It’s an election you don’t want to miss. Not only were there key local, state and national races, with Democrats and Republicans vying for control in St. Paul and Washington, D.C., but toss in COVID-19 and record numbers in early voting, and there were storylines aplenty. This edition of the Le Sueur County News deadlined before results were tabulated but check www.lesueurcountynews.com for all the latest.
Megan Zimmerman knew her life was about to change when her then-boyfriend Jack Zimmerman proposed, but she couldn’t have known how much. The young couple was engaged just a few days before Jack was scheduled to return overseas to fight in Afghanistan. Proposing was the best decision he ever made, Jack often jokes, because it was his last chance to get down on one knee.
Two weeks after Jack and Megan, both Cleveland natives, arranged their plans for marriage, Jack found himself locked in combat in Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province in 2011. While on foot patrol, Jack was caught in an ambush that left him with severe injuries that required a double, above the knee amputation. The attack permanently damaged both of his arms and robbed him the use of his right hand.
When Megan was finally able to see Jack, she wasn’t thinking about the challenges. She said ll she wanted was for him to wake up and recognize her. He did, but the road to recovery would be long and arduous.
Megan would be there every step of the way. And in October, she was recognized, among some famous names, on a national scale.
A new future
Jack’s wounds required a two-month stay in the hospital, 18 months of recovery and 20 surgeries. But Megan committed to support Jack in sickness and in health and the two were married after Jack’s stay in the hospital. The couple spent their newlywed years in recovery and rehabilitation. Megan trained to become a caregiver and nursed Jack’s wounds, drove him to appointments, gave him shots and encouraged him to walk with prosthetics.
“She was with me the entire time in the hospital, she never left,” said Jack. “She managed all my care and started prepping the outside world for me.”
“For the first several years, I would give him shots and do daily wound care, and still today daily assisted transfers and wound care are a big part of our lives,” said Megan.
Those first months were the most difficult. Jack’s wounds were so severe that they took hours to treat. Basic tasks, like getting into bed or showering, were an ordeal to navigate.
“I would have to get on a chair and she would have to wheel me into the bathroom and hook me up to this deal so I could get across, turn on the shower just so I could shower and then slide me out,” said Jack. “For me to get on the bed, she would have to lift me onto the bed. I wasn’t even strong enough to get on the bed at the time.”
The challenges have gotten easier, but they haven’t gone away. Jack’s right hand is unusable while his left has limited mobility due to his injuries. So Megan is regularly helping Jack with tasks, like shaving, opening packages, preparing meals and getting up and out the door in the morning. While Jack may look fully independent to the outside world, he said people often don’t see how much Megan helps.
“I become a part of her routine, and I can never repay her for that,” said Jack. “I’ll never be able to give her the credit she deserves for helping me have the life that I have. But I feel like she’s turned herself into such a great caregiver that she never, ever makes it feel like it’s a chore.”
But for all the challenges that come with caregiving, the Zimmermans have persevered. Today, they don’t even need to communicate in the mornings; Megan knows exactly how and when to help Jack get out the door. They’ve stayed married and are raising two sons in their Elysian home — William and Benjamin, ages 7 and 6, who are also reaching a maturity level where they can help their dad.
“William can help with this, grab that, push his wheelchair, plug in the wheelchair — he is becoming a caregiver; he sees things that need to be done before they get done,” said Megan. “If there’s shoes in the way of Jack’s wheelchair, one thing the kids have learned is they need to move them so dad can get through. Through living with someone with a disability, you learn and you’re aware of those things.”
Advocating for caregivers
And while the Zimmermans don’t have the lives they expected before the injury, they’ve used their story to help others. Jack tells his story as a motivational speaker, while Megan has used her experience as a caregiver to become a fellow of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation. The organization works to raise awareness of the needs of caregivers and lobbies for policy change to assist caregivers.
Becoming a fellow is extremely competitive and only one representative is chosen from each state every two years. As a fellow, Megan shares her story to build awareness and has established local support groups for caregivers, as well as caregivers who are also mothers. For Megan, support from family, friends and the community and other people who know the challenges of caregiving has allowed her to overcome burnout.
“You have to have a friend so that you feel support,” said Megan. “I have a really good friend; her husband was a triple amputee and I was able to relate to her so much that I feel that we made it through this together. Without that support, I just don’t know. You have to find support whatever form that is in.”
