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COVID cases, deaths up locally as rural Minnesota drives much of increase
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Another Steele County resident has died from COVID-19, bringing the county’s death toll to three, while the number of COVID-19 related deaths in Rice County was at 10 as of Wednesday.

The most recent COVID-19 death in Steele County was a man in his 80s. It’s unknown if he was in a long-term care facility, Steele County Public Health Director Amy Caron said, explaining that death investigations typically take a couple weeks. Steele County has also seen the largest uptick in COVID-19 cases since March this month, Caron said. Throughout October, the county has had anywhere between 50 to 65 new cases a week, with some days reaching 18 to 20 new cases within 24 hours, Caron says. As of Wednesday, there are a total of 787 reported positive cases in Steele County.

Regionally, central, northern and southern Minnesota have driven much of the recent increase in new cases while Hennepin and Ramsey counties show some of the slowest case growth in the state.

Newly reported cases are highest in western Minnesota. The data doesn’t explain why. However, cases are surging currently in the Dakotas. North Dakota has the country’s worst per-capita spread rate. North Dakota has had more new cases per capita than any other state over the past two weeks, according to the COVID Tracking Project. South Dakota, which ranks second in new cases per capita, broke its hospitalization record Tuesday for the third straight day.

Collectively, rural areas of Minnesota continue to report the most new COVID-19 cases.

“We are seeing more deaths in greater Minnesota because we are seeing more cases there,” Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, said last week. “We will see more and more deaths from greater Minnesota because of the high caseload.”

Of the 10 deaths in Rice County, the average age is 68.5 years old. Two of those were inmates at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Faribault. Rice County had a total of 1,691 COVID-19 cases as of Wednesday. At least 200 of those cases were inmates at the Faribault prison.

Caron said the largest group affected by the spread of COVID-19 in Steele County is residents from 20 to 50 years old.

“But we do have some children that have been testing under 18, too,” Caron said.

The uptick in Steele County is partly due to a few clusters, meaning there are more than three cases connected to one place such as a business or sports team, she said. Others are attributed to household cases, so the virus is spread to multiple people within a household. The rest is likely community spread and indicates that the county could have further community spread after this recent uptick.

Rice County’s cases can also be attributed to that.

“Early on we were seeing people who live close together — elbow to elbow — or work close together — elbow to elbow,” Purfeerst said during an Oct. 20 Rice County Board of Commissioners meeting. “We’ve seen some clusters with church events.”

Some of Steele County’s cases are due to testing asymptomatic residents who have close contact to a positive case, went to a community testing event or are about to undergo minor procedures or surgeries.

Rice County’s testing numbers are high because there have been two state testing sites in the county, one in Northfield and one in Faribault. Rice County has had a total of 44,471 tests as of Oct. 15. For comparison, Steele County had a total of 17,512 tests by Oct. 15.

Steele County’s positivity rate for COVID-19 tests has fluctuated, but remained under 5%, while Rice County’s positivity rate was 3.6% as of Oct. 15.

Pandemic doesn't keep church from celebrating 150th year
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Trinity Lutheran members knew 2020 would be a big year for the Faribault church, as it celebrated its 150th anniversary Jan. 1.

But just a couple months later, 2020 came to signify more than a major anniversary. Karen Fuchs-Archambault, Trinity Lutheran choir director, said even though COVID-19 is the worst pandemic she’s lived through, the church “hasn’t skipped a beat.” If anything, the church’s technological advantages have broadened its outreach more than ever before.

“God has given us the tools we need to keep reaching people,” Fuchs-Archambault said. “Wherever the internet goes, we can go now.”

Trinity Lutheran Church choir director Karen Fuchs-Archambault and Pastor Paul Rieger stood inside the sanctuary of Trinity Lutheran Church in January, when it began its 150th anniversary celebration. (News file photo)

In January, Fuchs-Archambault recognized the church’s broadcasting system as its biggest expansion since its 125th anniversary in 1995. Todd Voge, a member of the Trinity Lutheran Radio Club, who records the livestreamed services, has broadcast material for years. But with many congregants staying at home this year, the number of online viewers has doubled.

The church has averaged 691 views for the 8 a.m. service per week and 392 viewers for the 10:30 a.m. service per week throughout the pandemic. According to Fuchs-Archambault, that’s many more than the number of in-person attendants at a regular church service.

Nancy Simonson, family life coordinator and organist for Trinity Lutheran, said the church didn’t miss a single Sunday of services thanks to the Radio Club. Sunday School and Vacation Bible School also continued thanks to the livestreaming system. In July, the church’s new associate pastor, the Rev. Tyler Werner, had his installation livestreamed with a limited group able to attend in person.

“We’re just so blessed we’re able to have this wonderful technology,” Simonson said. “It’s been easy to transition to go into the livestream.”

