WED AM News: Pandemic led to new research applications, collaborations in Wisconsin; Research shows importance of broadband expansion

— While the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted and slowed certain research efforts in the state, it also gave researchers a chance to apply their work in new ways. 

“The pandemic just really catalyzed this big push to move something forward,” said Sandra McLellan, a professor in the School of Freshwater Sciences at UW-Milwaukee. She spoke yesterday during a virtual luncheon event focused on federally funded research. 

Early on in the pandemic, environmental microbiologists in the state working with wastewater and untreated sewage came together to develop a new method for COVID-19 community surveillance. McLellan explained that this effort “really was much more difficult than if we were doing it in a normally functioning lab,” as pandemic restrictions limited the number of scientists that could work in the lab and meet in person. 

Still, by expanding on existing national collaborations with other scientists, she said the research team was able to create a “surveillance method that just wasn’t even in existence” beforehand. Her team, along with the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene, is currently monitoring 50 cities in the state. They’ve been able to identify outbreaks before they show up in testing results by tracking the levels of the virus in cities’ wastewater systems. 

“Doing wastewater surveillance might be a way to track communities and see if there’s a warning flag that, ok, now we’ve got to jump back in with more public health measures or start testing again,” she said. “Over the last year and a half, I think we really have a good proof of concept for a way to do surveillance for this virus.” 

Jeanne Hossenlopp, Marquette University’s vice president for research and innovation, said clinical research with human involvement has been “slower to come back” than certain basic science efforts due to the challenges of interacting with the public amid the pandemic. 

“We phased back up, brought people in, but it’s not like flipping a light switch on,” Hossenlopp said. “You don’t just pick up where you left off … we are still pretty much in, for many of our research community, a recovery phase.” 

But while COVID-19 has thrown a wrench into many research efforts, Medical College of Wisconsin researcher Dr. Shekar N. Kurpad said innovations in remote work technologies have actually improved lines of communication with colleagues and partners. 

“Because of the parameters that the pandemic put upon how we functioned, we found new and different ways to collaborate,” he said. “Sometimes making a lot of collaborations, conversations, much easier than they used to be.” 

When the pandemic first hit, UW-Madison medical student and researcher Katarina Marie Braun said she “happened to be at the right place and the right time” to accelerate her work, as she had been studying variations of bird flu. 

“So it was really easy for my lab and me in particular to transition right over to COVID-19 and kind of jump right in, so my work certainly sped up,” she said. “I don’t think I left the lab for like a year.” 

Both McLellan and Braun highlighted the importance of the collaborations they developed through their pandemic-inspired research efforts, as well as the value of keeping those partnerships in place going forward. Braun said “there wasn’t really infrastructure or support” for quickly transitioning research insights into public health implementation before the pandemic. 

“What I worry is that without specific support, federal dollars to support those collaborations and to ensure that we’re prepared for the next pandemic, that those collaborations will fall away again,” she said. 

All of the panelists highlighted the importance of federal funding on their work, particularly in the area of basic research where impacts might not be felt for a decade or more. Kurpad noted that federal support helps to “fuel the spirit for inquiry” by allowing researchers to focus on the big scientific questions rather than issues of funding. 

“It gives them a certain span of time where they’re free to think, it’s a path to spawn off parallel thought processes in the people they have working for them, or themselves even,” he said. “That leads to more federal grants, more opportunities.” 

Watch a video of the discussion here: 

— Researchers with UW-Extension have found that expanding broadband access is more important for employment growth in Wisconsin than for the nation overall. 

Steve Deller is a professor of agricultural and applied economics and a community economic development specialist for UW-Madison. During a webinar yesterday, he explained that an UW-Extension analysis of national data found that broadband access “really doesn’t matter” for job growth at the national level, which he said was “really surprising to us.” 

But because Wisconsin is “sufficiently different” from many other areas of the country, he said that expanding broadband access “really does matter” for employment growth in the state. 