Outside the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, Megan is also a member of the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes and with the organization she helped launch the Veterans Caregiver Alliance, a training program by veteran caregivers for veteran caregivers. She also keeps busy with the Madison Lake Auxiliary Unit and the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Megan’s caregiving efforts were soon recognized by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation at this year’s third annual Heroes and History Makers Gala. An online event this year, the foundation honored a select group of fellows including Megan.
Famed Academy Award-winning actor and Hidden Heroes Campaign Chair Tom Hanks and TODAY Show co-anchor and Hidden Heroes Ambassador Savannah Guthrie were featured at the event, alongside a number of celebrities who narrated the stories of the honorees. Nico Santos, known for his roles in the sitcom “Superstore” and film “Crazy Rich Asians,” shared Megan’s story as an example that caregivers can still have joy in their lives.
Megan, too, sees her story as a tool that can empower other caregivers.
“I’ve learned I can use this as a platform to really help others and allow others to relate to me,” said Megan. “When a lot of caregivers share their story, a lot of the reactions are ‘Oh, I feel really bad for them,’ but for me it’s also important to me that people see it as all these obstacles that were overcome.”
Overcoming it all
The Zimmermans have overcome obstacles that many veterans and veteran caregivers have not. Divorce rates are much higher for spousal caregivers. Physically wounded veterans are also more likely to suffer mental trauma as well in the forms of illnesses like depression or PTSD. Despite his wounds, Jack has a positive attitude and sense of humor that can be rare for people in the same circumstances.
Mental health has become an even greater concern during the COVID-19 pandemic, where isolation and unemployment may be contributing to mental health crises.
“A really big concern is they haven’t been allowing people to go into appointments and things,” said Megan. “So you have caregivers, whose roles are specifically to monitor triggers and cause symptoms of PTSD, and these caregivers not being allowed to go in for appointments, even by telehealth. The veteran population needs to be in rooms, actually physically seen, and I just know there has to be veterans out there that are slipping through the cracks.”
The issue hits close to home for Jack Zimmerman, who said that he’s lost friends in the military to suicide.
The stories of Elizabeth Dole fellows are also used to advocate for the support of policy intended to empower caregivers. One of the foundation’s recent efforts was passing the 2018 VA MISSION Act, which expands the Veterans Affairs comprehensive assistance for caregivers to those caring for veterans that were wounded before 9/11. Before, the training, respite care, education and telephone support line offered by the VA was only available to caregivers of post-9/11 servicemembers.
“One of the biggest things overlooked on the legislative side is no one is going to care better for veterans better than their spouses,” said Jack, “And the cost-effectiveness of being able to have a spouse in the home to provide that care.”
Local school districts and veterans organizations are making plans for this year’s Veterans Day, but many are rethinking typical celebrations in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. While some organizations have made plans, others are still in planning stages. Here’s what we can expect (so far) for this year’s Veterans Day.
Honoring veterans is something Tri-City United Schools wanted to keep on the calendar this year, even if it means offering a program on a smaller scale than usual.
TCU Schools traditionally host Veterans Day programs at each individual school building, but due to the circumstances surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, gathering students in one large room, along with community members, could pose a health risk.
This year, TCU High School will host a district-wide Veterans Day program from 12:30 to 1:10 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 11 in the Performing Arts Center. Veterans attending will be spaced apart to allow for social distancing, and community members are welcome to attend in person or watch the live stream. Visitors are asked to park in the northwest lot next to the TCU High School Performing Art Center and enter Door 7N behind the football press box.
Students at TCU Lonsdale, TCU Montgomery K-8 and TCU Le Center will not attend the program in person but instead view the live stream from their classrooms. Mathew Miller, social studies teacher at TCU High School, said the Vimeo link will become available at tcu2905.us, the TCU2905 Twitter page and the Tri-City United Public Schools Facebook page when the date gets closer.
The program will include the senior concert choir singing and the senior brass quartet playing the national anthem. Montgomery Post 79 will post the colors, and veteran and TCU special education teacher Colin Scott will be the guest speaker. The brass quartet will conclude the program by playing “God Bless America.”
To protect the health of students, staff and the visiting veterans, TCU Public Schools will not offer a lunch for veterans and their families after the program this year.