Over the summer, children accessed pre-recorded Vacation Bible School lessons online and watched the pastors act out stories using a green screen that allowed the production to superimpose visual effects onto the background. Simonson said VBS attracted an average of 760 viewers, and one day the count reached over 1,000. To engage children in hands-on activities, the VBS leaders delivered crafts to families in person.

Trinity Lutheran also needed to make adjustments to its annual Fall Festival due to health and safety regulations. Following a superhero theme, pastors used the green screen again to act out three stories of biblical heroes, which 180 families viewed online. They also hosted a superhero-themed obstacle course for children.

“We never dreamt of producing Bible lessons through the livestream, and now we’re reaching more people than before,” Fuchs-Archambault said. “... What started as a challenge has turned into a blessing for us.”

To conclude its 150-year celebration, Trinity Lutheran has one more event weekend planne. During services 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 7 and 8 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 8, Rev. Lucas Woodford, Minnesota South District president for Trinity Lutheran, will be the guest speaker. James Streufert, who was the director of music for FLS for about a decade, will give an organ performance before and after services. Streufert helped Trinity Lutheran install its organ and periodically returns to the church for tunings.

Following last Nov. 8 service, members of Trinity Lutheran and the greater community may pick up free take-out meals at 11:30 a.m. from the church. Guests will enter the west parking lot, circle around the west gym doors, remain in their vehicles to pick up their meals and take the north exit out of the west parking lot. Volunteers will prepare 400 meals of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, beans and dessert, serving until they’re gone.

Amid its year-long celebration of 150 years as a congregation, the Trinity Lutheran Church building at 530 Fourth St. NW celebrated its 30th anniversary in May. Located next to Faribault Lutheran School, the church was built without entrance steps, which had presented a barrier for elderly congregants at the previous church building.

“This church building is just brick and mortar until what we do inside becomes meaningful,” Fuchs-Archambault said. “So many volunteers built this church. It’s people on the inside being disciples of Christ.”

Bethlehem Academy sophomore Reagan Kangas (10) and senior Kennedy Tutak (15) rise up for a block attempt during Tuesday’s 25-16, 25-17, 25-20 victory against New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva in Faribault. (Michael Hughes/southernminn.com)

Plenty of opportunities for COVID-friendly Halloween
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While the festivities will look more than a bit different this year due to COVID-19, there’s still plenty going on for families and adults who want to celebrate this Halloween in style.

Bethlehem Academy and Divine Mercy Catholic School have traditionally held a joint Trunk or Treat event in the Divine Mercy parking lot. Completely free and open to the public, the annual event took on a festive atmosphere, attracting more than 1,000 kids each year. This year, the festivities continue, but the format has been reworked, said Regina Ashley, principal of Divine Mercy Catholic School. To provide extra space, it’s been moved out to the Rice County Fairgrounds.

As in previous years, the event runs from 4 to 6 p.m. on Halloween (Saturday), but unlike those years it won’t be followed by a similar event held by Faribault Lutheran Schools in Peace Lutheran’s parking Lot. instead, all three schools are joining hands for the single event.

Costume wearing is still encouraged, but to minimize the risk of COVID spread, trick or treaters are asked to stay in their cars and the candy will come to them, courtesy of more than two dozen “trunkers” who have already signed up to provide goodies for little ones.

Ashley said that event organizers are preparing for a turnout of about 1,000 trick or treaters. Thanks to support from local businesses like BMI Construction and Malecha Auto Body as well as school organizations, she’s optimistic there will be enough candy.

“This is one of the ways we work to give back to our community,” she said.

Treating seniors

Trick or treating will continue at Milestone Senior Living as well, with a similar shift in format. Last year, 500-600 people attended the free event, with kids and their parents walking down the memory care units for a bit of candy and conversation.

Many of the kids who have attended the event in recent years have had no particular tie to the Senior Living facility, said Anne Pleskonko, life enrichment coordinator for Milestone. Even so, the interactions between seniors and kids have brightened the days of both.

“Socialization with children is a vital thing for seniors,” she said. “The costumes were incredible, too!”

With strict COVID protocols in place due to the virus’s deadly effects on older people, that level of face-to-face socialization was not doable this year. Instead, seniors will watch from their windows as staff hand out candy to kids outside from 4 to 5 p.m. Saturday.

As with the Faribault BA/Divine Mercy trick or treat, the event will take a drive-thru format this year, with families asked to stay in their cars. Still, Pleskonko said staff are still hopeful for a strong turnout and excited to see what costumes kids have in store.

“We have a wonderful neighborhood surrounding Milestone, and they’ve been incredibly supportive,” she said.

Out with the old, in with the new?

Some traditional events, like the traditional trick or treat and costume contest at Faribo West Mall, won’t be held due to COVID. Mall Manager Laura Sterling expressed disappointment at the loss of the Halloween event, a tradition at the mall since it first opened.

“We had a mall meeting and we talked about it,” she said. “Since it was suggested by the state that kids shouldn’t trick or treat (in-person), we decided it wouldn’t be alright.”