“We think the reason for that is because the economic structure of Wisconsin tends to be kind of scattered around the state a little bit more,” he said yesterday. 

While the economies of some other Midwest states like Minnesota and Illinois are dominated by large metropolitan areas — the Twin Cities and Chicago — Wisconsin’s economic activity is more widespread throughout the state. 

“So having access to broadband around the state matters a little bit more,” he said. 

Still, he added the concept of “build it and they will come” doesn’t hold true in this case, arguing that broadband access is necessary but not sufficient for a vibrant economy. 

“Broadband is not a magic bullet. It’s an important piece of the economic development puzzle. It’s a bigger piece now,” he said. “We need to think about how broadband fits into our broader economic development efforts.” 

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been allocated to expanding broadband in the state, including another $100 million recently authorized through the $1 trillion infrastructure bill signed into law by President Biden. Deller said rural parts of the state still tend to have lower levels of broadband availability, but also noted that affordability plays an important role in access. 

“The rural-urban disparities tend to be a physical infrastructure problem — the wires are simply not there,” he said. “But there’s also an access issue in terms of income levels.” 

Deller highlighted a number of findings from the UW-Extension broadband report that was published in January 2021, including a table illustrating the rural broadband shortage along with income disparities in broadband access. 

“You see all over, 40 percent of low-income households in the most urban areas do not have access,” he said. “This is the ‘ability to pay’ argument … so even if we have the physical infrastructure in place, there’s a large proportion of the population that simply cannot afford it.” 

The report notes that rural and low-income regions represent a low potential return on investment for service providers, due to the expense of adding new infrastructure and the relatively low density of potential subscribers. It identifies these factors as potential barriers in the ongoing broadband expansion effort in Wisconsin. 

See the report here: 

— A bipartisan group of lawmakers has proposed setting a $100 civil forfeiture as the new state penalty for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

But it also would increase the local penalty in some communities. Milwaukee County, for example, earlier this year reduced the fine to $1 for possession of small amounts.

Backers of the bill pushed it as a middle ground on the issue. Rep. Sylvia Ortiz-Velez, D-Milwaukee, helped push the local ordinance as a member of the Milwaukee County Board and is a co-sponsor of the bill.

“It’s worth the trade off,” she said.

Under current law, possession of marijuana is a misdemeanor that carries a fine of no more than $1,000, six months in jail or both. A repeat violation is a felony.

The bill would reduce the state penalty to a $100 civil forfeiture for possession of up to 14 grams. It also would eliminate the repeat conviction criminal offense for possession of 28 grams or less.

Current law allows local governments to enact an ordinance prohibiting possession and impose a fine. The bill would limit local fines to between $100 and $250 for possession, preempting local ordinances that set the forfeiture outside that range.

Other provisions include:

*reducing the penalty for possessing drug paraphernalia related to marijuana consumption to a civil forfeiture of $10, compared to the current criminal penalty of $500 or 30 days in jail.

*allowing law enforcement discretion in how to book those for violation of possessing marijuana or paraphernalia, including whether the person is taken to jail or fingerprinted.

*limiting the liability of an employer that doesn’t require employees or potential hires to take a drug test for the presence of the active ingredient in marijuana, synthetic cannabinoids, or a controlled substance analog to THC or a synthetic cannabinoid.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has expressed an openness to medical marijuana in the past, but not legalizing recreational use. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, said at a event in April that he doesn’t back legalizing medical marijuana without FDA approval. He also said there wasn’t enough support in his caucus for medical or recreational marijuana.

Gov. Tony Evers included a provision in his state budget to legalize marijuana, but GOP lawmakers pulled out the proposal.

GOP Rep. Shae Sortwell, one of the co-sponsors, said the bill is a middle ground that isn’t a win for those who want to take a hard line on marijuana or those that want full legalization.

