Virus Outbreak

FILE — In this Nov. 21, 2020, file photo, a pedestrian walks past a mural reading: “When out of your home, Wear a mask over your mouth and nose,” during the coronavirus outbreak in San Francisco. From speculation that the coronavirus was created in a lab to a number of hoax cures, an overwhelming amount of false information about COVID-19 has followed the virus as it circled the globe over the past year. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

Ok, that year happened.

There have been a few new words added to our vocabulary in the last year that no one thought could ever happen in a country such as ours.

We learned words like pandemic and what that truly means. And how unprecedented is not a term you want to use so much that it actually becomes precedented.

This might have been one of the toughest years America has faced in the last century, the last time a pandemic swept across the world.

While we all know what social distancing means, and how staying six feet apart is something that is now a practiced part of our behavior, we saw the good and the bad of this year.

We have witnessed how front-line workers have been exhausted trying to save lives. And how staying home working all the time is not as fun as that sounds.

We have lived our lives this year in a bubble, peering out windows and watching the world go by. There is little to do with all the cancellations. Few, if any, fans in seats at sporting events, concerts and restaurants.

Unemployment is at all-time highs; food lines stretch for miles in certain states and hospitals are full.

Many have not seen their families for holidays and get-togethers.

But there has been good in this year if you look. Mass shootings used to be almost a daily occurrence in America, something the pandemic helped turn the tide on perhaps.

The world also stopped to applaud nurses and doctors on their way to work.

There even has been wildlife returning to areas they have not been in years with a lack of people on the streets.

A year to forget — perhaps. But also a year to learn from.

The Daily Union is looking back at the Top 10 stories of the year. And while all 10 could be COVID-related because that touched part of everyone’s life, there was plenty of news.

Here is a look at the top stories and photos from the year that was 2020:

10. Crash claims father, son

A semi-versus-van crash on icy roads during a snowstorm Jan. 24 claimed the lives of a Jefferson High School sophomore and his father.

Kaden Johnson and his father, Brian Johnson, of Jefferson, were on their way home from a junior varsity basketball game in McFarland when their van collided with a semi-truck on U.S. Highway 18 where it intersected with Hope Lake Road in the Town of Oakland, near Cambridge.

When school opened on Monday, the student body was in shock over losing one of its students and athletes. The loss was particularly poignant for the student drama community as well, as Kaden had taken lead roles in school musicals while at Jefferson Middle School, including that of Peter Pan, “the boy who never grew up.”

In a Facebook tribute to Johnson, Jefferson Middle School choir/drama director Lindy Perkins quoted one of Peter Pan’s lines, “Second star to the left and straight on ‘til morning.”

Meanwhile, the high school basketball community held its own tributes for the athlete who had been a friend and rising leader. In a tribute game later in the month, both the home team and the visiting team and fans wore blue, Kaden’s favorite color, in his memory.

9. The reopening.

If you drove down any interstate in April, you could have sworn that you might be the last person on Earth. There were stretches where no one appeared.

The state shut down in March with Gov. Tony Evers issuing a “Safer-At-Home” order that kept people inside and looking out their living room windows wondering what all this COVID-19 talk was about.

Bars and restaurants took the brunt of this, with many closing, some for good. They tried to make a go with take-out food. After being shut down for almost two months, the headline in the Daily Union read “Open for Business” on May 12.

Word that retail stores now can allow customers inside spread quickly through communities throughout Jefferson County, with some immediately changing their sign to read “Open.”

With five people allowed with social distancing in a store, that’s a normal day for some smaller businesses. There were some businesses that took more time to open again, not feeling safe.

The change also came on the same day facilities in Wisconsin opened for free COVID-19 testing to anyone.

People, and animals, were able to start getting their first haircuts in months by the end of May. Things were changing fast with the rules and businesses had to react quickly.

The summer saw things get back to a new normal for the most part, until another spike of the virus hit in September.

8. Last call

There was plenty of people wearing green to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day on March 17.

But by 5 p.m. that day, bars and restaurants were ordered to close as the pandemic was gaining momentum in Wisconsin and America.

