YEAR IN REVIEW STORY NO. 1: 5 moments from the COVID-19 pandemic

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way we lived, worked and played in Dickinson County.

As part of its annual coverage, the Dickinson County News examined five moments that shaped a year of loss and perseverance.


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Vaccine delivery makes for year-end bright spot

Dickinson County saw its first official case of COVID-19 reported in late March and more than 1,600 have been confirmed since then, but a light at the end of the tunnel came when 300 doses of a newly approved vaccine arrived at Lakes Regional Healthcare. Another 200 doses were expected in the final week of 2020.

Multiple COVID-19 vaccine trials showed signs of success in November. Local health officials were optimistic providers in Dickinson County would be able to get the vaccine in a matter of weeks.

"I think there's some relief in sight," Lakes Regional Healthcare's Chief Medical Officer Jeremy Bolluyt said in November. "I don't think this is going to be a forever thing. I really believe that health care employees are going to get the vaccine in December. Although it's certainly not the finish line for this COVID crisis, I think it's going to be a big milestone and really help us as we get our healthcare workers immunized and get that out to longterm care facilities,"

Bolluyt's guess turned out to be accurate. LRH announced Dec. 10 the first shipment of vaccines was headed to Dickinson County enough to vaccinate about 30 percent of the county's 850-some health care workers.

"The two pharmaceutical manufacturers of the COVID vaccine Pfizer and Moderna are on track to make 2.3 billion doses combined over the next year," Bolluyt said. "So we hope to be able to vaccinate most of the community by this summer."

Some states, including Iowa, saw a decrease in their expected vaccine allocations after an error in federal distribution plans. Gov. Reynolds said she felt there were bound to be bumps in the road as the vaccines rolled out to the states.

"While receiving less vaccine than originally estimated is disappointing, it doesn't change the fact that at this very moment Iowans are being vaccinated, that two vaccines are now available in the U.S. changing the course of the pandemic as we speak and that, in a matter of just a few more months, vaccines will be more widely available and life will begin to return to normal," she said.

Fortunately, officials with LRH said the hospital's first shipment of vaccine had all of the expected doses. Hospital officials said staff was vaccinated the same day as the first shipment's arrival, and other local providers could follow suit soon after that.

"Our hope is that by next week, if we've vaccinated the vast majority of health care providers in Dickinson County, it then can move on to phase two which, to my understanding, would include firefighters, teachers and law enforcement," LRH President and CEO Jason Harrington said during the governor's Dec. 22 press conference.


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The day it all shut down

Few could have predicted the months-long effect of COVID-19 as 2020 dawned, but on Sunday, March 15, the first of many major changes swept over the state of Iowa.

Iowa's first confirmed case without a known point of exposure was announced March 14 in Dallas County. The next day brought four more confirmed cases bringing the state's total to 23 at that point from Allamakee County, Johnson County and Polk County.

"Now is the time to move to the next level of response," Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said at the time. "I am now recommending that all Iowa schools close for a period of four weeks to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19."

Doors were closed at Okoboji, Spirit Lake and Harris-Lake Park School District the next day. Ultimately, the students wouldn't return at all that school year. Educators used voluntary remote learning sessions and prepared for more long-term changes like cloth face covering and six feet of distance between desks as the new academic year approached.

The governor also told restaurants, gyms, theaters and other businesses to temporarily close their doors. She put restrictions on gatherings of more than 10 people from social and community events to churches and sports competitions. Restrictions on religious gatherings were lifted within a month due to possible First Amendment conflicts. Restaurants were able to continue offering carry-out and delivery options, and they were able to resume dine-in service in May, but seating was restricted to half capacity to ensure patrons could be spaced according to health guidelines.

Visitor restrictions were already in place at Lakes Regional Healthcare in Spirit Lake by the time the governor's announcement came. Visitor's immediate family members and primary caregivers had to be symptom free and have not traveled in the past 30 days in order to see their loved ones.

The state also put an initial 30-day hold on the 2020 legislative session after the week's cases were announced. Legislators met that Monday to consider resolutions necessary to keep essential services in operation during the hiatus. Local lawmakers began to work from home, noting they had no desire to potentially bring COVID-19 back to their constituents after spending time in Des Moines.

