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Have we peaked? Officials urge social distancing despite encouraging data

Some local COVID-19 numbers have health officials feeling optimistic, but it might be too soon to tell if Rock County cases have hit a peak, officials say.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation models show Wisconsin was projected to hit its hospital resources peak Tuesday, meaning that would be the day when health care centers needed the most staff and equipment.

Janesville officials use that model for planning, Fire Chief Ernie Rhodes said.

But Mark Goelzer, medical director for Mercyhealth, said it might be too soon to say whether that model is accurate.

Local COVID-19 conditions have been “fairly stable” in recent days. If Rock County has reached its peak, it likely will be drawn out, Goelzer said.

The county currently has 62 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Four people have died.

The state reports 3,721 confirmed cases and 182 deaths.

The state Department of Health Services said Tuesday in a news release that social distancing measures are working.

The state’s rate of doubling of infections was 3.4 days in early March and is now about 12 days. The rate of doubling shows how long it takes for the number of cases to double in a given area.

“Those are good indications, so we think we could be at a peak, but (we are) still a little cautious because the threat is still in the community,” Rhodes said. “It (the virus) could rear its ugly head at any given time if we let our guard down.”

It is difficult to know if the peak has been reached until the county is on the other side, Kelsey Cordova, public information officer for the Rock County Public Health Department, said in an email to The Gazette.

Cordova declined to be interviewed, but she wrote this:

“There are many projections out there, all using different models and factors, and all having severe limitations because our path really depends on people’s behaviors in the community. We feel as though Rock County is doing well with personal distancing, and it has helped with hospital systems’ capacity to care for those most in need.”

The health department can request assistance from the state to supplement contact tracing investigations if needed, Cordova said.

Goelzer said he is hopeful local hospitals will not see a surge in cases that prompt the need for emergency medical shelters.

Mercyhealth has been able to double its number of negative pressure rooms, which are used to treat intensive-care patients, by converting areas of the hospital that are not in use, Goelzer said.

Canceling elective surgeries and other nonessential services has allowed Mercyhealth to repurpose space and limit exposure to infected patients, Goelzer said.

Rhodes said the city might have dodged the need for emergency medical shelters for now, but officials need to be prepared for the future.

“Right now, today, I think we got lucky, but we are just starting to go through this journey,” Rhodes said.

A second wave of COVID-19 cases is likely at some point, and the city is preparing for it, he said.

“Even though we have some good news data, we cannot let our guard down,” Rhodes said. “If we release everyone out of safer-at-home sooner than later, we have a good chance of it coming back worse or at the same level.”

Goelzer predicts some form of social distancing will need to be maintained until a vaccine is created.

Even if safer-at-home guidelines are loosened, people probably will continue to social distance, practice better hygiene and avoid vulnerable populations, he said.

“I suspect there will be some voluntary social distancing because everybody is going to be nervous for a while,” Goelzer said.

Ideally, testing resources will be expanded so COVID-19 testing will be like testing for the flu: Everyone could get a test and get results in a day, Goelzer said.

That would give everyone a better idea of who is infected and allow for better contact tracing and effective isolation, he said.

For now, testing supplies are limited, and people are only tested if they show severe symptoms, are at high risk or are a health care worker with symptoms, Goelzer said.

US relief checks begin arriving as economic damage piles up


Government relief checks began arriving in Americans’ bank accounts as the economic damage to the U.S. from the coronavirus piled up Wednesday and sluggish sales at reopened stores in Europe and China made it clear that business won’t necessarily bounce right back when the crisis eases.

With many factories shut down, American industrial output shriveled in March, registering its biggest decline since the U.S. demobilized in 1946 at the end of World War II. Retail sales fell by an unprecedented 8.7%, with April expected to be far worse.

The world’s biggest economy began issuing one-time payments this week to tens of millions of people as part of its $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package, with adults receiving up to $1,200 each and $500 per child to help them pay the rent or cover other bills. The checks will be directly deposited into accounts or mailed to households in the coming weeks, depending on how people filed their tax returns.

Among those receiving a check was Jacqueline Gonzalez, a 32-year-old single mother who was laid off from her job as a bartender and lives with her mother, a teacher, in Miami Lakes, Florida. Gonzalez paid her car insurance and gave her mother $500 for rent. She has signed up for food stamps.

“There is no other form of income for us right now. We have no other choice. We can’t work from home,” she said. “We’re just sitting here. Bills are racking up.”