Many were out celebrating St. Patrick’s Day at Paddy Coughlin’s Irish Pub. By mid-afternoon, the luck of the Irish had run out. Gov. Tony Evers ordered a statewide ban on all gatherings of more than 10 people as of Tuesday, and closed all bars and restaurants, except for delivery and pickup orders, in an attempt to limit the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

The news came as the number of people in Wisconsin who tested positive for COVID-19 increased from 47 to 72 in one day. Now, that’s an average day in Jefferson County. By September, cases would spike to more than 7,000 a day in Wisconsin, placing the state as one of the top hot zones in the country.

There was community spread of the virus in Milwaukee, Dane and Kenosha counties, said Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm.

As word spread to bars and restaurants throughout Jefferson County, owners were preparing to close before 5 p.m. and go to carry-out service only.

Restaurant owners in Fort Atkinson used a group text chat to keep up with how everyone else is handling the situation and for ideas for keeping the doors open that seemed to be changing by the hour.

Each night on the news, more word of how fast the virus was spreading was the main topic. New York was hard hit. Then the virus spread through the Midwest and spiked this fall.

The Jefferson County Health Department said on May 11 that it had received confirmation of the first two county residents having died due to infection with COVID-19.

The county reported 42 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, along with 24 probable and 38 suspected cases of the virus that day. Currently, more than 6,200 people have had the virus in the county since then.

With the shutdown looming over the state, residents soon learned how to use Zoom to work, hold meetings and even happy hour with friends who they no longer could see with the shutdown.

People flocked to Netflix, and a new documentary called “Tiger King” made everyone wonder what happened to Carole Baskin’s husband. She later gained more fame on “Dancing with the Stars.”

People also rediscovered outdoor movie theaters, like the one in Jefferson. And also found a love for old films again, with movie companies not releasing any new films.

7. Former sheriff’s deputy caught stealing

A former Jefferson County Sheriff’s deputy scandalized the community when she was caught burglarizing area homes, including those of co-workers and people attending a relative’s funeral.

Janelle Gericke, 29, was charged with two counts of burglary and one count of felony bail jumping.

Each burglary charge carries a maximum sentence of 12 years and six months’ imprisonment and the felony bail jumping charge carries a maximum sentence of six years in prison.

The initial charge was filed in December of 2019 following an investigation by the Wisconsin Department of Justice. Then, early in 2020 — just a week after Gericke’s lawyer signaled she was headed toward a plea deal — the former sheriff’s deputy was caught on a home security attempting another burglary while out on bond.

Because of the defendant’s former role in local law enforcement, Jefferson County judges William Gruber and Robert Dehring recused themselves from the case, thus sending the case to Dodge County.

Gericke served as a deputy in the Jail Division of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office from 2016 to July of 2019.

Her case was assigned to Dodge County Judge Judge Brian A. Pfitzinger.

6. ‘The moment that changed my world’

While the country was coming out of lockdown, one group of workers have been trying to save lives.

The Daily Union introduced the world to a few of the dedicated front-line workers on the COVID Triage team at Fort HealthCare — from those who were doing the first tests in the county for the virus, to those working with patients in rooms.

We met Sarah Burnette who found pictures with encouraging words from children, offering a contrast to her days behind a hot, form-fitting mask that has made her face break out.

She is one of the many nurses on the front lines in the fight against COVID-19 who have shared their experiences only with co-workers who understand what the last few months have been like — both physically and emotionally.

We also met Melanie Kutz, who found that helping a patient see their family on Facebook was the right thing to do.

And we met Lisa Jensen, who gave us the quote that summed up the last year. She said when the virus hit, it was “The moment that changed my world.”

In a matter of days, schools were closed statewide, and Jensen got a call from the hospital. They needed a person to lead their infection-control team, something she had years of experience doing.

“I felt certain that this would be the thing that would hit us. I knew we truly had to prepare,” she said of the pandemic.

We also met Allie Ulrich who was pulled from her Lake Mills Fort HealthCare clinic to be part of the team.

Ulrich became part of the drive-up testing the hospital began in April. She also works the triage floor.

She said some of the hardest points were all the changes so rapidly. Ulrich was trying to be a leader at a new workplace and felt the pressure.

“I can’t go see my mom and my stepdad,” she said of the precautions. “You don’t have anybody. That is what really hit me, and I don’t have anywhere to turn. I can’t put my family members at risk.”

When Jensen heard that the first case of COVID was at the hospital, she knew the staff was ready.

“It was like riding a bicycle,” Jensen said. “You become steady and confident in your ability and do what you’re taught.”

