Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A look back at the 1918 pandemic in Northfield & similarities to today July 14, 2021

Minnie’s obit, published in the Northfield News. Source: Timeline on NHS website.

FIRST DEATH BY INFLUENZA

Minnie Marko died at her home after a brief illness of pneumonia, according to her obituary published in the November 15, 1918, issue of the Northfield News.

The death of the 21-year-old is just one of many topics in a timeline, “1918-1920 Influenza in Northfield, Minnesota.” Three Carleton College students worked with the Northfield Historical Society to create the timeline in 2020.

Headlines in the November 15, 1918, Northfield News. Source: Timeline on NHS website.

It’s an interesting read, showing the striking similarities between the Spanish flu and the COVID-19 pandemics. Thanks to Northfield writer and photographer Margit Johnson for featuring the research in a recent post on her blog, Elevation99. I recommend you read Margit’s post and then follow the link to the timeline.

I did just that, scanning headlines like these:

IT’S UP TO YOU TO FIGHT THE FLU (10/25/1918)

FOUR STUDENTS AT ST. OLAF DIE DUE TO INFLUENZA (11/21/1918)

NO CHRISTMAS CHURCH SERVICE IN NORTHFIELD (12/22/1918)

COLLEGES RETURN, WITH RESTRICTIONS (1/1919)

BELOVED CARLETON PROFESSOR FRED B. HILL DIES OF INFLUENZA (1/29/1919)

As I read the headlines and the brief summaries that followed, I considered how quickly information, and misinformation, spreads today. I considered how public health officials then, and now, recognized the seriousness of the virus and took efforts to stop the spread of the virus. The State Board of Public Health forbade public funerals and ordered wearing of gauze masks on streets and in public buildings in November 1918. Sound familiar?

Health Rules published in the February 13, 1920, Northfield News. Source: Timeline on NHS website.

But perhaps the timeline entry that struck me most personally was this item in a list of Ten Health Rules published in the February 13, 1920, Northfield News:

10. Do unto others as you wish them to do unto you.

Think about that as it relates to COVID-19. Just like in 1918, our choices today affect more than ourselves. Before COVID numbers dropped in our country due to vaccinations, too many people refused to wear masks (and to wear them properly over mouth AND nose). And now people are refusing vaccination for reasons ranging from political to distrust of the vaccine (and thus of science) to believing the virus won’t make them seriously sick or kill them. It can and it does.

History tells us to expect a resurgence of the virus if such me-centered attitudes and behaviors prevail. As in 1918, the message that bears repeating is this: This is not just about us individually. This is about all of us. About caring for one another. About understanding that our choices affect the health, and thus the lives, of others.

People are still getting sick and dying from COVID-19. That’s especially true in states with low vaccination rates. Missouri, for example, has the most aggressive Delta variant outbreak, according to recent media reports. In Minnesota, Crow Wing and Cass Counties (in the heart of lake and cabin country) are experiencing a noticeable increase in COVID cases. All of this concerns health officials. And it should concern us, too, especially those who are not vaccinated, whether by choice or because they are too young for vaccination. This virus can mutate, as it did into the highly-contagious Delta variant, putting people at an even higher risk of serious illness and death.

The grief of those losing loved ones today is no less than the family of Minnie Marko, 21, who died in 1918 in Northfield. Minnie didn’t have the option of a vaccine. We do.

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FYI: I’d encourage you to read my June 11 post about a 46-year-old Minot, N.D., man who regretted not getting vaccinated. Rob Tersteeg died of COVID. His dying wish was that his journey with this “vicious virus” would convince others to get vaccinated. He made his wife promise to get their kids vaccinated. His family grieves, just like Minnie’s.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Looking beyond ourselves to the broader community June 24, 2021

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Early in the pandemic, the Rare Pair in Northfield posted this sign on the front door. While social distancing and masking are no longer required in Minnesota, the overall message of LOVE OTHERS can apply to vaccination. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2020.

AS THE BAND PLAYED, as the scent of gyros wafted in the breeze, as the summer day drew to a close in Central Park during Faribault’s Heritage Days celebration, I engaged in a conversation that left me frustrated. The subject: COVID-19 vaccination.

For some 10 minutes, an acquaintance and I discussed the vaccine, specifically his refusal to get vaccinated. I tried to be respectful as I listened to his belief that COVID is no worse than the flu and his assessment that, if he gets the virus, he expects a mild case. He’s around my age, in his 60s. I politely disagreed with his assessment of COVID and stated no one really knows how their body will react to the virus. In our county of Rice 110 people, ranging in age from 24 to 104, have died from COVID.

I shared stories about those, with a connection to Randy and me, who have died of COVID. Those deaths didn’t seem to matter. He acknowledged hearing my concerns, but remained unswayed.

“PARANOID” VS. CAUTIOUS & CARING

When he called his co-workers at a local factory “paranoid” about COVID, I felt myself losing patience. There’s nothing paranoid about concern, about taking precautions, about preventing the spread of a potentially deadly virus. There’s nothing paranoid about caring for your own health and the health of humanity by choosing vaccination.

In hindsight, had I known I would have this conversation, I would have taken a different approach—emphasizing that the decision whether to get vaccinated or not stretches beyond our individual selves to our families, friends, neighbors, and yes, even our co-workers. Even to strangers.

My acquaintance, while seemingly unconcerned about his own health, should feel a sense of responsibility to his community. I wonder how he would feel if he exposed someone to COVID and that person died or suffered long-term health issues. I would struggle with guilt.

I DON’T UNDERSTAND

Not only do I struggle with my acquaintance’s refusal to get vaccinated, but I really struggle with those employed in healthcare settings who are refusing vaccination. At my local hospital, about 37% percent of staff remains unvaccinated, according to a recent story in the Faribault Daily News. They are putting patients at risk by that choice. The same goes for those who work with our elderly and most vulnerable in long-term care centers. Where is the sense of care for others, of respecting science, of maintaining health in a place devoted to health?

GRATITUDE MIXED WITH ONGOING CONCERN

To those of you who have chosen vaccination, thank you. Thank you for protecting yourselves, those you love and the broader community. Because of your choice, we are seeing a significant drop in COVID cases. Vaccines are working. That decline doesn’t apply everywhere, though. In states like Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, where vaccination rates are especially low, COVID cases are still prevalent, according to media reports. And the highly-contagious Delta variant is quickly spreading, accounting for 20% of new COVID cases in the U.S. This pandemic isn’t over yet and I’m concerned for those who aren’t getting, or can’t yet be, vaccinated. Like my acquaintance. And my young grandchildren. And others I know who refuse to trust and accept that vaccines work.

DESPERATE TO BE VACCINATED

In closing, I want to share one final story. A friend’s son and his family are flying from their home in Brazil to Minnesota to get vaccinated. Vaccination is many months away for them in a country hit especially hard by COVID. Their oldest daughter, who has Downs Syndrome and thus is especially vulnerable to the virus, is their primary concern. Think about that for a moment. We can’t give away vaccines in this country. People are refusing them. And here we have a family of four flying some 5,000 miles to get vaccinated. They trust the science. They want to protect themselves. They understand that COVID-19 can be worse than the flu. They are part of our global family and I feel thankful that they are choosing vaccination.

If you are not yet vaccinated, please get vaccinated. Your decision is about more than you. It’s about all of us. Your family. Your friends. Your neighbors. Your co-workers. Your community. Your world.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling