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Holmen School District delivering meals to students, siblings during virtual learning period

Hundreds of households in Holmen answered their doors Wednesday to accept deliveries of hot, aromatic pizza.

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

Holmen School District transportation employee Mark Quade loads lunches onto a school bus Wednesday before helping deliver them throughout the community.

The cheesy slices, however, came free of charge — no delivery fees or tips necessary.

For the past two weeks, Holmen community members age 18 and under, regardless of whether they are enrolled in classes, have been receiving a breakfast and hot lunch five days a week courtesy of the School District of Holmen.

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

Heather Mathwig, right, and Analise Smith with the Holmen School District Nutrition Department bag individual pizzas Wednesday at Holmen Middle School. The department is preparing about 1000 breakfasts and 1,400 lunches per day during the virtual learning period. Mathwig has three children enrolled at Holmen public schools.

Last April, when learning went remote due to the coronavirus precautionary school closure mandate, the district’s nutrition services department provided the same through the end of the semester.

However, while pick-up of the meals was previously required, the transportation department has now been brought on board to drive the food to places of residence.

“Some parents are back at work and the students are virtual learning and they don’t really have a way to pick (meals) up,” says Michael Gasper, nutrition services supervisor for the School District of Holmen. “The meal just shows up for them — it’s really quite slick.”

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

Analise Smith loads a crate of milk Wednesday while preparing lunches at Holmen Middle School.

Currently, remote learning for Holmen public schools is set to extend through the end of the month, and so far nutrition services has prepared and delivered about 11,000 lunches, which consist of a hot main dish and cold or shelf stable sides, and 7,000 breakfasts.

A team of about 19 churns out some 2,400 meals daily, which are bused to students by a roster of 20 transportation employees using eight vehicles. The first workers of the day arrive at 5:30 a.m., and the last clock out at 3 p.m.

“The attitudes have been really good — these folks love to make sure these kids are fed and ready to learn,” says Gasper, who refers to the logistics, cooking, packaging, coordinating and delivery process as “controlled chaos.”

The transportation team has been equally enthusiastic and accommodating, Gasper says, and both parents and youth have expressed their appreciation for the service.

“They are just so thankful. It’s one less thing for them to worry about. They know their kids are being taken care of,” Gasper says. The youth, he says, will hear a knock on the door and open it with a big smile.

“The kids are getting a bit of normalcy in a crazy time,” Gasper says.

Siblings of students and home-schooled children can partake in the program, and the meals being delivered, which are funded through the USDA, follow the same nutritional guidelines as standard school issued breakfasts and lunches.

Registration is required, but Gasper recalls an employee who, when a boy chased after the bus but hadn’t signed up, provided him with a meal anyway, not wanting him to be hungry.

“These people are truly good hearted,” Gasper says of the nutrition services workers. “They’re great people who love what they’re doing.”

Free meals and delivery will continue if remote learning is extended, up to Dec. 22 or when the USDA has exhausted funding.

When in-session classes and busing resumes, pick-up may be required for students who continue to pursue virtual education. Meals must be pre-ordered by Wednesday the week prior. To order, call the Nutrition Service Office at 526-1325 or visit

“Some parents are back at work and the students are virtual learning and they don’t really have a way to pick (meals) up. The meal just shows up for them — it’s really quite slick.” Michael Gasper, nutrition services supervisor for the School District of Holmen

Voters see economy through political lens in polarized era

APPLETON, Wis. — Nothing can shake Scott Rice’s faith that President Donald Trump will save the U.S. economy — not seeing businesses close or friends furloughed, not even his own hellish bout with the novel coronavirus.

He was once a virus skeptic. But then the disease seeped into the paper mill where he works, and he was stricken, suddenly losing his appetite. He lay in bed, feverish, drenched in sweat. His body seemed at war with itself.

After 16 days at home, Rice told his co-workers that the disease was scary and real. But Trump held onto his vote for one reason: The stock market was climbing.

“The 401(k)s, just the economy,” Rice said. “He got jobs going. Just accumulated a lot of jobs, being a businessman.”

Rice’s belief represents the foundation of Trump’s hopes — that Americans believe the economy is strong enough to deliver him a second term.

