Winona County's fight against COVID-19

Winona County has above-average positive tests for COVID-19 and above-average deaths.

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A sign in Winona, Minn., on April 24. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, Winona County has more than 65 positive cases for COVID-19 and 14 deaths as of April 28. (Noah Fish / Agweek)

WINONA, Minn. — According to the Minnesota Department of Health, Winona County had 66 positive cases for COVID-19 and 14 deaths as of April 28. That's more cases than most rural counties in the state, and more deaths than Olmsted County (6), which includes the city of Rochester, Minn., and has nearly three times the population.

"It really sucks," said 21-year-old Emma Odiet of the effect coronavirus has had on the city of Winona.

Odiet is a senior at Winona State University, graduating in a couple weeks. She said her final leg of college has been completely altered by the pandemic. Odiet's last semester of undergrad consisted mostly of internships, which she said were all cut short.

She said she was concerned about the uptick in COVID-19 cases in Winona County. On days like Friday, April 24, when the sun was shining, crowds could be seen in Winona parks and on trails.

"Around here, with the bluffs, people like to be outside because it's really beautiful," said Odiet. "But there are still people playing basketball together, or Frisbee golf, with no social distancing whatsoever."


Response from the city

Winona City Manager Stephen Sarvi is spearheading the city's response to the pandemic. In conjunction with the city council, Sarvi manages the city's staff and helps carry out the decisions made by the council.

"Of course it's very concerning, and it's terrible," said Sarvi of the high number of cases and deaths for Winona County. "Each one of those numbers represents a person and represents families that have been impacted greatly by this virus."

But Sarvi said the "vast majority, if not all the deaths that occured" were because the virus got into a nursing home.

"Residents there are unfortunately predisposed to this disease," he said. "And many of them had do-not-resuscitate orders, so therefore there was no effort made to put them on ventilators or respirators, in according to their own wishes."

The nursing home Sarvi is referring to is Sauer Health Care, located on Highway 61 in Winona. Staff at Sauer Health Care declined to comment on the cases at its facility.

Sarvi said the high number in cases and deaths don't reflect the job that Winona residents are doing to social distance and flatten the curve.

"If you could remove the numbers from that one facility, our numbers would be pretty low," he said. "I do think we've had a good response plan."

The fire department and other emergency services in Winona have taken steps to visit other congregate care facilities in the community, and to other places with a high number of seniors, said Sarvi. Masks made by volunteers were distributed in those areas.


"They collected 900 masks over the weekend," said Sarvi, after the governor's call for handmade masks. "The community has really risen up and the volunteers have taken care of folks who needed it."

He said there's been a great response not only from city staff, but the entire Winona community.

Effect on Winona businesses

Christie Ransom, president of the Winona Area Chamber of Commerce, said they are doing everything they can to be an advocate to Winona businesses during the pandemic.

"Whether they partner with us or not, our job is to ensure every business that was viable and in our community pre-pandemic will still be here, and come out strong and vibrant on the other side," said Ransom.

Ransom said because Winona is such a "unique and special community", people have rallied around local businesses while the county has higher COVID-19 numbers than most other Minnesota counties.

"I think for the most part, that's kept people even more local," said Ransom of the high statistics for Winona County. "

She said local businesses, even including the big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Target, are doing well with safety guidelines in stores to protect customers while shopping.

"While we don't necessarily go in an regulate that stuff, we are helping them find those solutions," she said. "Or helping the state see that there's different solutions for reopening our business and economy."


Ag businesses and farmers

Ransom said Winona County has many ag-specific businesses, some of which are in the city itself. The Chamber of Commerce has an ag committee, which is working hard to protect those businesses. She said the chamber has an eye on the farmers in the county as well.

"We're working really hard specifically to help our dairy farmers and crop producers who are dealing with issues with ethanol," said Ransom.

She said in her recent conversation with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, she wanted most to make her aware of what was happening to the local livestock producers.

"This is going to really affect them on a greater scale," said Ransom of farmers.

The annual Family Night on the Farm event has been canceled, but Ransom said the chamber is coming up with ideas to serve the local ag producers through other businesses.

"Whether that looks like partnering with co-ops in our area or even Kwik Trip, which a lot of our producers sell to," said Ransom. "Or maybe a package where you can get cheese, butter and milk straight from the co-op to you."

She said she hopes to help local producers and help people understand where their food is coming from.

"To show people the food supply doesn't just start at the grocery store, it goes all the way to the farm," she said. "And help keep (farmers) in the limelight, so they know we support them also."


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