The Sons of the American Legion Post 108 in Le Center will be holding a breakfast for Veterans on Sunday, Nov. 8. From 8:30 a.m. to noon at the American Legion Hall veterans will eat free and family of veterans may make a freewill donation for their breakfast. The meal can be eaten indoors or picked up curbside.
On Veterans Day, the Le Center Legion will host a program that will be livestreamed to the public on Facebook. The event will not be open to the public in-person. The program will feature speeches from Legion Member Don Hayden and Le Sueur County Veterans Service Officer Mark Roemhildt.
Cleveland Public Schools is still in the process of planning their Veterans Day event. The school is working with Cleveland American Legion Post 207 Commander Jack Zimmerman. Zimmerman is a Cleveland graduate and saw combat in Afghanistan in 2011 as a member of the U.S. Army’s 111th Airborne. Stay tuned to the Cleveland Clippers Facebook page for further information.
Hilltop Elementary in the Le Sueur-Henderson School District will be hosting a Veterans Day program for students. Students will be sharing artwork, writing, speaking and may perform some patriotic songs in a pre-recorded program. The event will also feature Jack and Megan Zimmerman as guest speakers in a pre-recorded message. Megan, his wife and caregiver, will deliver a reading of the children's book "Hero at Home."
The Le Sueur VFW is not planning any Veterans Day events this year.
St. Peter Legion Post 37 will not be hosting an event for the St. Peter School District like they normally do, but the Legion does plan to produce an educational video or webinar for students. The Legion will use the opportunity to teach students how to honor veterans through acts like standing for the pledge of allegiance and the national anthem.
COVID-19 case counts in Le Sueur County may be on track to reach a new peak this month.
As of Oct. 29, Le Sueur County Public Health has reported 179 new cases in the month of October. Case numbers are just below August’s record high of 183 and a significant jump from the 102 cases reported in September. One new death was also reported this month, bringing the virus’ death toll in the county up to six people. Those deaths would not have occurred if it were not for the coronavirus said Le Sueur County Public Health Director Cindy Shaughnessy.
“I don’t get data on the underlying health conditions, but I do know that all five of them were really a death because of COVID,” Shaugnessy said at an Oct. 27 County Board meeting. “They would not have died if they had not gotten COIVD. Whether they had underlying health conditions, I do not have that level of data.”
The surge in case numbers correlates with sharp increases across Minnesota this month and rising hospitalizations. Hospitalizations have climbed up to more than 100 per week across the state, far above the peaks that were seen earlier this spring.
Public health officials including Le Sueur County Public Health and medical organizations, like the Mayo Clinic, report that these increases are the result of the coronavirus spreading, not increases in testing.
“Mayo is saying the rise in infections is not related to increased testing,” said Shaughenessy at an Oct. 27 County Board meeting. “In addition to larger numbers of positive cases, we’re also seeing an increase in the percentage of positive cases — meaning the virus is spreading exponentially in our communities and as a result they are seeing more patients in their hospitals.”
“That’s the important thing to remember,” she continued. “You can track the data on how many more tests and the volume of testing is increasing, but the percentage of positives is going up. If there weren’t more cases out there, we would see the positivity rate go down.”
Between September and October, positivity rates increased from 4.8% the week of Sept. 13-19, up to 5.8% from Oct. 11-17. The volume of state COVID testing rose by nearly 50,000 weekly tests in that time, up from around 130,000 tests in September to nearly 180,000 tests in October.
“The next 6-12 weeks are going to be the darkest,” said Shaughnessy. “We know that our surrounding states have much higher numbers, their hospitalization rates are pushing the limits. In Minnesota, we really can make a difference to change this trajectory. Please don’t let your guard down as we continue into the holidays.”
School districts impacted
The county’s 14-day case rate, which informs school districts on their learning models has also reached a new high at 33.23 cases per 10,000 people. With rates that high, the Minnesota Department of Health recommends that schools move elementary learners to hybrid learning and secondary students to distance learning.
Le Sueur-Henderson School District has already moved to distance learning at the Middle/High School, but not because of case rates. A large number of staff have been in close contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19, so the school had to close due to understaffing. The district has started distance learning until Nov. 25 at a minimum.
A COVID case was also detected in a member of Hilltop Elementary, forcing the school to close its doors on Thursday.
