Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

COVID-19 stories from Minnesota November 18, 2020

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Minnesota Prairie Roots photo taken in downtown Faribault, MN on May 15, 2020.

AT 6 PM TODAY, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz is expected to announce more restrictions related to COVID-19 during an address to our state. With cases, hospitalizations and deaths exploding, additional measures seem wise and necessary. Minnesota recorded 67 COVID deaths today, a new record.

On Tuesday afternoon, the governor led a press conference that focused on stories, what he termed “the basic human part of what COVID is.” If you read my MN Prairie Roots post yesterday, you understand the value I place on stories. Last Friday I emailed the governor’s office and suggested stories as a way to personalize COVID. Whether my email helped shape the approach taken at yesterday’s briefing, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. What matters are the powerful stories shared. I feel it’s important to pass along these stories, using notes I took during Tuesday’s press conference.

“IF WE DON’T ACT NOW…”

Former State Representative Nick Zerwas from Elk River began the storytelling with his COVID experience, one which landed him in the hospital for five days. Only 39 years old but with an underlying heart defect, he required supplemental oxygen. “I was stunned that I was so overwhelmed and ill from this virus,” he said.

At times throughout the tele-conference, I heard Zerwas coughing and wondered if he would make it through the briefing.

Zerwas, a Republican, has done an about face on the virus, now advocating mask wearing and coming together to stop rampant community spread. He spoke candidly about his change in attitude, noting, though, that the virus situation (community spread) now is much different than this summer.

I’ve seen the same attitude changes recently in other Republican leaders who, just last week, became infected with COVID. It’s a welcome shift that I hope ripples to the public and ends the politics of COVID-19.

In his lengthy storytelling, followed by a media question, I found this statement by Zerwas to be particularly powerful: “The virus is here. If we don’t act now, God help us.”

IN THE ICU WITH HEART AND KIDNEY FAILURE

The second speaker, Sarah Winston, the mother of a 17-year-old daughter infected with COVID-19, spoke next. Hers is a story that needed to be told and to be heard by anyone who thinks they are “safe” from the ravages of the virus just because they are young and healthy.

Sarah described her daughter as a healthy student athlete who contracted COVID from an asymptomatic friend. Ella ended up in the hospital for 10 days with heart and kidney failure and more and deals now with inflammation of her heart.

This mother urged Minnesotans to stay home, to quarantine even if they test negative after exposure, to wear masks, to be safe, to be smart.

I was surprised to hear her say, though, that she wants sports to continue (for the mental health of young people).

“AN AWFUL EXPERIENCE”

Dr. Jon B. Cole, a doctor in Hennepin Healthcare emergency medicine, termed COVID-19 “an awful experience.” He spoke from both a personal and professional perspective. In March, when COVID was just breaking in this country, he canceled a trip to Florida with his wife and four children. Five days later, he developed the virus and was among the first in Minnesota to test positive for COVID. Cole emphasized how thankful he was for his decision to cancel the Florida trip.

On a professional level, he spoke of the “substantial number” of nurses and doctors now sick with the virus or in quarantine. He warned of a shortage in healthcare workers.

GRIEVING

“I don’t want anyone else to endure what my family has had to endure,” Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan said after sharing the story of losing her brother to COVID-19 in March. She described her brother as “a Marine, tough as nails.” He cared for their father, who died in January. Not long after, he was diagnosed with aggressive cancer and then COVID.

Flanagan noted that she never got to say goodbye to her brother, that she hadn’t processed her grief. It wasn’t until October that her family buried his ashes. Grief threaded through her narrative. As did strength and a determination that her experiences will make a difference.

She emphasized that every life has value, no matter an individual’s age in obvious reference to many elderly in care centers who have died as a result of COVID.

Flanagan said it’s “killing” her not to have Thanksgiving with her mom, asking Minnesota families to do the same so the chairs around their holiday tables are full next year. She encouraged people to drop the “magical thinking” that one Thanksgiving dinner won’t count in stopping the spread of COVID. Those were hard words to hear.

“COVID will continue to spread as long as we allow it to,” she concluded, urging everyone to take care of themselves and each other.

SOME WORDS FROM THE GOVERNOR

When the press conference ended, the media asked questions, mostly of the governor. He noted there will be a pause in sports and other restrictions announced today.

He also expressed gratitude to those who shared their stories Tuesday afternoon. I am grateful, too, for those stories which, as the governor stated in his opening remarks, add the human element to this virus.