But in Appleton, a city of 75,000 people along the Fox River, the health of the economy isn’t judged on jobs numbers, personal bank accounts or union contracts. Instead, it’s viewed through partisan lenses — filtered through the facts voters want to see and hear, and those they don’t.

By almost any measure, Trump’s promises of an economic revival in places like Appleton have gone unfulfilled. The area has lost about 8,000 jobs since he got elected.

While supporters like Rice are immovable, others have had enough. President Barack Obama won here in 2012, but voters flipped to Trump four years later, and Trump cannot afford much erosion in a state that he won by only 22,000 votes out of more than 2.8 million.

Biden holds a slight lead over Trump in the latest Marquette Law School poll of Wisconsin voters. Trump’s disapproval rating has risen to 54% from 49% at the start the year. But 52% of Wisconsin voters applaud Trump on the economy, while 56% dislike his handling of the pandemic.

Even Rice concedes that the economy is not just an argument for Trump — it’s also an argument against him. His 20-year-old daughter, Cassidy, tells him so. She is studying public health at George Washington University and will cast her first presidential vote for Biden.

“The fact that there was a pandemic and the fact that it had those consequences on the economy should be an eye opener, like, hey, maybe we’re not doing this correctly,” she said.

How Trump won

Trump won the presidency by wringing tens of thousands of votes out of small towns and medium-size cities across Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

He did it in places like Appleton’s Outagamie County. A city of stone and brick, Appleton hugs the Fox River, its currents powering the smoke-stacked paper mills that built fortunes. Now condos, cafes, offices and a jogging trail line the riverbank.

The trail ends downtown at Houdini Plaza, a monument to the city’s most famous offspring, illusionist Harry Houdini. His words are inscribed on the monument where his childhood home once stood: “What the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind believes.”

There may be no better explanation of American politics in this confounding moment.

Trump voters listen to his cheerleading for the economy and believe the businessman president has worked his magic. Biden’s backers see an illusion — an economy that was recovering under Obama, but now, with the pandemic, is trying to crawl back to health, with no real plan from Trump.

People cannot even agree on the terms of the economic debate.

“What we’ve done with politics is gotten into a tribal war that looks only at elections when we should be looking at policies and results,” said John Burke, CEO and chairman of Wisconsin-based Trek Bicycles, one of the state’s most prominent business leaders.

After 2016, local Democrats wasted no time mourning. Lee Snodgrass became chair of the local party and began a blitz of door-knocking to build up volunteers and voters, a task that led her into areas that were firmly for Trump.

As a candidate now for the state Legislature, Snodgrass finds Republicans still defending Trump after she recited facts about the economy and the pandemic: several millions jobs lost, a rising body count.

These Republican voters found Trump’s demeanor crude. But the unemployment rate was a strong 3.5% before the pandemic. Trump had updated and replaced the North American Free Trade Agreement. They give Trump credit, although he inherited a healthy 4.7% unemployment rate and the trade deficit with Mexico on goods had jumped to $101 billion last year — higher than in any year under Obama.

Factory jobs

At the Midwest Paper Group, where Scott Rice works, there is a story of recovery, but one where credit lay with the union and the Outagamie County executive, not with Trump.

More than 600 workers were handed pink slips in anticipation of the mill being shuttered, in an area where nearly one in five jobs are still in factories.

“Most were resigned to fate,” said Tom Nelson, the county executive. “The paper industry was deemed old and outdated, uncompetitive because of imports, unfair trade deals, electronic substitution.”

The workers, their union representation and Nelson lobbied the bankruptcy court and struck a deal. Instead, the mill added new machines to make materials for cardboard, capitalizing on the growing number of people shopping online at Amazon. For 12 hours a day, Rice mans the control room in a red face mask that says “USA.”

Pandemic losses

Trek’s three U.S. warehouses were emptied of bikes by August because of a rush of pandemic buying, yet Burke, its CEO, was agonizing about the fate of the broader economy.

Burke, 58, pedals 110 miles on his standard Saturday ride, long enough for the nation’s problems to turn over in his mind. He decided to write a book in 2016 and updated it this year, “Presidential Playbook 2020: 16 Nonpartisan Solutions to Save America.”

As Burke sees it, Trump has governed with a dangerous set of blind. There are the hurricanes and wildfires unleashed by climate change. Not enough money invested in children. And Trump initially downplayed the virus’ threat.