“I believe this bill that we have put together does our best to pull together the best of both worlds,” he said.

— Organizations working to improve maternal and infant health outcomes among the state’s Black community are getting $1.2 million from the Wisconsin Partnership Program. 

Through the WPP endowment, the UW School of Medicine and Public Health is providing the grant funding to expand local efforts with this goal, including doula programs and related outreach, support programs for recently incarcerated mothers, paternal health programs and more. 

Eight organizations are getting awards of up to $150,000 for up to two years. 

Recipients include: Milwaukee’s African American Breastfeeding Network, The Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness in Dane County, Today Not Tomorrow in Madison, the statewide Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing, Milwaukee-based Fathers Make Progress, the Next Door Foundation in Milwaukee, as well as the Rock County Public Health Department and City of Milwaukee Health Department. 

The Wisconsin Partnership Program has awarded more than 560 grants totaling $265 million for a wide range of health research and other related efforts since it was established in 2004. 

See the release: 

— The African American Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin is presenting the 2021 Business Champion Award to DNR Network President and CEO Deborah N. Allen. 

She will be given the award on Dec. 15 through the chamber’s annual Breakfast of Champions event, being held virtually this year. The fundraising event highlights business leaders in the Milwaukee area. 

Allen launched the DNA Network in 2016 to provide coaching, leadership training and executive mentorship, building on decades of business experience. 

The AACCW will also be awarding its Rising Star Award to communication coach Denise Thomas and its Young Pioneer Award to MLK Business Improvement District Executive Director Raynetta Hill. 

“Deborah Allen, Denise Thomas and Raynetta Hill are among the leaders who are making a difference helping our organization to propel Wisconsin businesses that are owned by African Americans,” Ossie Kendrix Jr., president and CEO of the AACCW, said in a release. 

See more: 

— This year’s corn harvest is proceeding two weeks ahead of the five-year average, the latest USDA crop report shows. 

As of Monday, 86 percent of grain corn in Wisconsin was harvested, the report shows. And the state’s soybean harvest was 97 percent complete as farmers in the state wrap up this year’s harvest season. 

Meanwhile, winter wheat was 96 percent emerged with 79 percent of the crop rated good or excellent, which is 1 percent lower than last week. And fall tillage was 73 percent complete, which is also two weeks ahead of the five-year average. 

See the report: 


# Air travel in Wisconsin returning to pre-pandemic levels

# Aluminum cans are still hard to come by for beverage companies

# Waukesha’s Scanalytics lands $1.3M energy contract; seeks space for lab



– Bank survey: WI, Midwest farmland values continue to soar


– Farm parents sought for child safety research study

– Graduate workers blast UW-Madison for ‘paltry’ pay raises


– Winter makes first appearance in Wisconsin


– Dog Haus signs area franchise agreement with ROC Ventures


– Rise in uncompensated medical care continues: Bad debt, charity care rose 3.8 percent for Wisconsin hospitals in 2020

– Advocate Aurora leans into hybrid office work, exiting some real estate: CEO Skogsbergh

– Alone together: Seniors experienced heightened isolation during COVID-19 pandemic


– Meat processing plant could bring 1,300 jobs to Missouri


– High court hears challenge of sales tax used for Resch Expo, other projects 

– Wisconsin AG files lawsuit against Milwaukee landlord


– Wisconsin pot possession proposal aims to find middle ground

– Bipartisan proposal would change marijuana possession penalties in Wisconsin

– Wisconsin lawmakers make bipartisan effort to reduce marijuana penalties


– Sysco wants to expand its Jackson warehouse to 660,000 square feet

– Three industrial buildings totaling 567,000 square feet planned in Port Washington


– Ballpark Commons to bring Dog Haus restaurant franchise to Wisconsin, with more on the way

– Kohl’s adds another national clothing brand to its mix


– Packers launch first stock offering in a decade


– gener8tor makes European debut with launch of Luxembourg startup accelerator


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