Walz offered one final observation: “This is as bad as it was in New York in the spring.” If only he was wrong.

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Take care, dear readers. Make good choices for yourself and others. Follow health and safety guidelines/mandates. Be safe. Be well.

NOTE: I welcome comments and sharing of stories. However, I moderate all comments and will not publish those which are inflammatory or which spread misinformation and/or false narratives.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Mask up, Minnesota July 22, 2020

A sign posted at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

 

A PRESS CONFERENCE WEDNESDAY afternoon led by Minnesota Governor Tim Walz could have passed as a persuasive speech when he announced a statewide mask mandate effective at 11:59 pm Friday.

I needed no convincing as I listened and took notes. I’ve consumed enough reliable information from health officials and others to long ago recognize the value of wearing face masks during this global pandemic. Common sense also tells me that masking up helps limit the spread of the potentially deadly COVID-19 virus.

Other state officials, including Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan who lost a brother to COVID, two infectious disease doctors and two small business owners joined the governor as he announced executive order 20-81 requiring face masks to be worn in all indoor public places in our state.

 

A woman attending an outdoor band concert in Faribault last week masks up in this edited file photo.

 

I’ve awaited this announcement for weeks as city after city in Minnesota—most recently Northfield in my county of Rice—adopted ordinances requiring face masks. The governor and his team are aiming for a 90-95 percent compliance rate to help slow the spread of COVID and save lives.

“This is a small sacrifice for a potential big gain,” Walz said as he referenced health and economic benefits.

The lieutenant governor called for Minnesotans to make wearing masks a part of their routine, to “normalize this” and to help kids get comfortable in masks to prepare for schools reopening. Children under five don’t need to wear masks, although masks are encouraged for anyone over age two.

At times, the news conference sounded like a pep talk. “Minnesotans, we can do this,” Walz said. “…we are good at doing things for others.” Wearing a Paul Bunyan buffalo plaid mask, the governor also urged people to be kind to one another in adopting this “science based solution.”

 

Social distancing remains part of the safety protocol to protect ourselves and others from COVID-19 as noted in this sign posted at the Steele County History Center. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

 

Yet, several, including Minnesota Commissioner of Health Jan Malcolm warned that “A mask is not magic.” People still need to stay home when sick, avoid large crowds, practice six-feet minimum social distancing, wash/sanitize their hands frequently, avoid touching their faces… The state health department weeks ago recommended the mask mandate and Malcolm reiterated the importance of wearing face masks to help protect others and control the spread of COVID-19. She also noted that masking presents a psychological benefit in reminding people that “COVID is still with us.”

She echoed the governor’s sentiments with an encouraging, “We can do this.”

While Malcolm focused on the health aspect, Steve Grove, who leads the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, focused on the economic side. Wearing masks will keep the Minnesota economy open and pave the way for further reopening, he said. The Minnesota Retailers Association earlier backed a mask mandate. He urged individual responsibility in wearing masks while also pointing out the need for businesses to assure employees are following the order and that signs are posted requiring customers to be masked. To that end, the state is shipping disposable masks to one Chamber of Commerce in each of Minnesota’s counties for dispersal to businesses.

When customers don’t comply, Grove suggested “thoughtful conversation.” He doesn’t want, he said, for businesses to become “the mask police.”

 

I photographed this mask wearing local while attending a car cruise in downtown Faribault in mid May. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo, May 2020.

 

At one point, the governor called not wearing a mask “reckless and not neighborly.” I could sense his frustration with how masks have become a political issue. “My responsibility,” he said, “is to follow the best guidance and the best science.” But then the Democratic governor noted that “President Trump is telling you to wear a mask.” Walz had hoped Republican leaders in Minnesota would support him in issuing a mask mandate. Up until now, they have not. I feel the governor’s frustrations, too, with those who make this a political issue.

I’ve felt incredibly frustrated also with the lack of mask wearing in my community among the general public, but especially by employees in several local businesses. They want our business, yet fail to recognize the importance of protecting customers. I recently decided that I would no longer shop at local businesses where staff do not mask up. Those include local hardware/farm supply stores and two bar/restaurants (where we’ve done take-out only). I also determined to no longer allow a mask-less grocery store cashier to check out my groceries. She wore a face mask around her neck, where it did absolutely no good.

Now all that changes with executive order 20-81, an order which DEED Commissioner Grove says is “rooted in health and growing our economy.”