In Appleton, nearly 40% of the leisure and hospitality jobs have been lost. Restaurants have been closed, hotels vacant. Downtown, Mondo! wine bar is getting by with retail sales and outdoor seating, until the weather changes.

The bar’s owner, David Oliver, 59, said American businesses desperately need another round of aid and Oliver blames the president.

“They’re supposed to be pro-business,” Oliver said. “But so much of the Republican Party has reverted to this magical thinking that Trump has that the economy is fine and the virus is going away.”

What the pandemic has shattered is consumer confidence, said Marvin Murphy, the 80-year-old owner of Fox Cities magazine. He estimates he has spoken with every business within 70 miles of Appleton.

“The COVID has put so much pessimism into the economy — that’s the big killer,” he said.

Murphy sipped a fresh cup of coffee in his backyard overlooking the Wolf River and lamented that so many people only process the world based on what they see and hear on TV.

“Reality is is not the most important thing,” Murphy said. “The perceived reality is what’s important.”


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122 more cases in La Crosse County -- fastest rise in cases in U.S.

La Crosse County recorded 122 new confirmed COVID-19 cases Wednesday with a 12.45% positivity rate, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

The county has reported at least 90 new cases on four of the past five days while averaging 91.57 new cases per day during the past seven days.

Total confirmed cases are up to 2,011, which grows to 2,142 when including probable cases.

The county has recorded more than 1,000 new confirmed cases during the past four weeks after it took more than five months for it to record its first 1,000 cases.

According to The New York Times as of Wednesday afternoon, the La Crosse metro area has seen the fastest rise in new cases of any metro area in the U.S. per 100,000 people during the past week. Seven other metro areas in Wisconsin are among the top 20.

Wednesday’s positivity rate in the county was the lowest in a week, and the seven- and 14-day rates dropped as a result, though both are still significantly higher than they were a week ago.

The seven-day rate, which was 14.35% on Sept. 9, is at 31.30%. The 14-day rate, which was 14.87% on Sept. 9, is at 25.28%.

Total positivity rose to 7.89%, and total deaths remained at two.

Databank: Learn more about COVID-19 and its spread
Databank: Learn more about COVID-19 and its spread

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Local COVID-19 cases now total 2,011, health officials support UWL 'shelter in place' order

The Coulee COVID-19 Collaborative relayed concern about the local rise in cases Wednesday and expressed support for UW-La Crosse’s two-week stay-in-place order.

The Collaborative’s webpage, which is updated on Wednesdays, showed an average of 100 cases per day during the seven-day period ending Sept. 15, with a 47% positivity rate.

As of Tuesday, the community had 961 active cases of the coronavirus. According to Wisconsin Department of Health Data, La Crosse County cases increased by 122 on Wednesday, with 50 attributed to individuals age 10 to 19 and 54 to those 20-29.

Total cases have reached 2,011, and on Wednesday The New York Times put La Crosse at No. 1 on the list of fastest rise in new cases of any metro area in the U.S. per 100,000 people over the seven days.

One week ago La Crosse had 130 new cases, and now has had 626 new cases in the past seven days, with a difference of 363 cases per 100,000.

Since the pandemic hit locally in March, more than half of all coronavirus cases in La Crosse County have been in patients in their 20s. Demographic information from the most recent seven-day period, including ages, was not available as of press time.

“The recent marked increase in positive COVID-19 cases among 20-29 year-olds who live in our community has far-reaching impacts,” the La Crosse County Health Department said in a release. “Many of these young people are college students and all are important members of our community. Many are young professionals, members of young families, and workers who fill vital roles in the local workforce.”

Earlier this week, UW-La Crosse made the decision to close campus buildings and issue a shelter-in-place order for all campus housing facilities for two weeks.

Some parents and students have questioned the aggressiveness of the response. However, Collaborative member Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald of Mayo Clinic Health System believes it was a warranted action and should be honored by students and staff.

“I credit the medical team at the university — they are working incredibly hard ...,” Fitzgerald said. “You can look at UW-L as a campus as an endemic area, a high-risk area with a lot of virus. (With a) positivity rate over 70%, anyone in that area has probably been exposed, and putting a hold on the area I think is a very legitimate response.”