And keeping one thing always in mind when it comes to the patient.

“There is a person there,” she said.

5. The Palmyra-Eagle vote

Will they or won’t they have a school?

The state School District Boundary Appeals Board on Jan. 9 voted to not dissolve the Palmyra-Eagle Area School District.

Seated shoulder to shoulder in a packed gymnasium, the crowd erupted in cheers and applause following a 6-1 vote to deny dissolving the district.

The state board’s vote came shortly after an hour of going through the process of how it would proceed. A motion to vote on denying dissolving the district was made by Katie Maloney, of the Green Bay Area School District.

After all seven board members cast paper ballots, the votes were read one-by-one, with the lone “no” vote cast by David Carlson, the state superintendent’s designee.

The process of moving forward will be a long and difficult one for Palmyra-Eagle, which has become financially unstable.

Its debt has ballooned to $12.8 million that would have followed students to new districts had Palmyra-Eagle been dissolved. The district must find ways to pay that debt.

But after some tough decisions, there is a pride in wearing purple again.

Not that the feeling ever went away, but there is a sense of accomplishment with a long journey ahead for the Palmyra-Eagle Area School District.

September has offered an opportunity to show why the decision to keep schools in Palmyra and Eagle open was warranted after facing dissolution in January.

The seven-member board of education changed over all the seats. Staffing changes were made, including a new superintendent in Todd Gray, who is interim until a permanent replacement is found. He led the Waukesha School District for 12 years.

The board had to make some fast decisions last spring, so the school year could happen this fall. First was the closing of Palmyra Elementary School. All those pupils now go to Eagle Elementary School.

Then, the sixth grade was added to the middle and high school building.

While all this was taking place, the COVID-19 pandemic threw a giant wrench into the works.

“We were only able to enjoy (the decision to keep the district open) for a couple months,” said Kara Timm, who is the principal of the high school. “It was a tumultuous year all around.

“We really, as a staff, focused on preparing the kids as emotionally and academically as we could,” she added. “We are a small school and relationships are so important, making sure our kids know they would be OK.

“There is very much pride in wearing purple,” Timm said.

4. Man who kills two still not found

Authorities still are investigating a shooting in June that left Nedra and Jim Lemke dead outside a Town of Sumner home on Tuesday, June 16. They died of gunshot wounds, Jefferson County Medical Examiner Nichol Tesch said.

Kevin P. Anderson, of Fort Atkinson, still is being sought in connection with the deaths of his sister and brother-in-law and a fire at a residence.

Nedra, 57, and Jim Lemke, 59, of Fort Atkinson, were discovered dead outside the house of the siblings’ late father, Verdal E. Anderson, on Tuesday. The had gone to the house to mow the lawn.

Kevin and Nedra are two of five children of Verdal, who passed away on June 5. His estate currently is in probate court, according to online court records.

Anderson, of Perry Road, is described as a 61-year-old white male, standing 6 feet tall and weighing about 200 pounds. He has blue eyes and balding brown hair.

Authorities warn that anyone seeing Anderson should not approach him. Instead, citizens are asked to contact law enforcement immediately.

Jefferson County Sheriff Paul Milbrath reported that at 5:48 p.m. Tuesday, his department received a call of a possible burglary at N1941 County Highway A, off of State Highway 106 in the Town of Sumner. Upon arriving at the scene, a deputy saw two people lying in the driveway who later were determined to be deceased.

Shortly thereafter, shots were fired at the deputy by a person inside the residence. The deputy returned fire and was able to take cover.

The deputy then noticed black smoke coming from the residence, which soon became engulfed in flames.

The Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation and Office of the State Fire Marshal are investigating the deaths and fire that took place.

At this time, law enforcement officials believe the incident was targeted and not a random act, the DOJ reported.

The DOJ asks anyone who might have information about this incident or who was driving near State Highway 106 and Highway A to please contact the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office at (920) 674-7310.

3. Schools go virtual

When the decision came down in March to close schools statewide in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, area administrators were put in the unprecedented position of having to develop an entirely new method of delivering curriculum: 100 percent online.

In a phrase that has been much quoted since, Jefferson Superintendent Mark Rollefson likened rolling out online schooling during the pandemic to “building the plane as we’re flying it.”