In an unprecedented move, President Donald Trump’s name will be printed on the paper checks. Still, in some places under stay-at-home orders, frustrations began to boil over among those worried the economic toll is more crushing than the virus itself.

Elsewhere around the world, the first steps in lifting economically crippling restrictions are running into resistance, with customers staying away from reopened businesses and workers afraid of risking their health.

In China, millions are still wary of spending much or even going out. Some cities have resorted to handing out vouchers and trying to reassure consumers by showing officials in state media eating in restaurants.

“I put off plans to change cars and spend almost nothing on eating out or entertainment,” said Zhang Hu, a truck salesman in Zhengzhou who has gone back to work but has seen his income plummet because few people are buying 20-ton rigs. “I have no idea when the situation will turn better.”

In Austria, Marie Froehlich, who owns a clothing store in Vienna, said her staff was happy to be back after weeks cooped up at home. But dependent largely on tourism, which has dried up amid the travel restrictions, she expects the business will take months to return to normal.

“Until then, we are in crisis mode,” she said.

Rome’s streets were also largely deserted despite the reopening of some stores.

Worldwide, deaths have topped 130,000 and confirmed infections 2 million, according to the tally kept by Johns Hopkins University. The figures understate the true size of the crisis, in part because of limited testing, different ways of counting the dead and concealment by some governments

The U.S. has recorded approximately 28,000 deaths—highest in the world—and over 600,000 confirmed infections, by Johns Hopkins’ count. Still, the nightmare scenarios projecting a far greater number of deaths and hospitalizations have not come to pass, raising hopes from coast to coast.

In other developments:

  • An investigation by The Associated Press found that six days of delays by China in alerting the public to the growing danger in mid-January set the stage for the global disaster.
  • Millions of South Koreans wore masks and maintained social distancing as they voted in parliamentary elections, with turnout surprisingly high. The government resisted calls to postpone the balloting, seen as a midterm referendum on President Moon Jae-in.
  • The death toll in Iran is probably almost twice the official figure of about 4,800 as a result of undercounting and because some patients were not tested, a parliamentary report said. The explosive allegation was buried in a footnote in the 46-page document.
  • With deaths and hospitalizations stabilizing or dropping in Europe, Germany announced plans to let smaller shops reopen next week and for school to resume in early May. France reported a decrease in hospitalized COVID-19 patients for the time since the outbreak began there.
  • New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said people must wear face coverings when they are near others, such as on the street or subway platforms.

The economic damage from the effort to “flatten the curve” of infections has mounted alarmingly.

While grocery store sales in the U.S. jumped nearly 26% in March as Americans stocked up on food and other goods, auto sales plummeted by one-quarter and clothing store sales slid by more than half, the government reported. The category that mostly includes online shopping rose more than 3%.

“Clear signs of panic buying of necessities and the fact that lockdowns were introduced only around the middle of the month means that far worse is to come in April and the second quarter more generally,” said Michael Pearce, an economist at the consulting firm Capital Economics.

U.S. manufacturing output dropped 6.3% last month, led by plunging production at auto factories, which have shut down entirely.

As of last week, some 17 million Americans had been thrown onto the unemployment rolls.

At least one state, California, is providing its own stimulus to residents: Gov. Gavin Newsom announced $500 payments for individuals, including the state’s estimated 2 million immigrants who are in the country illegally and ineligible for the federal payouts.

A day after Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak said his state’s idled economy was nowhere near a restart, Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman made an impassioned plea for reopening her city, saying it is withering with tourists staying home and conventions and businesses closed.

“The longer we wait to do this, the more impossible it will become to recover,” Goodman said.

In Lansing, Michigan, hundreds of honking, flag-waving protesters drove past the Capitol in an April snow shower, bringing traffic to a near-standstill. “Gov. Whitmer We Are Not Prisoners,” one sign read, while another declared, perhaps borrowing Trump’s 2016 campaign acronym, “Michigander Against Gretchen’s Abuses.”

“This arbitrary blanket spread of shutting down businesses, about putting all of these workers out of business, is just a disaster,” said Meshawn Maddock, a member of the Michigan Conservative Coalition, which organized the rally. “And people are sick and tired of it.”

Whitmer said she was “really disappointed” to see protesters close together without masks.

“I saw someone handing out candy to little kids barehanded. ... We know that this rally endangered people,” Whitmer said. “This kind of activity will put more people at risk and, sadly, it could prolong the amount of time we have to be in this posture.”