Jen Rombalski, director of the La Crosse County Health Department, adds the university was “quickly maxing out isolation and quarantine spaces” and notes there are pros and cons to the order.

“There is no black-and-white answer, no one-size-fits-all in this situation,” Rombalski said. “...These students were given a two-hour notice and many left campus, which concerns us since it means they may bring disease home to their families.”

Another consideration, Rombalski said, is that “many of these individuals work and need to support themselves and we don’t want to see unintended consequences.”

For students employed at elder-care facilities and youth organizations, going to work while asymptomatic could cause quick spread. However, if those without symptoms or a positive coronavirus test refrain from working, places in crucial need of staffing could be short handed.

“It’s a tough situation all around,” Rombalski said.

At UW-L, both PCR and antigen tests are available for COVID-19. Only PCR tests are counted as confirmed cases, and Fitzgerald says they are very rarely falsely positive, with more than 99% accuracy. Antigen tests are generally used as preliminary testing, as the results are quicker though less accurate.

College COVID-19 Dashboard updates

The UW-L COVID-19 dashboard, updated daily, indicated no new PCR tests were administered Tuesday, while 10 out of the 129 given antigen tests given were positive. UW-L currently has 81 isolation rooms occupied.

Western Technical College’s dashboard, which is updated on Wednesdays, reported seven active COVID-19 cases among students as of Sept. 16. This is up two cases from the previous seven-day period.

As of Sept. 14, Viterbo has 63 students currently infected with the virus, according to the university’s dashboard.

The Collaborative is closely working with universities and school districts to monitor case rates and provide guidance.

Coulee COVID-19 Collaborative metric update

Metric status for the week ending Sept. 13 (seven-day rolling average):

  • New case rate: 67.9 per 100,000/day (rising, red/caution category)
  • New hospitalization rate: 2.36 per 100,000/day (satisfactory, green category)
  • Hospitalization Care Capacity: all patients can be quickly tested and cared for (green)
  • Cases interviewed within two days, 85% goal: 60.1% (unmet, red)
  • Identified contacts traced, 90% goal: 73.5% (unmet, red)
  • Contacts reached within 1-2 days, 75% goal: 64.2% (unmet, red)
  • Daily testing goal,75% goal: 238.6% (met, green)
  • Testing turnaround time, 85% within two days goal: 92.6% (met, green)
  • Positive test ratio, under 10% goal: 34.4% (unmet, red)

Statewide Data

Wisconsin reported 1,408 new cases of COVID-19 Wednesday, for a running total of 92,712 lab-confirmed positives. Negative tests total 1,295,313, an increase of 10,788 since yesterday. An additional 48 people were hospitalized for the coronavirus, with 6,454 ever hospitalized. Eight more patients have died from COVID-19, bringing fatalities to 1,228.

Community recommendations

Given the information from these metrics and the growing case rates in La Crosse County, the Coulee COVID-19 Collaborative highly recommends the following to assure a safe and healthy community

  • If you have any symptoms consistent with COVID-19, stay home and reach out to healthcare to get tested.
  • If you have been in close contact with someone who is COVID-19 positive, quarantine for 14 days and only get tested if symptoms occur. If you are asymptomatic, only get tested if you develop symptoms or are advised by county health officials.
  • If you need to be tested, call medical facilities prior to arrival for screening purposes and pre-registration.
  • Wear a mask and keep a six-foot distance when with others outside your household.
  • Wash your hands frequently and avoid touching your face.
  • Businesses should prioritize and/or resume active screening of employees. Symptomatic employees should stay home.
  • Organizations that care for populations vulnerable to COVID-19 including older adults, individuals at high risk or with underlying health conditions, etc. should limit visitors and increase screening of employees.
  • Avoid unnecessary travel.
  • Personal social gatherings are not recommended.
  • Minimize mass gatherings in businesses, public buildings, and venues. Capacity should be limited to 25% of total capacity or 50 people indoors or 100 outdoors, whichever is less. Masks and physical distancing should be required.
  • Avoid businesses and locations that are not following recommendations on masks, physical distancing and capacity limits.

“What we do today and the decisions we make today will impact us in one to two weeks,” Rombalski said. “We need to take action now to follow these recommendations.”