Even the Dickinson County Courthouse closed its doors in mid-March. Citizens were encouraged to conduct business by phone or through the courthouse dropbox, and weekly meetings of the Dickinson County Board of Supervisors were conducted virtually. The board approved a three-phase plan for reopening its doors to the public in late April. Access to county offices continued to expand and a backlog of court cases began to pile up as the months went on. Plexiglass barriers were installed on courthouse countertops and masks were made mandatory for the public while inside the building, but temperature scans are no longer required.


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Health care workers battle rising case counts

A man over the age of 80 was the first COVID-19 related death in Dickinson County. His death was announced June 15 about three months after the first death related to the virus was reported in the state.

Confirmed cases in Dickinson County had topped 150 at that time. The following week, the Dickinson County Fairgrounds became host to a Test Iowa site part of a statewide initiative to provide free, drive-through testing based on a community's viral activity. The county's total confirmed cases reached 212 the same week the drive-through clinic opened. The clinic later moved to the Lakes Area Hockey Association rink on July 6, and local health officials urged residents and visitors to continue following health recommendations.

"We want to support our local businesses, enjoy the summer activities and ensure people are as safe from contracting COVID-19 as possible," Lakes Regional Healthcare President and CEO Jason Harrington said in an announcement that Friday. "Wearing face masks can really help mitigate the spread when you're closer than six feet away from others, and it's something we encourage everyone to do."

At that point, the local Test Iowa site had provided 1,576 COVID-19 tests. Local confirmed positives reached 286 before the end of that week. The test site moved once again in early September to the parking lot of Lakes Regional Healthcare. Local health officials said in early October the hospital had seen a surge of inpatient care that month the total confirmed cases had risen to 562 but they said the hospital was not overwhelmed. Harrington said the hospital postponed elective surgeries and used staff from other areas of the hospital in the surgery department as needed to help manage the influx.

"We do know that we have kept more patients in the hospital because the admission criteria for nursing homes to accept their residents back are very stringent," Harrington said at the time. "Also, many of our referral centers such as Avera McKennan (in Sioux Falls, South Dakota) are near capacity and are not accepting many patients. Furthermore, we had sent some patients there, and those patients have since become stable enough to return here for us to treat."

The Test Iowa clinic moved inside the hospital by the end of the month in anticipation of winter weather. A 69-case, single day increase in November pushed Dickinson County's total confirmed cases past 1,100. It stood at 1,600 cases as of Dec. 18. About 1,483 of those individuals recovered from the virus, but at least 21 had died as of that week. The county still had around 124 active cases of COVID-19 as of the most recent report.


County's first confirmed case breaks clean record

Dickinson County almost made it to April without any confirmed cases of COVID-19, but a confirmed diagnosis on March 26 ended that untarnished record.

"This really doesn't change much," Dickinson County Board of Health Chairman Zach Borus said at the time. "We've been preparing for this for weeks. It's unfortunate. We had hoped this would stay out of our community, but it is officially here."

Local health officials recommended the public continue washing their hands frequently, covering coughs and sneezes, practicing social distancing and staying home when ill.

"While this is Dickinson County's first case, it may not be the last, and that's why we encourage all residents to continue to make prevention a priority," said Brandon Rohrig, the now-former director of Dickinson County Population and Public Health.

And it was far from Dickinson County's last case. The local tally would climb to six positive cases by the end of April, but all six would be listed as recovered by the Iowa Department of Public Health in mid-May. For a short time, the county held at zero active cases, but that number rose to 10 total cases before the end of the month and total recorded cases doubled to 16. Active cases reached 43 by early July, and they were sitting at 124 as of Dec. 18, never having dropped back to zero at any point in between.

The county's total recorded cases followed a similar trend, staying in the single digits into May. In fact, an incorrectly logged positive case late that month dropped the county's total positives to just eight cases. At the state level, criteria for the Test Iowa clinics was eased to allow for more testing as bars, wineries, breweries, distilleries and other businesses were expected to reopen May 28. By the end of the next month, Dickinson County had reported 212 cases of COVID-19 about 125 of them still active at that point.

"We strongly ask everyone to stay vigilant limit crowds and wear face masks at all times when in public in order to limit the spread," Lakes Regional Healthcare President and CEO Jason Harrington said at the time. "We are also encouraging businesses to have their employees wear face masks in order to set an example, protect their patrons and preserve their workforce."