In the past, the event has attracted 200 to 300 kids, and sometimes even more if the weather was less than ideal. Last year, the traditional costume contest was replaced with two free showings of the Disney classic, “Hocus Pocus” and free popcorn to boot.

While the mall’s traditional festivities may have been lost to the pandemic, a new event has sprouted up to replace it. Rescue 55021, a Faribault-based nonprofit that works to rescue pets, is partnering with Paddington’s Feed and Seed to host its first trunk or treat event from 3:30 to 5:30 pm on Halloween.

Executive Director Theresa Vold said that the organization will be able to hand out 1,000 bags of candy, thanks to the support of the State Bank of Faribault. Paddington’s will also be handing out a limited number of dog treat bags. Paddington’s is located at 2007 Grant St., Faribault.

Vold said that the event is patterned after the successful “Easter Egg Handout” hosted by Rescue 55021 at Paddington’s earlier this year. Like the Halloween event, the Easter Egg handout was free of charge, but a free-will offering brought in about $360.

Vold said that she hopes that the event could lift spirits during a dark time.

“We’re part of this community and we want to make people in the community happy,” she said. “We think this might be a really great way to do that.”

ACLU suit: Prison system failed to keep staff, inmates safe from virus
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The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota has filed suit against the Minnesota Department of Corrections, arguing that the department has systematically failed to keep inmates and staff safe from COVID-19.

The lawsuit, filed last week in Ramsey County District Court, expands on an earlier case brought by the ACLU against the DOC that specifically focused on its Moose Lake facility, which saw the first significant outbreak of COVID in a DOC prison back in April. The ACLU argued that the COVID outbreak occurred in Moose Lake because the DOC had failed to take the necessary steps to contain the pandemic — mask-wearing, handwashing and regular testing — that had been taken in so many other environments.

The ACLU further warned that without the release of a significant number of prisoners following social distancing guidelines can become near impossible in correctional facilities. However, a severe backlog currently exists when it comes to medical release requests.

“These facilities can’t do social distancing with the population they’ve got,” said ACLU staff attorney Dan Shulman. “If they’re going to protect these people they have to find other places to put them where they’ll be safe and the public will be safe”

Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell, in an email, disputed that claim.

“We acknowledge the health risks presented by COVID-19, and we take seriously our responsibility to provide individuals sentenced to prison an environment that is as safe as reasonably possible under these difficult circumstances,” said Schnell.

Currently just under 2,400 inmates, or one-third of the DOC’s statewide population, have applied for a conditional release, arguing that they face a particularly acute risk of COVID due to underlying medical conditions or other factors. Only 153 of those requests have been approved.

The ACLU’s case against the DOC’s handling of Moose Lake was dismissed by Judge Leslie Beiers in June, though the ACLU quickly moved to appeal. While that case was still in progress, a COVID wave was progressing through the state’s largest correctional facility in Faribault.

Faribault cases play a starring role in the ACLU’s latest filing, with testimony from no fewer than 10 current or recent inmates. It also includes an analysis of conditions and at other DOC facilities, including St. Cloud, Shakopee and Red Wing.

The DOC asserts that its “COVID wave” in the Faribault facility is now under control, and has removed the numbers from its website. However, totals capped out at 205 cases in the roughly 2,000-inmate facility, including two deaths, the only two yet reported in the DOC system.

Numerous inmates report that despite having medical conditions that put them at high risk should they contract the virus, they have not received any response to requests for early release. Among those conditions are asthma, a history of pneumonia, kidney issues and breathing problems. One inmate who arrived in St. Cloud in late March and has since been transferred to Faribault reported that initially, he was forced to stay in “filthy and unsanitary segregation” while staff did not wear masks or PPE even after they were distributed.

Some inmates reported that they did not receive COVID tests in a timely manner, despite showing symptoms. Other complaints include inadequate ventilation and hand sanitizing facilities that are “inadequate, poorly located, and frequently without hand sanitizer.”

Shulman warned that with winter approaching, the situation is only likely to get worse. He’s asked the court to act swiftly to force the DOC to make major changes in Faribault and its other correctional facilities.

Without making significant changes, Shulman said that another wave of community spread at the Faribault facility is nearly inevitable. Once that wave hits, he said it’s nearly inconceivable that the spread would be limited to inmates.

“If they’re not not observing all of the sanitary measures they need to, then they’re going to carry stuff into the community,” he said.

During the first wave of cases, 18 out of the approximately 600 staff members at the Faribault Correctional Facility tested positive for the virus. In its filing, the ACLU team warned that a second wave could easily spread much further than that, burdening local hospitals and putting lives in danger.

“Once the virus enters a detention center, often through correctional staff or the transfer of prisoners without adequate testing, the regular movement of staff in and out of the facility means that the virus will spread back to the community,” the filing stated.

“Whether COVID-19 cases occur in detention centers or in the community, they exacerbate the strain on the healthcare system throughout the communities in which they are located, where COVID-19 will inevitably spread, with potentially devastating effects.”