Mask up, Minnesota. It’s the right thing to do for yourself, your family, your friends, your neighbors, your community, your county, your state and your country.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The disappearing toilet paper & other COVID-19 updates from Minnesota March 13, 2020

We were running low on fruit. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I PROMISED MY ELDEST daughter I would pick up hand sanitizer for her while on routine grocery and big box store runs Thursday evening. We were running low on bathroom cleaning supplies, fresh fruit, bread, milk and other items. This wasn’t a stockpiling outing due to COVID-19, just a regular shopping trip. And picking up sanitizer for her—because she lives in the Twin Cities metro and can’t find any there—would be no big deal. Or so I thought.

 

A look at the toilet paper aisle at Aldi in Faribault on Thursday evening.

 

But upon entering Aldi, my go-to grocer, I immediately realized this would be anything but a typical visit. For one thing, the place teemed with people, unusual for a Thursday evening. Then I started noticing the empty and emptying shelves. We’re talking everything from almonds to bread to no spinach. But it was the toilet paper aisle that caused me to pause and take a photo. The toilet paper shortage repeated itself at Walmart and then at Fareway Foods.

As Randy and I waited to check out our groceries (no hoarding by us and no hand sanitizer for the daughter), I commented to the clerk about the sold-out merchandise and the crowd. She informed me that Aldi expected to do $21,000 in sales that day, typical for what she termed a “slow day.” But when we checked out at 7 pm, that total had already reached $42,000. They were unprepared, she said, explaining the emptying shelves. An Aldi semi pulled into the parking lot while we loaded our purchases into the van and then headed for Walmart. The Aldi clerk warned us of long lines there.

But we needed cleaning supplies and I was still searching for the elusive hand sanitizer. At Walmart I grabbed a package of bar soap, not anti-bacterial, but found no hand sanitizer. Back in the cleaning supplies aisle, Randy experienced the same issue with no Lysol wipes and none of the brand of bath or toilet bowl cleaners I use. There were few choices on the nearly-cleared shelves. And good luck finding toilet paper.

For probably the first time ever, we left Walmart without buying anything. I didn’t need three bars of soap bad enough to wait in line. Not that the lines were horrendous, but long enough to cause us to exit empty-handed.

We had one last stop, at a smaller grocery store which has a meat counter we especially like. That presented one final opportunity to purchase hand sanitizer and the elusive cleaning supplies. But before I got to the cleaning aisle, I bumped into a friend who blames the Chinese and U.S. governments for getting us into this current pandemic. And then I met a woman who stood in disbelief before the empty toilet paper shelves. She wondered aloud about what she termed “media-driven hysteria” and lack of concern by the general public regarding the 18,000 (her number, not mine) deaths caused by influenza. I engaged in a brief conversation, quickly realizing that, if I didn’t want to get into an altercation in the toilet paper aisle, I best not continue talking to her.

In the end, I found the cleaning supplies I wanted at Fareway Foods, but no hand sanitizer. And I grabbed two containers of ice cream to add to the few items in our grocery cart. I wasn’t hoarding. The ice cream was on sale. And I like ice cream.

 

This sign along I-90 welcomes travelers to Minnesota along the Mississippi River by La Crosse, Wisconsin.

 

UPDATES FROM MINNESOTA: Five more cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Minnesota today, bringing the total number to 14 with two of those individuals hospitalized. One is “acutely-ill,” according to Minnesota Commissioner of Health Jan Malcolm

The commissioner shared that information during a 1 pm news conference in which Minnesota Governor Tim Walz declared a peace-time state of emergency. This declaration gives him the power to mandate community measures to protect health and safety if need be. Currently, Minnesota officials are recommending canceling gatherings of 250 people or more, social distancing of six feet, limiting visitors to senior care centers and many other strategies we’ve already heard implemented elsewhere. Both Walz and Malcolm stress that we are in this together and must do our part to keep each other safe. Walz called the community level strategies “science based” and “societal measures.”

In my community, at least one school, Shattuck-St. Mary’s, a private college prep school with students from around the world, is transitioning to distance learning, according to an article in the Faribault Daily News. At this point, state officials are not recommending school closures. But, as the governor stated, decisions related to the Coronavirus are “evolving decisions.”

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

So what do we do? Stay calm. Prepare, within reason. Recognize the vulnerability of older people and those with underlying health conditions. Follow the guidelines for gatherings and social distancing. Wash our hands. Cover our coughs. Stay home if we’re not feeling well. And, plain and simple, use common sense.

And if it helps, eat ice cream.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling