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Drive-through voting, PPE donations, and a 63-person committee: Local institutions form cooperative COVID-19 response


As of April 24, there are 3,185 reported cases of COVID-19 in the state of Minnesota and 220 reported deaths. In Rice County, home to Carleton, there are nine reported cases and one reported death. Based on an April 10 model created by the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), which takes into account Governor Walz’s recent extension of the state’s stay-at-home order to May 4, cases in Minnesota are expected to peak around July 13. Stay-at-home orders, and other social distancing measures slow the rate of community transmission, which actually prolongs the amount of time until peak case volume is reached. But since fewer people are infected at any given time, infection and mortality rates decrease. With this, hospitals are better positioned to have adequate resources to provide care and decrease fatalities. 

With cases on the rise nationally and community spread expected to increase into the summer, the Carletonian spoke with representatives from state government, county government, and the college to understand the role local institutions are playing in the crisis, how they are working together, and the implications going forward for the Northfield community.

Learning from others

Instrumental to Carleton’s response to COVID-19 has been regular communication with public health officials at both the county and state levels. “Rice County has a long and successful history of working together with their local partners,” said Tracy Ackerman-Shaw, the Rice County Public Health Emergency Preparedness (REPAC) Coordinator. The  REPAC Council is made up of a number of local stakeholders, including “county commissioners, sheriffs, township officials, EMS and fire departments, 911 centers, St. Olaf and Carleton representatives, local hospital and clinic representatives, long-term care facilities, and a number of county, business, and medical professionals,” according to Ackerman-Shaw. 

“We are fortunate that these individuals know each other and can easily communicate and assist each other at times of need,” said Ackerman-Shaw. REPAC, which has met quarterly for the last twenty years, canceled their April meeting, and the next session is scheduled to take place in June. While REPAC is certainly formative for Rice County’s broad-based emergency preparations, Ackerman-Shaw notes that Rice County has also worked directly with Carleton to prepare for COVID-19. 

Carleton’s Student Health and Counseling (SHAC) office has a working relationship with Ackerman-Shaw, said Natalee Johnson, SHAC’s Director of Medical Counseling. Johnson is an original member of Carleton’s Infectious Disease Team and sits on a number of committees, both at the county and state levels, dedicated to the COVID-19 response. In January and February, as COVID-19 was beginning to spread across the country, but had not yet reached Rice County, Johnson worked directly with Ackerman-Shaw to ensure that the college would meet standards for the administration of virus tests and dispensing of any future vaccines. 

But as the county moved from emergency preparations to emergency response, Johnson’s interaction with county resources shifted primarily to weekly stakeholder calls that Ackerman-Shaw said “connect partners on current needs and problem-solving.” Johnson explained that in the meetings, “we can coordinate what is helpful so that we are all on the same page with the dispensing of personal protective equipment and things like that.”

Johnson also participates in multiple weekly calls that are dedicated to preparing educational institutions. Rice County organizes a weekly call with many area K-12 and collegiate institutions, while the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) hosts a weekly call with 131 colleges across the state. According to Johnson, these education-specific meetings give Carleton much-needed “inside information” about testing locations, testing capabilities, and hospital access. That way,“when students have questions or concerns, we can plug them into the community because we don’t have access to the testing.”

The MDH is “really targeting getting information out specifically to colleges,” Johnson noted. “All the wisdom that they accumulate from working with many of the other colleges and institutions” makes MDH a very valuable resource for Carleton, especially in the realm of social distancing. 

With over 200 students living on campus during Spring term, MDH’s advice has helped Carleton implement creative social distancing strategies. 

Social Distancing

According to Ackerman-Shaw, Rice County Public Health did not outline any specific tactics for college campuses. “Although it is difficult to change our habits, I believe that college students could really be leaders for the rest of us,” she said. 

She continued, “They have creative ideas, and could encourage or teach others to use technology to fill the socialization gap.” Still, an inevitable challenge associated with residential campuses is that the dorm environment places students in constant proximity to each other, noted Ackerman-Shaw.

Johnson shared Ackerman-Shaw’s hopes for implementing social distancing practices at Carleton, but acknowledged the difficulty of adapting social distancing measures on a small residential campus. 

