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Republican caucus-goers assembled at Faribault Middle School in February to hear from party leadership, select delegates to upcoming conventions, and shape their party’s agenda. Conventions for the Republican and DFL Parties will now be held online. (Daily News file photo)

St. Peter Legion leads community mask-making effort

During any crisis, many have a natural inclination to help in whatever way they can, but when the most important thing you can do to mitigate the problem at hand is to distance yourself from others, helping becomes a more difficult proposition.

One way people all over the world have helped during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is to sew, sew and sew some more. Reusable masks are in high demand and have low availability, as people everywhere look to cover up their faces and slow the spread of a virus dangerous to many. In St. Peter, the American Legion Post 37 has kicked off an effort to create and distribute masks around the community. After just six days, the Legion team had already provided 140 masks.

“It just blossomed and it’s just been amazing,” said Legion Events and Marketing Coordinator Nancy Vogel. “We’re making masks, making gloves. And I’m making hand sanitizers, according to CDC protocol and everything.”

Area residents, including in cities near St. Peter, can order one mask for $8. With orders of several masks, the Legion has been including a homemade hand sanitizer. If delivery is requested, a team member will safely drop the masks off outside the home, taking the necessary precautions, with their own gloves and masks on. Otherwise, residents can head to the pickup spot to collect their order.

PhilipW / By PHILIP WEYHE pweyhe@stpeterherald.com 

Volunteers from the American Legion Post 37, and some non-members, are making masks to distribute to the St. Peter community and beyond, during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Pictured here are Amber Palmquist, Nancy Vogel, Sharon Smith, Connie Bollum, Susie Paul, Jan Backlund, Joenilla Robertson and Cathy Rigdon. Other volunteers, not pictured, include Nancy Hanson, Patty Roessler, Beth Schendel and Beverly Everett. (Philip Weyhe/St. Peter Herald)

And for veterans in long-term care facilities and others who may not be able to afford the masks, the group is giving them out for free. That part of the initiative has been aided by generous community members.

“You go to collect the money, and some people are adding an extra $5 or $10,” Vogel said. “There has just really been a very positive response.”

The response has been overwhelmingly positive, and the volunteers are feeling excited about what they’re accomplishing.

“Pretty much every person who has picked up an order from me has said ‘Thank you so much for doing this’ and expressed they’re gratefulness to support such a worthy cause,” said Amber Palmquist, a Legion member who initiated the mask drive.

The process

The project began when Palmquist got hold of Vogel. They work on events together for the Legion, and during this time when the Legion is closed and members can’t meet in person, they were both itching to get active.

“Amber said we should do something, and I said, ‘Yeah, I can’t sit here and do nothing with this crisis going on,’” said Vogel, whose professional background is in nursing. “We talked about making masks, but we don’t sew, so we reached out to some other auxiliary members, and they said, ‘Yes, we can’t just be sitting here.’ Someone knew someone who had a sewing machine and this or that, and it has just kept going from there.”

For Palmquist, who served in the military for 12 years, the chance to do a project that can help the whole community, while also specifically targeting veterans, was ideal. She was in awe of the response from the auxiliary women, and even non-Legion volunteers, who stepped up to help.

“It was the most amazing thing. With being in the military, your battle buddies and the people you work alongside, are your family,” Palmquist said. “This was my first big mission with the Legion, and everyone jumped on board right away. They said ‘Let us know what you need, and we’ll make it happen.’ I couldn’t ask to work with a better group of people. They made it go from idea to reality really fast.”

To make the masks, the group is following Center for Disease Control guidelines. The CDC encourages residents across the country to wear cloth face coverings when out in public. The coverings do not guarantee the virus won’t be transmitted, but they are believed to help in prevention efforts. Specifically, if you unknowingly have the virus, you are less likely to spread it with a mask on.

Palmquist is serving as the focal point for the mask operation, organizing orders and collecting the produced masks at her home. Vogel and other volunteers are handling deliveries and some of the other logistics. The remaining volunteers are simply sewing away.

“They get made; they get brought to Amber; and they get dispersed to the community,” Vogel said, noting they’ve also delivered to Le Center, St. Peter and North Mankato, and they’ve contacted other local legions, like Cleveland, to see if there are more willing volunteers in those communities.

The biggest issue has been keeping up with materials, though the community has been helping with donations. The group is purchasing clearance t-shirts made of stretchy material, along with ribbons and bias grain sewing materials to ensure the masks can be one-size-fits-all. They’re also trying to produce themed masks for different tastes, whether it’s the Vikings, Disney or camouflage.

Why wear a mask?

While wearing masks to prevent the spread of any kind of disease is common practice in many countries, it’s not as typical in United States, and especially not in Greater Minnesota. But with health leaders across the country advising residents to do so, many are buying in.

