompeo said Tuesday he held a video conference with Mullah Ghani Baradar, a senior Taliban official who negotiated the withdrawal deal. During the call, which occurred Monday, Pompeo pressed “the Taliban to live up to their commitments under the U.S.-Taliban Agreement, including not to attack Americans,” he said in a tweet.