“What’s really complicated about this messaging is when you’re with a family, you kind of have a bubble of people that share the same space,” said Johnson. “But on a campus it’s harder to figure out who is in your bubble. Is it your roommate since you are already sharing a space? Is it your whole floor of maybe 12 people?  If we have 220 students on campus still, which we do, they all can’t be in that bubble.”

At press time, the college has been working throughout Spring term to facilitate social distancing for the Carls still on campus, like spacing out Sayles and Burton tables, permitting take-out from the dining hall, and taping six-foot distancing markers on the floor of public spaces.

But the college is still seeking additional measures to encourage distancing, as physical interaction and the use of common spaces cannot be fully mitigated.

Johnson added that “if you have any ideas, we’re all ears. Seriously.”

The Infectious Disease Team

Though the implementation of social distancing on campus has been challenging, the college’s response to COVID-19 was benefited by the longstanding work of the Infectious Disease Team. Carleton’s Infectious Disease Team, which aims to “implement strategies to prevent and respond to communicable diseases in the Carleton community,” as described on their website, was created in 2005 in response to the H5N1 (commonly known as Bird Flu) epidemic. Johnson, an original member of the team, has found that the group’s response to outbreaks and epidemics in the past—the 2009 H1N1 epidemic and the 2019 measles outbreak—has given members more fluency with disease models and a stronger ability to connect predictive resources to plans of actions. For Johnson, the team’s expanding membership, which now stands at 63 including two student representatives reflects the group’s increasing understanding of the broad-based impacts of outbreaks and equally diverse response that is needed.  

Myriad departments and offices are represented, including: dining services, admissions, Information Technology Services, College Communications, Off-Campus Studies, Office of Health Promotion, Custodial Services, Office of Intercultural & International Life, Residential Life, SHAC, and Security Services. Dean of the College Bev Nagel, Dean of Students Carolyn Livingston, and Associate Dean of the College Al Montero are also members. 

“What we learned is who needs to be on the team, and that just keeps getting clearer. A multidisciplinary team with a wide span of members across the institution really is most effective. Many heads are better than one, and it creates the ability to have a more robust response,” said Johnson. 

Similarly, the committee’s inclusion of faculty at all levels of the administration reflects what Johnson has found to be a “nimble and adaptable” response on the part of the college. “There’s an openness of being able to express concern. I have no problem being able to send an email of things that I’m learning about up the chain. There’s an open pathway, and I can’t even begin to understand all the variables that need to be taken into account from an administrator at a very high level of the college,” she added.

The committee’s wide range of representation helps to ensure that individual expertise is not siloed. “I have a medical perspective, but I’m not an administrator,” noted Johnson. “And I am so glad I’m not, because those are big decisions that I don’t have to be making.”

Life at the State House

While a spirit of cooperation seems to exist within the Carleton administration, things are slightly different at the Minnesota State House in St. Paul—at least in the adjacent parking lot.

Todd Lippert, a democrat who represents district 20B (of which Northfield is a part) in the Minnesota State House, explained how the government is adapting its procedures to ensure continuity during COVID-19.

While the Minnesota House of Representatives can vote remotely, “they still want as many legislators in the seat of government as possible,” noted Lippert. Legislators who represent districts far from St. Paul are voting from home, but Rep. Lippert still travels to the capital to vote and participate in legislative sessions.“The preferred place for us to be is in our cars on the state office building parking ramp,” he said.

“We will be listening to the session via phone, and then when it’s time for us to vote, our phone line will be open,” said Rep. Lippert of this vehicular mode of voting. “We say our name. And then we vote in favor and vote against, and that’s how the session moves along. We voted by this method last Tuesday for the first time [April 7]. It was kind of a strange experience as my first drive-in legislative session.”

Beyond this novel form of voting, Rep. Lippert and his colleagues are participating in virtual committee hearings to draft COVID-19 response legislation and work on a number of other legislative priorities, including the reduction of insulin prices. Just hours after the interview, Rep. Lippert helped to vote the Emergency Insulin Act into law. 