Jefferson students learned on March 13 as they prepared to head to spring break that their break would be extended to two weeks. It was on that day Rollefson asked staff members how swiftly they could roll out an entirely online curriculum.

Shortly thereafter, the local school shutdown spread statewide, with Gov. Tony Evers ordering all school buildings closed by March 18.

Fort Atkinson school administrators had considered opening for the 16th and 17th before that order went into effect but decided Sunday the 15th to extend their own spring break, preparing for an online reopening April 6 after that district’s originally scheduled break.

Little did students and educators know that this unprecedented situation would extend through the rest of that school year, and that schools even would spend large chunks of the coming 2020-21 school year doing virtual instruction.

To make this change, educators at all levels worked feverishly to learn new technologies, develop new lessons and reach out to isolated students in their homes all across the area.

Meanwhile, area schools’ food service departments cranked into high gear to develop a new way to distribute school meals to the entire student population in the community.

Pretty much every educator everywhere conceded that virtual instruction was not the ideal method of delivering lessons — but that it was wonderful to have that option under these unprecedented circumstances.

2. Voting

People went to the polls in record numbers this year to pick a president and state representatives — all this during a pandemic.

In April, Wisconsin was the state that went to the polls to vote in person while other states delayed their elections. Thousands lined up for the primary that would become the start of things to come.

In the weeks leading up to the general election on Nov. 3, President Donald Trump and his family had come to the state many times seeking to swing the battleground state in his direction. Pres.-Elect Joe Biden also visited the state and later won Wisconsin by about 20,000 votes.

And then the real news began. The recount of Dane and Milwaukee counties commenced, lawsuits followed and all were tossed out of court with no proof of election fraud.

Many politicians did not acknowledge Biden’s victory until recently.

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson in mid-December acknowledged that Democrat Joe Biden is the president-elect and the election was legitimate, and said he would not object when Congress meets next month to tabulate the Electoral College results.

However, Johnson told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in an interview that he still had unanswered questions about the election and planned to move ahead with a Senate homeland security committee hearing on Wednesday to look into “legitimate questions” about “irregularities.”

“All I’m trying to do is hold a very upfront, straightforward hearing talking about what controls there are in place, what fraud does occur, what can we do to prevent fraud in the future,” Johnson said.

Congress meets Jan. 6 to receive the results of the Electoral College votes that were cast in all 50 states.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell last week also acknowledged Biden’s victory for the first time.

1. COVID-19 pandemic

The largest story not only this year, but perhaps the largest of the 21st century, is that the world is shut down by a pandemic.

The story of the virus began last year when the first cases were found in China. Within months, the virus spread across the world so quickly that countries were forced to have lockdowns to try and control the virus.

On March 17, bars and restaurants closed in Wisconsin for months, and the slow reopening that began in May lead to a steady climb in coronavirus cases, but nothing like what happened in September when cases spiked to more than 7,000 a day.

The pandemic created high unemployment numbers across the nation and long food lines. The federal government had a rescue package with money early on, but then did nothing for most of the year until last week when they passed a $900 billion COVID-19 economic relief package.

The $300 per week bonus jobless benefit was one-half the supplemental federal unemployment benefit provided under the $1.8 billion CARES Act in March and would be limited to 11 weeks instead of 16 weeks. The direct $600 stimulus payment to most people also would be half the March payment, subject to the same income limits in which an individual’s payment began to phase out after $75,000.

In Jefferson County, events like the fair, concerts and anything that would have large numbers of people gathering were canceled this year.

In Wisconsin, the statewide death toll hit 4,399 last week from the virus. There have been 455,351 cases of the virus. And more than 6,200 people have had the virus in Jefferson County.

The one bright spot recently in all this is many vaccines are on the way, with the first doses of the Pfizer vaccine given to frontline workers in the state two weeks ago.

A federal advisory panel last week recommended that people 75 and older and essential workers like firefighters, teachers and grocery store workers should be next in line for COVID-19 shots.

The two developments came amid a vaccination program that began only in the last week and has given initial shots to about 556,000 Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer Inc. and Germany’s BioNTech already is being distributed, and regulators last week gave approval to the one from Moderna, Inc. that began shipping.

What happens next also could be the top story of next year, if the state, the nation and the world are able to get back to normalcy again — whatever that might look like.

So long 2020, we won’t forget you anytime soon.

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