Thirty minutes before the site even opened, cars stretched as far as the eye could see on Riders Club Road, with community members waiting to secure one of 400 free COVID-19 tests.
Thursday’s one-day drive-thru testing event, held outside the Onalaska Omni Center and open to area residents age 5 and older with one or more symptoms of the coronavirus — cough, fever, body aches, shortness of breath, chills, sore throat, loss of taste — from 11 to 7 p.m.
Hosted by the Wisconsin National Guard and funded by the federal government, the event was the result of an application from the La Crosse County Health Department, which notes the county currently administers about 70 tests daily between area health care partners.
“Having mass testing is really beneficial to the community,” says Rachel King, health educator for the La Crosse County Health Department. “There haven’t been as many (tests) as we need.”
The testing process, sans wait time in their vehicles, was anticipated to last five to 10 minutes per person, including completing a survey for symptoms, the conducting of the nasal swab, and discharge instructions.
Post test, individuals were asked to return directly to their home and isolate themselves, including from family members, until they received their test results and further guidance from public health officials.
Results from Thursday’s testing event were expected in 24 to 48 hours, with Wisconsin National Guard members to notify those with negative results, and the La Crosse County Health Department, or the health department for the individual’s county of residence, following up with those who tested positive.
Helping run the testing day were the Onalaska Police Department, which directed traffic for the duration of the eight-hour event, staff from the La Crosse County Health Department and 28 members of the Wisconsin National Guard. While all on the premises were masked, National Guard members performing the nasal swabbing were dressed in full personal protective gear, including white jumpsuits and helmets, and underwent thorough advanced training and validation to administer the tests.
Though nasal test kits were limited and many community members are particularly stressed and anxious amid the pandemic, Christina Baurichter, a 20-year National Guard member and officer-in-charge for the testing day, says people attending previous testing events held throughout the state have remained overall patient and cooperative about the wait time and constrictions.
It’s a multi-faceted effort to keep things running smoothly, Baurichter says, and is something the Wisconsin National Guard is glad to assist with.
“It’s great to be a part of the goodwill mission,” Baurichter says.
King says it is unknown how much case numbers will jump in the next two days, noting that ideally most will have negative results, indicating the virus is relatively under control in the area.
The La Crosse County Health Department will continue to post daily updates with case numbers and other information on its Facebook page, and can be contacted by phone at 608-785-9872.
In a single month, due to a single virus and associated government-mandated shutdowns, Wisconsin’s unemployment rate has more than quadrupled from a historic low to a historic high.
The state Department of Workforce Development on Wednesday reported that Wisconsin lost 385,900 private-sector jobs from March to April, and the unemployment rate shot up from 3.1% to 14.1%.
“Today’s report shows the significant impact that the COVID-19 global pandemic has had on the Wisconsin economy, and underscores the importance of rationally and safely reopening our state,” DWD Secretary Caleb Frostman said in a statement. “A strategy based on science that reduces the likelihood of additional outbreaks and further economic instability is the only way to get Wisconsin back on the path of historically low unemployment rates that the state was experiencing prior to COVID-19.”
Wisconsin is doing slightly better than the nation as a whole. The national unemployment rate is 14.7%, while its labor participation rate, 60.2%, is 6.4 percentage points lower than Wisconsin’s.
Still, the current numbers — culled from survey data in mid-April — are worse than that seen in the Great Recession, when the unemployment rate neared 10%. Only during the Great Depression was a greater slice of the workforce out of work, according to DWD chief economist Dennis Winters.
Then the unemployment rate is believed to have hit around 25%, but only after several years. “This is a totally different egg,” Winters said, in terms of how quickly the job market has collapsed.
In April 2019, the state had recorded its lowest unemployment rate ever at 2.8%.
While the economy has been hemorrhaging jobs, DWD has come under increasing fire from the jobless and some lawmakers for its alleged inability to get benefits out to people quickly enough — or at all — and to provide help to people who have questions or complicated claims.
Satori Nelson, 25, of Sun Prairie, said she was formally laid off from her full-time job as a restaurant manager in Madison at the end March, and her first claim for unemployment was because she had to self-isolate due to symptoms of COVID-19.
But since then, her weekly claims have listed joblessness as her reason for seeking benefits, and so far none of those checks have come through. She estimates she’s eligible for about $6,300 at this point.
Her husband has continued to work from home, but the couple has a young son and “we’re probably at the point where this month is going to be pretty tight to pay rent.”
In La Crosse, Jessica Waller-Simdars has owned a small home-cleaning business for more than 10 years. But when the coronavirus hit, business largely dried up because some of her regular customers had to stay at home or had medical conditions that made it unsafe for her to go into their homes.
So the 44-year-old mother applied for benefits under a new federal program for gig workers and the self-employed, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, the day the application period opened, on April 21, but has received nothing since, she said. Trying to find out why has been impossible, largely because of the difficulty of getting through to a live person over DWD’s clogged phone lines.
“It’s like winning the lottery when you get through,” she said, but even when she does, no one has been able to answer her questions. “With PUA, it’s all just a big mystery,” she said.
In a statement before Thursday’s jobs numbers release, the co-chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, John Nygren, R-Marinette, laid the blame for such problems at the feet of the Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ administration.