While representatives on both sides of the aisle are working together to creatively adapt parliamentary procedure, partisanship may be becoming more apparent, according to Rep. Lippert. “COVID-19 led to a bipartisan response for a while, I think we are coming to the end of that time,” said Rep. Lippert

On April 8, Gov. Walz extended the stay-at-home order, and on April 13, he extended the Peacetime Emergency—which, similar to a state of emergency, gives the executive branch a wider set of powers, including the provision of emergency aid. “I think Republicans in general are getting more vocal about their impatience to get the government restarted,” said Rep. Lippert.

Rep. Lippert attributed this difference in opinion along party lines. “Democrats are concerned that more people are going to die if you don’t restart the economy in a very thoughtful and smart way,” he said.

On Thursday, April 23, Gov. Walz outlined, in conjunction with a widespread testing strategy, plans for the gradual return to work of 100,000 non-essential individuals—those in industrial, manufacturing, and office settings—beginning on April 27. 

Legislation in action: Small business relief

“I’ve been most concerned about small business owners, and I’ve been in conversation with many of them to make sure that they have access to the support that’s available. I’m concerned about how they will weather this crisis long term,” shared Rep. Lippert. 

In terms of small business relief, Rep. Lippert sees state government’s  role as one of “filling in the cracks that are left open by the federal government.” So what does this mean, in practice, for small businesses in Northfield?

On March 23 Gov. Walz announced an executive order that freed up $30 million in special revenue funds. These funds are dispersed in loans ranging from $2,500 to $35,000. Depending on need, up to 50 percent of the loans are forgivable and all loans have a zero percent interest rate. Rep. Lippert noted that $30 million was later added to the loan pot, bringing the total amount of state funds available for businesses across the state to $60 million. 

Rep. Lippert believes that these state loans in conjunction with federal Paycheck Protection Program Loans (PPP) will help Northfield businesses stay afloat. Yet from numerous listening sessions with local small business owners, Rep. Lippert has ascertained that federal small business relief has been slower and more complicated to receive than state-level relief. 

Legislation in action: PPE donations

While the state small business loans are an example of legislation that has facilitated financial relief from the government-down, other state initiatives are facilitating other forms of relief between local institutions. 

On Monday, March 23, Gov. Walz signed an executive order that “directs all non-hospital entities to complete an inventory of their PPE, which includes ventilators, respirators, and anesthesia machines.”  All available PPE was then directed to be donated to local hospitals and health providers. In compliance with the order, Carleton announced on April 7 that it had made its first round of donations. In an effort led by John Bermel, Director of Security and Emergency Management, Carleton donated “2,200 pairs of gloves, 3,000 N95 masks, and 300 isolation gowns to health care professionals and first responders in the local community.” On April 20th, the college announced a second round of donations, 1,080 masks to Northfield Hospital.

Carleton’s inventory process was an interdepartmental effort, according to Johnson. For instance, “the chemistry department inventoried its gloves,” and SHAC held a number of N-95 masks dating back to the Avian Flu epidemic of 2005. “There was a run on PPE in 2005,”  Johson explained.Prior to the current pandemic, SHAC workers “would chuckle when they saw 3,00 N-95s lying in a close, and wonder, ‘What are we going to do with these?’” 

Though the N-95s in this 15-year-old collection were expired, they were still donatable. 

At press time, Carleton was not providing masks to students still on campus. “It would not be ethical to have our students be wearing N-95s when our healthcare workers at local facilities don’t have them.” Yet Johnson shared that this is a priority of hers. “I’m trying to figure out how to make it easy for students to access masks,” added Johson. Carleton’s COVID-19 FAQ page provides links to instructions for DIY cloth masks, and Johson is hoping to secure donations from a variety of local organizations and businesses that are making masks.

Rep. Lippert also shared his concerns about interstate competition for treatment equipment. “Governor Walz has been very clear that the states are fighting for personal protective equipment and ventilators. There’s been frustration with accessing what is available for the states. In response, Governor Walz has been trying to draw on the resources available in Minnesota: the Mayo Clinic, Medtronic, the University of Minnesota, and other companies, to provide in-house what we need as a state as far as testing, protective equipment, and other things.”

