HALLOCK, Minn. — American Crystal Sugar Co. held its annual meeting “virtually” on Dec. 3, as the farmer-owned company’s board of directors all gathered at the Fargo Holiday Inn.
Hundreds of shareholders stayed home, but — conspicuously — Kelly Erickson, the company’s lively, enthusiastic board vice chairman, was also gone.
His friends whispered about the grave situation for Erickson, who lay in Room 436 in the COVID-19 unit at Altru Hospital in Grand Forks.
“COVID had me in its firm grip at that time,” Kelly said, in a recent interview. And worse: His father, Arlen, 84, was in Room 444, where he died on Dec. 9.
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Interviewed recently at the farm near Kennedy, Minn., Kelly, 63, said he had always taken COVID seriously. Kelly is diabetic, one of the underlying conditions that makes the pandemic deadly.
“When you live in rural America, of course it doesn’t impact you like the nightly news does,” he said. Kelly tried to wear masks. He took a COVID test in October 2020 and tested negative. His son and farming partner, Scott, 40, and his wife, Brynn, had been exposed.
Kelly became became increasingly worried about a persistent cough, what he hoped was a cold. “I probably should have gone to the hospital at least two or three days before I actually went in,” he said. “But you know how us Scandinavians are — ‘We’re OK. We’re fine.’”
Things weren’t fine.
Nov. 23 — Monday, Kelly tested positive for COVID but returned home to convalesce.
Nov. 25 — Wednesday, Kelly’s parents, Arlen and Lois, of Kennedy, Minn., tested for COVID with a two-day wait.
Nov. 26 — Thursday, Thanksgiving. The Ericksons canceled plans and stayed home.
Nov. 27 — Friday, COVID tests came back positive for Arlen and Lois. Kelly’s condition worsened. The Hallock hospital gave him an intravenous treatment to restore his electrolyte (sodium) levels. Karen tested positive for COVID in a rapid test at Grand Forks.
Nov. 28 — Saturday, Kelly’s sodium levels remained dangerously low. Scott drove him to Altru Hospital in Grand Forks, where he was admitted to the COVID unit.
Dec. 1 — Tuesday, Scott takes Arlen to the hospital at Hallock. An ambulance takes Arlen to Altru in Grand Forks. Arlen is diagnosed with “COVID pneumonia.”
Dec. 7 — Monday, Kelly is discharged from Altru and returns to the Hallock hospital swing bed. Too weak to go home and in what he calls a “COVID fog,” he is still confused and needs physical therapy.
Dec. 8 — Tuesday, Kelly’s sister, Tammy Costin, of Moorhead, a nurse in Fargo, phones Kelly’s hospital room to tell him Arlen wasn’t well at Altru. Hospital staff helps Kelly talk with Arlen on an iPad.
Dec. 9 — Wednesday, Arlen dies at 1:30 a.m.
Dec. 14 — Kelly is discharged from the Hallock hospital to home, where he has recovered further.
Kittson County has 4,200 residents.
Through the end of January, they’d had a total of 400 COVID cases, ramping up through November and December 2020.
Cindy Urbaniak (pronounced “ur-BAN-ek”) is nursing home administrator for Kittson Health Care in Hallock and is Kittson County’s public health director. She expects to be doing vaccinations into summer and early fall 2021.
The nursing home has about 100 employees. It currently has about 40 residents and a capacity of 60. They kept COVID out of the less-secure units until November, and out of the memory care unit until December. They haven’t not had a case among staff or residents since Dec. 23.
The 15-bed critical-access hospital and emergency room in Hallock refers patients to Altru, Sanford or Essentia hospitals in Grand Forks and Fargo. During COVID, they’ve done some “patient swap” arrangements — taking on non-COVID patients for “swing bed” care, the shorter-term rehabilitation care for non-COVID matters such as congestive heart failure or infections.
The county’s “positivity” rating — number of positives per number of tests — was as high as 15% in early December and less than 2% in late January.
The Erickson family has been in Kittson County since the early 1900s and established their farm in 1936. COVID has been one of the significant historical events that have threatened the family.
Kelly, who has been farming full-time since 1978, remembers growing up in the business with his father — times like cultivating sugar beets with 12-row cultivators. He has been a leader in the co-op, as well as the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association, and the American Sugarbeet Growers Association.
Kelly said he’s heard many of the arguments about vaccines — whether they’ll work, if they’re safe. The critical issue to him is that 5% of people — like him, and his father — will react badly to the disease.
“Nobody knows that.”
Masks and vaccines
“I trust science,” Urbaniak said. Masks help because “if you’re not coughing into the air, your respiratory particles are fewer if you have a mask on versus if you don’t have a mask on.”
And she believes in vaccines.
The first doses showed up in the county on Dec. 28.
The health care facility and county emergency officials identified 300 people in the county who qualified for so-called Phase 1A categories (people over age 75, long-term care residents, health care employees, assisted living residents, ambulance and fire departments).
As of Jan. 22, all of the first- and second-dose vaccines were completed for all of the health care workers who wanted it. About 50% of the employees had requested it, which is about on par with health care workers in northwest Minnesota counties.
”It’s come out under an emergency use authorization, so the facility can’t mandate it for staff,” she said. Some fear side effects, including rumored long-term effects. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Minnesota Department of Health have said vaccines are very safe.
As of Jan. 27, the county had completed doses for 329 individuals, or fewer than 8% of county residents, Urbaniak said, compared to the 70% to 80% needed for so-called “herd immunity.”
8% of the ‘herd’
Kittson County had been getting a Pfizer vaccine through the Minnesota Department of Health and Northwest Health Services Coalition, a group of hospitals, Urbaniak said. The Moderna vaccine goes to other people in the priority group and comes from the Minnesota Department of Health.
People who take the first vaccine injection can expect 50% to 60% immunity from COVID. The Pfizer second shot in the series comes at least 21 days after the first, giving 95% protection. The second Moderna vaccination should come 28 days after the first.
So far, there have been no reports of production interruptions. Kittson County has completed all Phase 1A needs. Kittson County could administer 200 to 300 doses in a week, but the state typically sends about 100 doses and is possibly managing needs across the state, Urbaniak said.
She offers these facts about it:
Even if a person gets an initial dose and isn’t able to get the second dose on the time schedule, the second dose will have the full antibody protection whenever it comes. People who have recovered from COVID are assumed to have some protection, but Urbaniak said it’s not known how much, or how long it will last.
People who have had the disease still should be vaccinated, she said.
People who have had COVID and both injections still should still wear masks and continue social distancing protocols.
“That’s going to be our life until we get enough people vaccinated that we have herd immunity, so the predominance of the population is protected,” she said.