“Gov. Evers, the buck stops with you,” Nygren said. “DWD needs to spend more time working to find ways to speed up the claims process and less time making excuses for their inability to effectively process unemployment claims. We have constituents that have been waiting over 60 days for benefits. Enough is enough. We need more action and less time passing blame.”
He also called on the agency to expand its call center hours and be open seven days a week until the agency’s backlog is eliminated.
DWD said that regular unemployment benefits are taking 17 days, on average, to reach applicants from the time they first apply. It did not have data on how quickly it’s turning around claims under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.
On Monday, DWD reported that of approximately 2.1 weekly claims received between March 15 and May 16, 1.4 million have been paid, amounting to about $1.14 billion, including additional federal benefits, sent to the state’s out-of-work. Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation made up about $726 million of what’s been distributed.
It could not say how long people are waiting to get through by phone to a DWD operator, but said it’s planning to increase call center staffing to 500 by mid-June.
DWD and Evers’ office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Data from DWD show that in the three-week period from April 26 and May 16, the total number of initial claims for unemployment dropped from 39,278 to 31,851 a week, with the agency seeing anywhere between about 1,200 and 9,800 initial claims per day.
Claims to continue getting unemployment benefits were about flat during the same period, though, at between about 334,000 and 339,000 per week.
The data suggest that while a historic number of people continue to lose their jobs, that number is slowly declining. At the same time, those who had already been out of work weren’t finding jobs to go back to.
After the Evers administration’s “safer at home” order was struck down by the state Supreme Court on May 13, daily claims to continue benefits started to taper off slightly, according to data that go through Tuesday.
Winters said it’s “too early” to say whether the decline is related to the order being struck down and people in many parts of the state being allowed to return to work, but he said there’s a less than 50% chance the state’s jobless rate will reach the 27% level the agency predicted in April.
Nearly 550,000 people applied for unemployment between March 15 and May 16, and 81,286 made claims for PUA.
A La Crosse County Circuit Court judge lowered the cash bond amount Thursday for a man accused of killing another man in a fight in a Menards parking lot in La Crosse.
Judge Elliott Levine ruled Thursday that the bond he initially set, $100,000, was not reasonable for Matthew Kinstler. Authorities say Kinstler hit 79-year-old Russell Paulson May 1 and knocked him to the ground during a dispute over parking. Paulson died days later in the hospital due to his injuries.
“Mr. Kinstler is innocent until proven guilty. He has a right to release under the Constitution. The question really becomes what’s reasonable given the situation,” Levine said.
Kinstler was charged May 11 with first-degree reckless homicide in connection with the May 1 altercation at 223 Lang Drive and faces a maximum of 60 years in prison if convicted.
Kinstler’s attorneys, Vincent Rust and Araysa Simpson of the public defender’s office, argued that the $100,000 was too high a cash bond to meet the legal standard of a reasonable bond.
“In lieu of a signature bond, we’re asking for a reasonable cash bond. It’s impossible for an individual who has very limited means and no access to employment — given the issues in our community due to the COVID-19 he can’t get employment even if he wanted to — to post $100,000,” Rust said.
Rust pointed out that Kinstler was not employed and lived off of his Social Security benefits, which he receives due to a mental health disability. If kept in custody, Kinstler would lose those benefits, Rust said.
Rust also said Kinstler was not a risk to flee the area and had a secure place to live with a family member in Holmen, adding that his client had the chance to abscond from the charges while out on bond while Paulson was in the hospital.
“Not only did he not attempt to flee, he cooperated on some level with law enforcement,” Rust said.
Assistant district attorney Susan Donskey argued that the bond was reasonable as previously set, saying Kinstler was a risk to the community and a risk to flee due to the seriousness of the charges and strength of the state’s case against him.
“While he was out on bond, knowing that the victim had serious injuries, he did at that time make threats to injure another group of people,” Donskey said.
According to the criminal complaint, Paulson and his wife parked in a handicapped-accessible spot to the left of Kinstler’s vehicle, and Kinstler and a woman accused Paulson of dinging the SUV. Witnesses told police Kinstler yelled at Paulson, who denied hitting the vehicle, and got into his face, eventually tipping his cowboy hat off of his head, according to the report. Paulson slapped him, and then Kinstler took Paulson’s walking stick and struck the left side of his head, causing him to fall to the ground.
Kinstler told police he acted in self-defense, saying he was asking whether Paulson hit the SUV when Paulson became upset, according to the complaint.
“One hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money. … Given the information on his background, his indigency and the possibility of a placement within the community, I will reduce it to a $5,000 cash,” Levine said.
If Kinstler posts bond, he would be required to comply with GPS monitoring by Justice Support Services and have no contact with Paulson’s family.
The La Crosse County Health Department reported one new lab-confirmed case of COVID-19 Thursday, attributed to a male in his 40s.
The newest patient is said to have mild symptoms and an investigation into his contraction of the virus is underway. In total, La Crosse County has had 48 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 38 of those individuals considered recovered and none currently hospitalized. According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, there have been 3,931 negative tests completed in La Crosse County, an increase of 270 since Wednesday.
Statewide, there have been 13,885 positive tests, 162,238 negative tests, and 2,218 hospitalizations due to the virus. A total of 487 individuals in Wisconsin have died from COVID-19.
The La Crosse County Health Department reminds community members to practice social distancing, limit excursions, wear a face covering in public and frequently and thoroughly wash their hands.