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How coronavirus is shaping voter mindsets in the battleground of Wisconsin

As President Trump seeks to highlight his apparent recovery from coronavirus, cases are once again surging in several U.S. states – just weeks before the election. One of them is Wisconsin, a battleground Trump won in 2016 but where he is now trailing former Vice President Joe Biden by 5 percentage points, according to polls. Yamiche Alcindor explores how the virus is affecting the campaign there.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As the president looks to highlight his own recovery from coronavirus, the number of infections is once again surging in several states just weeks before the election.

    That includes the battleground of Wisconsin, where President Trump is trailing former Vice President Joe Biden by an average of 5 percentage points. That's according to the latest polls.

    Our Yamiche Alcindor looks at how the virus is affecting the race there.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Oshkosh, Wisconsin, is one of the country's fastest growing coronavirus hot spots. In recent weeks, cases have surged here and across Wisconsin, a state that also happens be key to President Trump's reelection.

  • Douglas Gieryn:

    Our hospitals are becoming overwhelmed.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Doug Gieryn is the Winnebago County health director. He hoped the president's experience with the virus would cause people to take it more seriously. But he says it didn't.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Don't be afraid of it. You're going to beat it.

  • Douglas Gieryn:

    For him to have a positive test was a great opportunity to really express to the public how serious this disease can be for some individuals. And, unfortunately, it's been minimized, and we're still on the same path that we were before.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    In 2016, President Trump flipped Wisconsin red by fewer than 23,000 votes, thanks partly to his sweep of the northeast section of the state, known as the Fox River Valley.

    It's become one of Wisconsin's most politically divided regions, and that was even before the coronavirus pandemic.

  • Nate Gustafson:

    I don't think my votes — my vote was ever shifted in any way.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Republican Nate Gustafson supports the president's handling of the virus.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Well, hello, Oshkosh.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    He was excited to see the president in-person at an August rally in Oshkosh in August. The county was already in the so-called red zone, with a high level of cases, according to the White house Coronavirus Task Force.

  • Nate Gustafson:

    Trump taking the actions that he did when he did were so crucial at the time.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    A sibling and an aunt of his have contracted the virus, but they have gotten better.

  • Nate Gustafson:

    COVID's not killing these people, and they're not even catching COVID, but, in some way, shape or form, with the economy taking a hit, that is impacting them. Obviously, we see the spike here in this area in where we are now, even with our current governor's mask mandate.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    In Wisconsin, about 150,000 people have gotten the coronavirus and more than 1,400 have died from it. Health experts say wearing facial coverings help stop the spread of the virus.

    But while nearly three-quarters of Wisconsin voters support requiring masks in public, the precaution has become deeply political.

  • Nate Gustafson:

    If you want to wear a mask because you feel comfortable, and it's going to help you, and you feel that it is going to prevent spread, wear it.

    But when you start demanding and enforcing and telling people that you have to do something in a certain way, that it's going to be ineffective.

  • Anne Winters:

    I have had friends who've had masks torn off their faces.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Neenah resident Anne Winters is a cancer survivor. She is immune-compromised, as is her 5-year-old son, Drew. Winters is a Democrat voting for former Vice President Joe Biden.

  • Anne Winters:

    I'm more than disappointed in how Trump has handled this. I don't expect any politician to be perfect, but I do expect them to actually care about us as citizens.

    And I expect them to set a good example for us as citizens. And I don't understand how anyone can look at him and think that cruelty and carelessness with the American public is a great man.

  • Becky Verbeke:

    He's 74 years old, and he got over it.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    But some Republicans, like Becky and Jeff Verbeke of nearby Appleton, say President Trump's own COVID-19 diagnosis and his quick return to the White House confirm their views of the virus.

  • Jeff  Verbeke:

    I believe it's being used as a tool to lock people up, to force people away, to make people angry and upset.

  • Beck Verbeke:

    To make them scared or to make them feel like the person who isn't wearing it is going to make them sick. If you don't have any issues, it's like having the flu. You might be down for a few days. If your — if your immune system's down, you might be down for a week, but you're going to recover. You're going to be OK.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    But scientists say President Trump, who is 74 and overweight, is actually at a high risk for complications. And according to CDC estimates, COVID-19 has killed more people this year than the seasonal flu killed in the last five years combined.

    And it's had a disproportionate impact on Black people and people of color.

  • Jeremy Bradley:

    I don't think that the president has taken it serious as far as how to combat it in communities of color, because he likes to feed into the hands of the people he feel will vote for him.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Jeremy Bradley's youngest son got COVID-19 in August and recovered. But while at a protest against police brutality, Bradley said the president's downplaying of the virus shows that President Trump doesn't understand his privilege.

  • Jeremy Bradley:

    He's sort feeding into the, it shouldn't be a problem, you guys can get over it, because I did, even though he has the best doctors possible to combat it, where everybody else isn't able to get that kind of medical assistance.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    In 2016, Sarah Leet joined 150,000 other Wisconsin voters in supporting a third-party candidate. This year, though, she's voting for Biden because of the president's response to the pandemic.

  • Sarah Leet:

    I don't think that he still to this minute understands that this is a national crisis. His leadership, for better or for worse, does have an impact.

    I think, to a point, I most almost even ashamed that I think that hearing it over and over from him subconsciously affected how I thought about it myself. I thought, maybe — maybe it's not something that I need to worry about.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    But, in the last week, Leet says she's gone from not knowing anyone with the virus to knowing five people who've tested positive. That's just a small fraction of the growing number of cases across Wisconsin.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Yamiche Alcindor.

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