One year ago, Caron Eaton was so sick she couldn’t walk to her bathroom without losing her breath.
It was a foreign feeling for a 57-year-old woman who raised twin daughters as a single mom, works two jobs and rarely takes a sick day.
COVID-19 was still a foreign concept to most people when Eaton got sick. She thought there was no way she could have contracted the disease that, at the time, was largely associated with foreign travel.
A trip to the doctor confirmed the threat was real, and it was on Rock County’s doorstep. Eaton had the county’s first confirmed case of COVID-19.
Words such as quarantine, isolation, social distancing and contact tracing became part of the nation’s vernacular over the past year, but for Eaton, the words were part of her everyday life sooner than for almost everyone else she knew.
Today, Eaton is eager to get back out into the world, to travel and to spend time with those she loves.
But COVID-19 continues to live with her, and some symptoms refuse to go away.
“I just don’t feel like I did before COVID,” Eaton said.
Since Eaton tested positive, more than 14,500 other Rock County residents have also tested positive—and the number keeps growing.
Of those, 163 have died and many more were hospitalized.
Health officials say Rock County is moving in the right direction, but relaxing safety guidelines too quickly could mean more people will get sick like Eaton did.
On March 8, 2020, Eaton traveled to Elgin, Illinois, to attend a trade show for her second job selling Paparazzi jewelry.
She remembers feeling sick and having a horrible cough two days later. She stayed home from work, something she said she hardly ever does.
Days later, she saw a doctor, who recommended she be tested for COVID-19.
It took days of being sick before Eaton started to consider she might have the disease. She said she felt sick in a way she never had before, and something inside her just felt different.
Tests for influenza and COVID-19 both came back positive, Eaton said.
It wasn’t long before the entire county knew about Eaton—not by name, but by the disease that left her hardly able to care for herself.
The Rock County Public Health Department announced news of the first case March 19, 2020. Mercyhealth confirmed the next day that the case involved an employee.
Eaton has worked at Mercyhealth for 10 years as a financial counselor for cancer patients—a job she said she absolutely loves.
While Eaton contracted the first confirmed local case of COVID-19, it is impossible to know whether she was the first to bring the coronavirus to the county because testing for the virus was limited at the time. For weeks before that, health officials advised the community to act as if the virus was present—because it likely already was.
Eaton now belongs to a group of thousands of people who can relate to her experience. But she felt alone when she was sick and isolating at home with her 19-year-old daughter, Amanda, helping to care for her.
News of the first positive case of COVID-19 started spreading online even before Eaton got off her first phone call with a health department nurse, she said.
Eaton didn’t tell many people about her positive test because it was hard to find anyone who could relate to her. The reaction she saw from strangers online was so negative that she said she stopped using Facebook for about a week.
One man spouted off about how angry he was at Eaton for traveling to Illinois. Eaton recalled another woman writing that she had the right to know Eaton’s home address so the woman could sit outside Eaton’s house to make sure Eaton didn’t leave.
It was surprising to see such negativity from strangers, she said.
March 2020 was a scary time for people, Eaton said, and hardly anyone understood what the country would be up against. She encourages people to be patient with those who have or have had COVID-19 because the disease affects everyone differently. And for some, it sticks around.
Eaton was so sick at times during her isolation that she worried she would need to be hospitalized. She tried as hard as she could to avoid it because the thought if being hooked to a ventilator horrified her.
Of all confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Rock County, 5%—about 728 people—have been hospitalized, according to county health data.
After two weeks, Eaton felt better and experienced what she called a “honeymoon phase.” She felt like she had recovered.
Eventually, COVID-19 symptoms began creeping back. She had difficulty breathing, muscle pain, joint pain and brain fog.
Eaton remembers being so tired that she had to close her office door and nap during her lunch break.
The brain fog caused her to forget things quickly and sometimes feel disconnected from a conversation, she said.
Some of Eaton’s Paparazzi clients reached out to her after virtual events because Eaton would hold up one piece of jewelry while describing a different piece.
Eaton said her symptoms persisted through most of September before finally letting up.
Even after a year, she still feels occasional muscle and joint pain and fatigue.