According to Rep. Lippert, “the drastic measures that have been taken by states across the country are  because governors really had no choice because we weren’t prepared as a nation. We didn’t use the time we had available. The Trump Administration was actively disinvesting in public health before the crisis, and we’re seeing the results of that.”

Beginning with social distancing ordinances and non-essential business closings in early March, the impacts of legislative choices made in the State House have been acutely felt in Northfield. 

Even with proactive government action, both to strengthen local business and facilitate access to PPE,  as with most pandemics, COVID-19 is highlighting and deepening social inequities, both across the world and in Northfield.

Protecting vulnerable communities

Public Health crises illuminate and exacerbate systemic inequities within a society. This is especially true for the COVID-19 pandemic. Low-wage workers are completing essential and dangerous jobs without adequate health care coverage, and 26.5 million Americans (and counting) have filed for unemployment benefits this month alone. Examining health outcomes for COVID-19 along racial lines exposes the depths of these inequalities. Nationally African-Americans make up an estimated 13.4 percent of the population. Yet a recent CDC report found that non-Hispanic black individuals account for 33.1 percent of cases nationwide. These rates are even more disproportionate in certain states and cities. In Louisiana, African-Americans make up 32 percent of the state’s population but account for 70% of the state’s coronavirus deaths. In Detroit, one of the nation’s hardest-hit cities, black people make up 14 percent of the population and 40 percent of  deaths. Minnesota is one of seven states to report COVID-19 data by race, and health outcomes recorded statewide show that infection rates among Black, Asian, and LatinX individuals are disproportionately high. 

The need for government action that explicitly serves communities especially hurt by the pandemic was clear for Rep. Lippert. “We need to be doing everything we can to help the most vulnerable get the care they need right now,” he said. Rep. Lippert stressed the efforts he and his colleagues are making to find more data “to track very clearly how COVID-19 is impacting communities of color and indigenous communities”. Beyond this, Rep. Lippert is “very concerned about the immigrant community in Northfield, especially the LatinX community.” He and his colleagues were working to maximize the amount of COVID-19 relief services that individuals can receive without needing to provide a social security number. “Republicans have been intentional about cutting LatinX communities out of support, which is consistent with an anti-immigrant bias,” noted Lippert. 

Representing a district that, along with Northfield, includes vast swaths of farmland, Lippert is deeply concerned about his rural constituents who “tend to be older, sicker, and have less access to healthcare”. 

One thing that was clear to both Johnson and Rep. Lippert: whenever this pandemic does end, the world we return to cannot and will not look like it did pre-COVID-19.

A new normal

“I have been thinking and saying that we can’t go back to normal, we have to create a new normal that is just for all. We have to create a new normal that is eliminating the racial disparities, the vast economic inequities, and geographical inequalities within our state too,” said Rep. Lippert. “how do we create communities that are more resilient and in less vulnerable situations going forward? This all has to be part of a new normal.”

Rep. Lippert then shifted to address climate change. “Climate is another one that we need to create a new normal, one that will allow us to respond to crises that were already in place but are now more visible. Because of COVID-19, people in Los Angeles can see the sky during the day. That tells us something. We can see from satellites what it looks like when China’s economy is coming back to life and where the emissions are. We can’t abide by that anymore.” 

Distilling down his hopes for a post-COVID world, and inspired by a recent conversation with a Northfield farmer who was worried about his future, Rep. Lippert shared that “I hope we can create a system coming out of this that works better for the average farmer, that we can create a system that works better for average people.”

Natalee Johnson hopes that Carleton’s rapid shift to online learning will make learning more flexible and adaptable for professors and students alike in the future. Johnson believes that we will see pandemic events occur at a more frequent rate in the future, and that the COVID-19 experience is “teaching us is that we’re really resilient, nimble, flexible, and creative. 

In spite of all the anxiety and uncertainty of this moment, there is one thing known for a fact: that campus will eventually be full of Carls again. 

Rep. Lippert finished his interview with a message to all Carls: “We miss you. We wish you were in town. We wish you were in Northfield, and we look forward to seeing you again in the Fall.”

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