A Duluth man is seeking to rally his neighborhood to look after one another should COVID-19 break out in the region.

“If St. Mary’s and St. Luke’s were full, and somebody broke their leg or that kind of thing, I thought it would be prudent to know who in the neighborhood had those kinds of skills (to help),” Daniel Billings said. “People could help each other. And if they didn’t need that, great. But if they do, it would be nice to know who you could call.”

So last weekend, Billings, a health care consultant with 25 years of background as a registered nurse, visited his neighbors in the East Hillside above Skyline Parkway. He had made 50 copies of a leaflet outlining his background, explaining what he had in mind and providing his phone number and email address.

“I would be interested in getting our neighborhood organized to help each other if the pandemic does come to Duluth,” Billings wrote. “Please reach out to me if you are interested in helping with that effort.”

Hearing about that plan, a state health official was enthused.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

“That sounds like a wonderful, fantastic idea,” said Rich Danila, assistant state epidemiologist, during a media briefing Wednesday. “We tell people, ‘Be a champion.’ That sounds like what this person is doing.”

The St. Louis County Public Health Division director agreed.

"I think it's a really good idea," Amy Westbrook said in a telephone interview. "It's nice to rely on neighbors."

It's the sort of thing the public health division talked about at the time of a novel influenza virus, Westbrook said. They highlighted the need for community support, checking with neighbors to make sure they have the resources they need and being aware of those who may not have a social network to fall back on, she explained.

Billings, 51, handed out 14 copies, he said. He hasn’t had an opportunity to follow up since the weekend, because his business took him to San Diego, from where he spoke over the phone on Tuesday. But when he knocked on doors last weekend, he said, he was pleasantly surprised to find his older neighbors seemed well-informed and well-prepared if an outbreak should occur.

It was younger neighbors who seemed less ready.

“There was a young couple who live a few doors down from me who said, ‘I thought that was over. I thought the president said that was a hoax,’” Billings related. “Well, you’ve got to pay a little more attention to the news.”

Billings’ preparations for his family — including his wife and one son still at home — include enough nonperishable food for 30 days and basic medical supplies.

“If it does truly become a pandemic, we’re probably going to have more sick people than we have hospital beds,” he said. “So a lot of people are going to have to recover in their homes.”

People shouldn’t panic or overreact, Billings said, but they should take common-sense steps. Cities such as Shanghai, China, were placed on “lockdown” when the virus hit, he noted, and there’s no reason why that couldn’t happen here.

Danila said it’s expected COVID-19 will have a significant impact in Minnesota.

“We do think it’s inevitable that we will be in the midst of a very widespread outbreak in Minnesota as well as the rest of the United States,” he said.

Billings is especially worried, he said, about lower-income residents and the elderly.

Nursing facilities already are short-staffed, Billings said, and if their personnel become sick, caring for their patients could be difficult.

“And if you think about people who live paycheck to paycheck, it’s a big chunk of people,” he said. “If you tell them they have to stay home, boy, that’s quite a thing to tell folks.”

So Billings, who has lived in his neighborhood for close to 20 years, wants people to be prepared to help one another through the crisis, if it comes.

“We’re better together than we are just hoarding up stuff,” he said. “I want to make sure that we’re thinking about everybody.”

As a public service, we've opened this article to everyone regardless of subscription status.