In early March, the Sauk Centre girls basketball team was in the midst of their state tournament appearance when fans were asked not to attend. Soon after, school was pushed to a remote learning model, businesses were closed and communities were ordered to shelter in place. 

It has been seven months since the novel coronavirus pandemic presented itself in Minnesota and Stearns County had its first confirmed case of the virus. 

“As time goes on, it’s getting very frustrating and challenging not knowing when this will end,” Dr. Ulrika Wigert said. “Things are getting harder to do, but it’s just as important, maybe more so now than it was in March, April and May, to be vigilant and take care of each other.”

Wigert is the physician section director for regional family medicine with CentraCare-Sauk Centre. She leads the regional incident command for COVID-19 and Road to Recovery committee.  

Across the state, more than 113,000 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed since Jan. 20 at the time of this writing. In Stearns County, that value is at 4,757. Sauk Centre represents 3.3% of the county’s caseload with 159 cumulative confirmed COVID-19 incidences. 

Currently, the Sauk Centre community – as noted by the 56378 zip code – has 22 new cases of the virus, according to the Minnesota Department of Health’s most recent report published Oct. 8. The caseload has increased more than 1% each week since September.

“It was only a matter of time until it hit our community,” said Sauk Centre resident and chamber president Stacie Michels. 

Michels and her family developed symptoms Sept. 27 and remained in isolation the days that followed. Their symptoms varied from fever, chills and joint pain, as well as chest congestion, exhaustion and the loss of taste and smell.

“The quarantine process, even though difficult for many reasons, is important,” Michels said. “Is it inconvenient? Absolutely. Can it save someone else’s life? Absolutely.”

The most recent rise in cases was found in the younger age brackets (15-30) but has since also been noted in the older generations, according to MDH data. While cases are rising, health care professionals are learning how to better care for patients, said Wigert. 

“We are still continuing to have that level of concern for slowing the spread of COVID-19 as we did last spring,” she said. “It’s difficult because people are getting back to their normal life. In Minnesota, a lot of weddings, funerals, family gatherings have driven the spread in these previous weeks.”

Since spring, the state government has implemented various strategies to control the spread of COVID-19. 

Minnesota’s efforts began March 26 with an executive order that encouraged all citizens to remain at home except for essential activities. Businesses along Main Street were shuttered and restaurants turned to curbside service to keep afloat. 

The state remained in a stay-at-home order through May 17. 

Then, from May 18 to June 1, the state entered into Phase 1 of reopening the economy. This allowed small groups to gather and retail businesses deemed non-essential to reopen to half capacity. Restaurants were only allowed delivery and take-out options of service and personal service businesses and gyms remained closed. 

Phase 2 of reopening began June 2 which gave way for restaurants to reopen for indoor service with a maximum capacity of 25%. Soon after, on June 10, the state reached Phase 3. This current phase has allowed businesses of all kinds to operate with limited capacity under guidelines to promote the health and safety of workers and customers while remaining open. On July 25, a statewide mask mandate was incorporated to the phase. 

“I can’t say wearing a mask helps or doesn’t help. I can say I will be wearing a mask even more than I was before,” said Rob Wiener, Sauk Centre resident. “It’s been implemented as a safe practice. It’s not going to eliminate the issue but try and help control the spread.”

Like Michels, Wiener was diagnosed with COVID-19 in late September. Throughout his quarantine, he experienced an array of symptoms that left him feeling miserable for 12 days. 

On Oct. 10, Wiener was briefly hospitalized.

“I thought I was almost over it on Thursday, then I took a turn,” he said. “I felt like I was run over by a truck.”

Both Wiener and Michels are unsure how they contracted the virus. In their conversations with MDH, it is presumed COVID-19 could have been contracted from each other or through community spread, said Wiener. 

“I wish there was a way to identify where and when it happened, but (MDH) said there are many possibilities,” Wiener said. “It’s like a cold or strep throat, where it just showed up.” 

As schools prepared to begin the new year, they too were given guidelines to follow by state health and education departments. 

District 743 developed a band structure for students to learn based on the number of cases per 10,000 over 14 days in Stearns County. The district began with a case rate just below 10, allowing students in kindergarten through fourth grade to learn entirely in person. 

Yet, the case rate for the weeks of Sept. 13 and Sept. 20 were 18 and 16.7, respectively, triggering a new model of learning. Beginning Oct. 19, students third grade and above are subject to hybrid learning. Additionally, preschool services will not continue. 

“Central Minnesota has the highest number of new cases per capita,” said Wigert, referencing data from MDH. “The important thing to realize is that people are shedding and spreading the virus before they have symptoms. Wear the mask, wash your hands and watch your distance – the three Ws. And, if you test positive, it is critically important you stay home.”

As the presence of the virus is increasingly more prevalent, community members are asking for others’ diligence is slowing the spread for the health and vitality of Sauk Centre. 

“The virus is unpredictable,” Michels said. “We need to protect our businesses and our community. … Let’s lift our businesses up, let’s get back to the sense of community, and together, we can rally through this wave of the pandemic.”