“My background is as a registered nurse, so my background is saying, ‘Wear your mask,’” Vogel said. “If you don’t have one, get a scarf and wrap it around a few times. If you do anything, you may be less of a risk. I’ve seen more people wearing the masks. Since this all started, more people are wearing them then not, I think. That’s a big change for our culture and society.”

Palmquist added, “My thought on it is that ‘It wouldn’t have been put out if it’s not something you take seriously.’ My kids are staying inside, just because of how serious it is. I’m five months pregnant. All three of my kids have asthmatic issues, which puts them in the high risk category right now. Just because you might not feel in danger, doesn’t mean other people don’t. The more people who contribute to this, the faster we will hopefully get back to normal.”

Believing in the cause has been an important driver for the entire team. Instead of feeling like they can’t do anything to help, they’ve found a way to make a difference in slowing down the spread, which could save lives in the end.

It’s been a bonding experience for the volunteers.

“When we finally saw each other in person, it was just so hard not to hug each other,” Vogel said. “We are all on the same group text, and we’re going back and forth 30 to 40 times per day, sharing these kind words and incredible stories.”

Palmquist noted that the feeling of being there for people who need it the most right now is easily enough to make the efforts worthwhile.

“It’s been really awesome to be able to get them what they need, so they don’t need to worry about ‘Am I going to work without a mask?’,” she said. “We’re just really grateful.”

Reach Editor Philip Weyhe at 507-931-8567 or follow him on Twitter @EditorPhilipWeyhe. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

Children go through the Ninja line during a St. Peter Recreation and Leisure class. (Photo courtesy of Joey Schugel)

RN Jen Juarez with Central Health Care assists resident Verna Ziegenhagen speak with her physician through an iPad. The iPad was provided by Mayo Clinic in an effort to ensure that area nursing homes had the capacity to receive telehealth services. (Photo courtesy of Central Health Care)

Dustin Lenhoff is a North Elementary teacher. Pictured here, he’s working from home during the quarantine. (Photo courtesy of St. Peter Public Schools)

2nd COVID-19 death in Nicollet County; all but one Le Sueur County case recovered

The coronavirus pandemic continues to make itself known in the area, though some numbers are certainly more encouraging than others.

In Nicollet County, there has only been eight confirmed cases, but two deaths have stemmed from those cases. On the flip side, Le Sueur County has had a high number of confirmed cases for south central Minnesota region at 22, but Public Health leaders say 21 of those cases are recovered, while the 22nd was just recently reported.

Regardless of the known cases and deaths, public health officials across the state continue to note that the virus is likely more widespread than confirmed cases indicate, as testing lags and many are asymptomatic. The latter is why the stay-at-home order, currently in place until May 4, is important, according to the state leaders who issued it and those supporting it. Many residents may contract the coronavirus and never show significant symptoms from COVID-19, but they are still able to pass the virus on to others, including those who may be more vulnerable.

In an April 17 social media update, Nicollet County Public Health said, “Unfortunately, we have been notified of a second death related to the coronavirus in Nicollet County. Our hearts go out to the family and loved ones of this individual.”

The post continued, “As warmer weather is approaching, we ask you to remember the importance of safety maintaining distance between yourself and other active community members. Pay attention to closures, restrictions, and the number of people likely to be in outside spaces, making sure that you can keep at least 6 feet away from others.”

Le Sueur County leaders are offering similar advice. In a letter signed by every mayor in the county, plus Public Health and local medical facility leaders, continued social distancing was recommended.

“We understand that making these temporary sacrifices is difficult. However, doing so can mean the difference between life and death for the people of our community, particularly those at highest risk,” the letter stated.

It further said, “We are asking all of you to self-quarantine if you have any COVID-19 symptoms (fever, cough or shortness of breath) or have been exposed to the virus. For everyone else, please distance yourself from others in the following ways: avoid public places and go out only for essential work, get essential supplies or for exercise outdoors. Avoid family or public gatherings and stay 6 feet away from anyone with whom you do not live. The Centers for Disease Prevention & Control (CDC) is now recommending that everyone wear a cloth (homemade) face cover when going out in public to get essential supplies i.e. groceries. The purpose is to protect other people in case you are infected but not showing any symptoms. A couple important reminders: Do not use medical grade facemasks intended for healthcare workers as they are in short supply and remember that the face cover is not a substitute for social distancing.”

Residents can go to the Minnesota Department of Health website for the most accurate information about COVID-19 — www.health.state.mn.us/diseases/coronavirus/index.html — or to the CDC website — www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html. For information on what to do if you develop symptoms of COVID-19, call your local health care provider or visit their website.