Eaton said she worries when she reads stories about possible long-term effects for people who have had COVID-19.
Health officials worldwide are still trying to understand what COVID-19 might do to people’s bodies long term, if anything. Eaton doesn’t want her fear or symptoms to keep holding her back.
“As a single mom, I learned over the years ... you just have to keep going no matter what,” Eaton said. “That is where my mentality comes from.”
Eaton said she jumped at the opportunity get vaccinated for COVID-19. She thought it was important because of her health care job and that it would allow her to get back to fully living again.
As of Thursday afternoon, 21.9% of Rock County residents have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, according to the state health department.
Health officials agree the vaccine is the best way to fight the virus and get life back to normal.
State health officials expect to offer the vaccine to all people older than 16 on May 1.
Eaton has big plans on the horizon. She had planned to visit Amsterdam with a friend in 2020, but that was canceled because of the pandemic. Now she plans to tour five European countries in 2022 and hopes to take trips to visit her daughter Sammi, who will soon be based on Coronado Island off the coast of Southern California with the U.S. Navy.
She said she continues to live with waves of COVID-19 symptoms, but she is learning each day how to cope with them.
“I am tired of staying at home,” she said. “It is time I start living again.”
TOWN OF MILTON
Searchers fear a man who went missing Wednesday fell through the ice of a small lake and drowned, Sheriff Troy Knudson said Thursday evening.
Searchers focused on the waters of Bowers Lake on Thursday afternoon as they looked for Kevin J. Doyle, who has been missing since Wednesday morning after he went to nearby Storrs Lake to walk his two dogs.
Searchers found the bodies of the Labrador retrievers on the northwest side of Bowers Lake, where they apparently had fallen in and drowned, Knudson said.
Shortly before 4 p.m., a deputy found what is believed to be Doyle’s cane in the water along the shore in the same area. Doyle reportedly used a prosthetic leg.
Searchers were using a remote-controlled boat equipped with sonar that the Fontana Fire Department brought to the scene around 5 p.m., Knudson said.
Bowers Lake is northwest of Storrs Lake. Knudson said searchers spotted the dogs in open water past an area of Bowers Lake that still had ice.
Searchers wrapped up for the day at about 7:15 p.m. Thursday but will resume searching this morning, Knudson said.
Dozens of volunteers helped authorities Thursday morning as the search resumed.
Doyle, 66, left his home at about 9:30 a.m. Wednesday to hike trails near Storrs Lake. He was not heard from afterward.
Private rescue dogs, horses and ATVs arrived with some of the volunteers while fire and law enforcement agencies from the area deployed drones.
At around 12:30 p.m. Thursday, a bus dropped off a group of volunteers in a parking lot about a half-mile from Bowers and Storrs lakes. They had returned from an hours-long morning search of the dense wetlands around the two lakes.
Brett Wueisensel and Dean Kopp said they had been out Thursday morning with dozens of other volunteers who walked in straight lines through the soupy marshes.
The men said they worked alongside other volunteers who brought in private rescue dogs, horses and ATVs. Local fire and law enforcement agencies worked the area with aerial drones and search boats.
Wueisensel and Kopp, both employees of Alliant Energy, said they had worked with Doyle, who was now retired.
They said a team of 40 Alliant Energy workers had taken off work to help search for the man they had known for decades who they said was a dog lover.
“Just the nicest guy,” Kopp said of Doyle. “Always a smile on his face, always a happy dude.”
As of late morning, the search party numbered about 85 people, including volunteers, first responders, and trained search and rescue groups, Knudson said.
Police described the conditions around the lakes as treacherous, cold and wet with muddy ground even along trail areas above the marshlands.
“I just have to say, we express our appreciation to all these different teams and individuals who’ve come to help this search. It certainly is a difficult time for the family here,” Knudson said earlier in the day.
A National Guard helicopter arrived around 10:15 a.m. and coordinated with searchers on the ground and on the water.
The search had begun Wednesday, broke off Wednesday around midnight and resumed Thursday morning, when volunteers were welcomed.