Local health officials said the Fourth of July holiday was expected to possibly bring a surge in positive cases, but active cases were reported to be about 114 by the end of the month though total cases did rise to 359.

The county's total recorded cases of COVID-19 were at 1,625 as of Dec. 18, and the county's rolling, two-week positivity rate sits at about 16.3 percent as of the last report down from its peak of 22 percent on Nov. 20.


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COVID-19 halts major Lakes Area events

Officials with Stephens College made the call to close the curtain on the Okoboji Summer Theatre's 2020 season less than a month after Dickinson County recorded its first case of COVID-19. The theatre traditionally offers a variety of performances for the Lakes Area community each summer not only to entertain audiences but to give budding theatre students and other aspiring thespians more practical experience. The cancellation of the 2020 season was among the first of a long list of local events to either be scaled back or cancelled entirely due to the pandemic.

"Okoboji is our summer home and our very special community," Stephens College President Dianne Lynch said following the announcement. "Only a true crisis would keep us from opening the OST on schedule just as we have done since 1958 but sadly, it's what we need to do as we work together to keep one another safe. But we'll be back next year, more creative and talented and happy to be there than ever."

The theatre had hoped titles like "Grease," "Terms of Endearment" and "The Music Man" would grace the playhouse's stage, but the lights went down before the first curtain call. In lieu of ticket sales, theatre enthusiasts were asked to make monetary donations to help the college keep up operations and ensure Okoboji Summer Theatre reopens for its 63rd season in 2021.

Gov. Kim Reynolds had already told Iowa's schools to close their doors in March, but the day after OST's announcement, she announced schools were expected to remain closed through the rest of the academic year. She would later call the decision one of the hardest in her career.

"Believe me, I would like nothing more than to stand before you today and announce Iowa will be open for school in May," Reynolds said at the time. "But, as we look at what the data is telling us now, I can't tell you with certainty based on the data the Department of Public Health is providing to the office, that early May will be the right time for students, teachers and staff to gather in their classrooms."

Local school districts ultimately honored their graduating seniors in other ways and held outdoor, socially-distant graduation ceremonies in June.

The Iowa Great Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce decided to scale back its annual Walleye Weekend tournament a matter of days after the governor's announcement. Anglers were still able to seek a portion of the proceeds through the event's extended contest they would have to snag one of the first three tagged walleye but the main fishing tournament was canceled. The chamber offered refunds for those who had already registered for the contest. The previous year had drawn more than 2,100 competitors from 17 different states.

The Milford Commercial Club followed suit the next month, calling off the city's annual Pioneer Days celebration through a 5-0 vote by its executive committee.

"We for sure will have Pioneer Days, barring any other unforeseen problems next year," Pioneer Days Co-Chair Susan Reiser said that week. "It's a strong tradition in our community and one we firmly believe in. This is just a bump in the road for us like everybody else."

The novel coronavirus also sidelined many of the events planned for the 2020 University of Okoboji Homecoming festivities. The Cycling Classic, marathon, triathlon, half-marathon and 10K were all called off ahead of their July dates, and the U of O's Classic Invitational Soccer Tournament was cancelled as well.

After a late opening in early June, officials with Historic Arnolds Park Amusement Park made the decision to close the park again as of June 13 135 total cases of COVID-19 would be confirmed in Dickinson County by June 16. The amusement park's closure included the on-site museums and the cruises aboard the Queen II.

"We can't deny the almost exponential increase in positive COVID-19 cases in our county," Iowa Rock 'n Roll Museum Executive Director Clay Norris said that week, later noting traffic had been strong leading up to the closure. "The safety of our patrons and of our staff is always our utmost concern."

Many communities in the region still offered fireworks displays to celebrate the Fourth of July, but some cancelled meals and other events coupled to the displays. A few days after the fireworks flew, changes were being announced for the Dickinson County Fair. Some of the animal events would be held virtually, and those which were still to be judged live would be closed to the general public. Fair officials also curtailed when show animals could arrive at the fairgrounds and how long they could stay.

"We still want the kids to have a fun fair experience and the opportunity to show off their hard work, but it certainly won't be a 'normal' fair," said Sue Boettcher, the ISU Extension's Human Sciences Program Coordinator for Dickinson County.

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