The cities of Le Center and Montgomery have reported the largest number of cases in the county. At 146 and 140 cases respectively, the cities account for more than 40% of the cases in the county combined. New Prague has reported a total of 394 cases, 119 of which are Le Sueur County residents and Le Sueur has reported 106 cases.
Of those with positive cases, 20-29-year-olds make up the largest carriers. A reported 133 20-29-year-olds have tested positive, about 20% of confirmed cases. Next, 50-59-year-olds and 30-39-year-olds account for 17% and 16% of cases respectively. Then 12-19-year-olds have the highest case rates among minors and account for 13% of confirmed cases in the county. Finally, 54 people ages 60-69 and 46 people years 70 and up have tested positive, about 8% and 7% of cases respectively.
At a prior county board meeting on Oct. 20, Le Sueur County Commissioner Danny O’Keefe questioned if current prevention strategies were effective.
“It doesn’t seem like anything is working right now,” said O’Keefe. “Everybody is wearing their masks, and it doesn’t seem to be doing anything, because the numbers are kind of staying the same or even going up. It just seems like they want to test more and test more just to drive the numbers up to keep things closed, I guess.”
Shaughnessy told O’Keefe that she disagreed. While people have been compliant with mask wearing and social distancing at work and in public, Shaughnessy said that people have been disregarding these measures at private social gatherings, especially weddings and funerals.
“What’s driving the spread is the social congregating,” said Shaughnessy. “So it’s people in their social life and personal life that are going to weddings and totally disregarding the masking and social distancing and that’s where we’re seeing the increase in numbers.”
“Finding more cases is the only way we can find people that are positive and have them stay home and isolate so they don’t spread it to other people is the way that we tamp this down. Unfortunately, the virus is just spreading. We don’t have enough compliance with the measures.”
Shaughnessy also signaled that the pandemic would likely worsen in the fall and winter months. Major holidays, like Thanksgiving and Christmas, could lead to large extended gatherings where the virus could spread. The period also coincides with flu season. Coinfection of both respiratory illnesses could intensify symptoms for those suffering and an influenza outbreak could absorb additional hospital resources.
“Do you think that’s going to add to a whole new ball of worms?” O’Keefe asked Shaughnessy. “Are people going to be able to tell? How are they going to distinguish what they have without going in and getting tested again if they’ve already been tested?”
Shaughnessy responded that people will be able to tell the difference by getting tested for COVID-19. COVID-19 also has some symptoms unique from the flu. If a person loses their sense of smell and/or taste that may be an indicator they have contracted the coronavirus instead of influenza.
“Everyone is very worried about the upcoming flu season and that’s why we’ve had a drive to encourage people to get flu shots nationally, statewide and at the local level. We’re all very concerned about that. We’re hoping we might be blessed with a milder flu season because people are wearing masks and social distancing.”
New saliva testing
October has seen a number of new outreach efforts to counter the spread of coronavirus in Le Sueur County and surrounding areas. The county was selected by the state of Minnesota as one of 24 counties to pilot a new at-home saliva test program. Through the program, county residents can apply for a home saliva test on the Minnesota Department of Health website.
Once the test is shipped, participants will need to teleconference with a healthcare provider that can give them video instruction on how to take the test and monitor the process to ensure it’s taken correctly. Once finished, the test should be mailed to a testing lab in Oakdale, Minnesota which will return the results in up to 48 hours by email.
The saliva test is available regardless if one is experiencing symptoms of COVID-19. The test is free to access, can be used by children and adults and is just as accurate as a nasal swab. Up to five may be requested per household.
“The intention is to offer this statewide,” said Shaughnesy. “The purpose of selecting our country is to work out the kinks and the bugs.”
Hilltop Elementary closed due to emergency on Oct. 29 after the Le Sueur-Henderson School District reported that a case of COVID-19 was detected in a member of the school community over the past week. The district reports that they have talked with the positive case and are working with the Minnesota Department of Health to identify those who were in close contact.
Hilltop students are to engage in P.E. and media specialist assignments as originally planned for Friday, Oct. 30. The assignments were posted for students on Thursday morning. Hilltop students without devices at home can receive an extension if a parent or guardian notifies the Hilltop office by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org or (507)665-5900.
School administration stated that they have been “reassured by MDH that the risk of exposure for other individuals present at school is no greater than the risk of contracting the virus in the general community.”