Asked why volunteers were kept away Wednesday, Knudson said authorities wanted to give search dogs the opportunity to do their jobs.
Anyone with information about Doyle’s disappearance was encouraged to call the Rock County 911 Communications Center at 608-757-2244.
Reporter Rebecca Kanable contributed to this story.
Julie Kay Bartle
Joseph E. “Joe” Bremel
Sharon L. Jones
Gail “G.G.” (Garvey) Kuhlow
Stephen John Norling
William J. Paul Sr.
Marlene Ray Walser
Renee C. (Liermann) Wolters
Some people would have gone home and forgotten about the young victims of sex trafficking.
Brandon Rusch could not stop thinking about them.
Rusch and his wife, Amie, attended a concert three years ago where the performers discussed the topic.
“Ever since then, I have done my research and realize this is an issue locally and throughout the country,” said Rusch, a father of two. “Just the thought of my kids being victims to human trafficking did not sit well with me.”
In 2020, Rock County law enforcement agencies dedicated 616 hours to fighting sex trafficking in Rock County, Rusch said. The number includes training and cases.
Last fall, Rusch proposed that his group project with the Leadership Development Academy of Rock County focus on human trafficking.
Team members Diamond Gregory, Jeramie Mielke, Lyndsey Stocker and Kevin Saxe agreed.
They asked the Rock County Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force how they could help.
Task force members told them they need a local video to use in social media campaigns and presentations to bring awareness to the issue.
Rusch and the team went to work to raise up to $10,000 needed for the video. They received a $4,000 grant and have received almost $3,000 from businesses and private donors so far.
Today, the short film, produced by Drywater Productions of Janesville, is almost finished.
“The video points out how to recognize trafficking, and it is a call to action,” Rusch said. “If you see something, say something. We all have a part to bringing awareness to and potentially stopping human trafficking.”
Members of the anti-human trafficking task force called the video an important tool in educating the public.
“We are thrilled with the academy,” Carrie Wyatt said. “The video will help people pay attention and say, ‘I want to know more.’”
Wyatt is chairwoman of the task force and teaches at Janesville’s Craig High School.
People tend to think of sex trafficking as occurring in metropolitan areas, but it happens in Rock County, she said. And it does not look like it often is portrayed in the movies, with the perpetrator snatching a victim off the streets.
Masterful predators target young people who need love and attention and lack basic survival essentials, such as food and shelter, Wyatt explained.
Children who have experienced trauma, including abuse, poverty and homelessness, are especially vulnerable to predators who are patient and who will groom them for a long time, she said.
Sometimes the trafficker is a family member or even a parent who sells a child for sex for money.
The average age of children being groomed and sold for sex is 12 to 14, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Beginning in April, the task force will host panel discussions on Zoom to increase awareness, prevention and intervention.
“The community will be able to attend the meeting virtually and ask questions,” Wyatt said.
Since February 2018, the task force has done presentations for more than 4,000 people to create awareness and to share information on what to do if someone suspects human trafficking.
“Throughout Rock County, we have taken the message to school-age children up through high school,” Wyatt said. “Keeping our youth safe is our top priority.”
Jamie Counsell is a sexual assault nurse examiner at Mercyhealth Hospital and Trauma Center and past chairwoman of the anti-human trafficking task force.
As one of the faces in the new video, she talks about warning signs of trafficking that health care providers need to know.
Physical signs on a victim can include malnutrition, dehydration, sexually transmitted infections, substance abuse, physical and psychological harm, and branding and tattoos indicating ownership by someone else.
“People can choose not to look for trafficking,” Counsell said. “But it is here, and we need to protect everyone in this community, particularly the youth.”
She said human trafficking can involve anyone.
“It can be a child from a one- or two-parent household or foster care, the straight-A student or the one who is constantly truant,” Counsell said.
She said the peers of young people are the best allies.
“They know who their friends are talking to and what they are doing on weekends,” Counsell said. “We want them to know it is OK to say something when you care about someone.”
She urged people to follow their intuition.
“If something seems wrong, do something about it,” Counsell said, “because it is real.”
Anna Marie Lux is a human interest columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264 or email amarielux@gazettextra .com.