Where pushback is mounting, it’s happening regardless of political affiliation. Sisolak and Whitmer are Democrats; in Ohio, it’s Republican Mike DeWine who faces growing pressure to reopen the state and allow even nonessential businesses to resume.

Foreign leaders, meanwhile, rushed to the defense of the World Health Organization after Trump vowed to halt U.S. payments to the U.N. agency for not sounding the alarm over the virus sooner.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the WHO is needed now more than ever: “Only by joining forces can we overcome this crisis that knows no borders.”

Obituaries and death notices for April 16, 2020

Gerald Amundson

John Wheelwright Dewey

Betty Fucsalla

Raymond Godfrey

Howard H. Johnson Jr.

Everett Jones Jr.

Jimmy Sullivan

Linda Vannucci

Janet Waisner

Nancy Walhovd

Evers signs pandemic relief package despite misgivings


Gov. Tony Evers signed a sweeping coronavirus relief package Wednesday, setting aside reservations that it doesn’t go far enough to help at-risk workers, small businesses and farmers in order to deliver at least some help for state residents.

The governor had until Friday to sign the bill to lock in extra federal aid for the state’s Medicaid program. His administration has spent days negotiating the details of the package with Republican legislative leaders.

He criticized the final version in a statement, saying it doesn’t provide hazard pay or worker’s compensation to first responders, child care providers and health care workers and doesn’t do anything meaningful for small businesses and farmers.

“The bill I will sign falls short of what is needed to address the magnitude and gravity of what our state is facing, but I am not willing to delay our state’s response to this crisis,” Evers said.

The bill largely ensures that Wisconsin can capture the $2.3 billion allocated to the state under the federal stimulus bill, including higher Medicaid payments and unemployment benefits. The Legislature’s budget committee would be allowed to allocate up to $75 million in funding until up to 90 days after the public health emergency ends.

The measure also would waive the state’s one-week waiting period to receive unemployment for anyone who applies between March and Feb. 7, 2021, and ban certain insurers from prohibiting coverage based on a COVID-19 diagnosis. Furthermore, it would ease the licensing and credentialing processes for health care workers, reduce nurse training hour requirements and render health providers immune from civil liability for services provided during the pandemic. Local municipalities also could choose to defer their residents’ property tax payments.

The Assembly passed the measure 97-2 Tuesday during what was the Legislature’s first-ever virtual meeting to comply with social distancing guidelines. Two-thirds of the body’s 99 members voted via videoconference while the rest voted from scattered seats around the chamber, sometimes with rows of empty seats between them.

The Senate held its first-ever virtual meeting Wednesday, the day after the Assembly’s first such gathering. The session was run out of a hearing room on the Capitol’s fourth floor. Senate President Roger Roth, a Republican, and Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling were the only senators in the room, along with Chief Clerk Jeff Renk’s staff. Everyone was seated at least 6 feet apart. The rest of the Senate appeared via videoconference.

The technology was shaky, with lags between Roth initiating contact with senators and their responses. Senators voted by clicking a button on their screens; one of Renk’s staffers had to read off their votes to Roth, who cautioned senators several times that if they thought their vote was recorded incorrectly they should notify Renk by email.

Democrats complained bitterly about the approach. Sen. Chris Larson said the setup was frustrating. Sens. Lena Taylor and Tim Carpenter both complained that Roth never let them speak. Carpenter issued a statement to media outlets during the session complaining that Roth had barred him from attending the session in person in the hearing room. Taylor was the only senator who didn’t cast a vote. She said in a phone interview that Roth wouldn’t allow her to vote.

“I’m just stunned that someone could be so inhumane,” Taylor said. “He denied democracy in Wisconsin. He denied the people dying.”

Roth said in a phone interview after the session had ended that all the senators understood there wasn’t room to maintain social distancing in the Senate chamber or in the hearing room and that only he, Shilling and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald would be allowed to attend in person. Fitzgerald opted to appear via videoconference from his office.

“Anyone who is shocked or outraged, it’s just a load of malarkey at this point,” Roth said.

Carpenter tried to speak during roll call votes when comments aren’t allowed or after Fitzgerald had made motions that weren’t debatable under Senate rules, Roth said. As for Taylor, she apparently couldn’t unmute her line, he said. The Legislature’s techs tried to help her but couldn’t get her connected, he said.

In the end, the chamber approved the bill 32-0, with Taylor the only senator who didn’t cast a vote.