“I’m seeing a lot more elderly people calling 911 — not just because they’re sick and they may need a transport to the hospital, but because they’re lonely," said Lisa Consie, a captain at Station 11 of the Duluth Fire Department. "They’re not seeing their families anymore and they just want to talk.”
Consie said she's received many calls from elderly residents in the Woodland neighborhood calling for minor assistance, like a lift assist or blood pressure check, just so they can have some kind of social contact while isolating during the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, the first responders don't want to linger too long due to risk of spreading the coronavirus to this at-risk population.
"I feel for them because they really are closed in right now, and I see us responding more and more to calls from elderly people in our district," Consie said.
This is just one of the stories shared by seven Duluth frontline workers during a Jan. 27 virtual panel discussion sponsored by the Duluth Superior Community Foundation and its Speak Your Peace Program. The panelists observed division impacting the community in several different aspects since the pandemic began.
Elderly residents aren't the only ones struggling to cope with the new distance in society. Children, too, are suffering the effects of isolation.
Jessica Saxton, a counselor at Marshall School, said the students have been harder to reach during distance and periodic in-person learning. It’s also been more difficult for teachers to identify when a student may need to see a counselor because they can’t easily pick up on warning signs a child may be exhibiting.
“They’re needing more help, but they’re getting less help,” Saxton said. “It’s been a real struggle for me in the past 12 months to figure out how to reach them and how to help them.”
Saxton said some students have struggled to be present academically when they are also needed to help take care of their families at home. She said a number of students withdrew from emotionally since the pandemic began.
Working with students over Zoom or meeting in person — but 10 feet apart and with masks on — has made students feel less comfortable sharing their thoughts, Saxton said. The rigidity of having to schedule meetings in advance also seemed to cause students to have trouble opening up because they weren’t always struggling at the time.
“The vast majority of my meetings with students have historically been impromptu; they stop by my office when they're having a rough day and we talk about what's troubling them,” Saxton said. “The move to distance learning meant a loss of spontaneity — the students by and large did not reach out, even though many reported through anonymous surveys that they were struggling.”
Adults, too, appear to have avoided reaching out for help during the pandemic. Dr. C.W. Hall, a family medicine physician in the Duluth Family Medicine program, said he knew of many people who did not receive needed medical care, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, because they were afraid to leave their homes and catch the virus.
On the other hand, some people haven’t been able to isolate themselves to stay safe from contracting the virus. Amy Westbrook, St. Louis County Public Health division director, said she worked with county homeless shelters to help provide needed space and items for people who needed to quarantine.
“One of our biggest concerns was that we would have disease circulating or identified in someone in a homeless shelter and not having any way of preventing or controlling it,” Westbrook said.
As of a July 2020 count, 612 people in St. Louis County were homeless. The pandemic’s effect on the job market is expected to worsen the situation. Unemployment in Duluth was at 5%, or 2,199 people, in December and 5.5%, or 5,405 people, in St. Louis County, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
Duluth Fire Department Deputy Chief of Life Safety Jon Otis said he worries about the end of the eviction moratorium displacing many more people in the area. Evictions and writs of recovery are suspended under the peacetime emergency declared by Gov. Tim Walz and will expire when the peacetime emergency does.
Duluth Fire Capt. Michael Consie also raised concerns about residents who live in lower-income neighborhoods struggling with the isolation of the pandemic.
“They’re not always luxury apartments,” he said. “How do you social distance and how do you keep your mental health when you’re cooped up in a place that maybe doesn’t have cable TV or those type of things. … It has to be taking a mental toll.”
Dre Ghoram, a violent crimes investigator for the Duluth Police Department, said he has seen the toll the pandemic has taken on people’s mental health, including incidents of suicide and increased gun violence.
“You hear about it on the large scale in the media, but don’t really notice it in your own community until you truly see it for yourself,” Ghoram said.
Gun violence nearly doubled in Duluth in 2020 compared to previous years. There were 40 calls for shootings or shots fired that recovered evidence in 2020, compared to 23 in 2019, 15 in 2018 and 20 in 2017. August and September had the most incidents, with eight and seven calls, respectively. No fatalities were recorded from last year's shooting incidents.
“Another one of the things we noticed was theft increasing — people pretty much having to fight for their survival any way that they possibly can,” Ghoram said.
He said there have been increased instances of shoplifting for food and clothing, as well as people selling drugs to earn money for rent or bills.
Michael Consie said his unit has been called to many overdose calls, as people struggle with addiction in the isolation and stress of the pandemic. Hall said the clinic has seen many patients who have relapsed into severe addiction to opioids, especially in the first few months of the pandemic.
Duluth recorded a record number of overdoses in 2020, according to data tracked by the department since 2013. There were 213 overdoses within city limits that resulted in 20 deaths, pending toxicology reports.
Carl Crawford, moderator of the panel and human rights officer for the city of Duluth, said he’s observed that “one of the things that has managed to survive COVID is racism.”
After George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis in May, many people in Duluth and around the country protested the police. Otis said coming from a family of liberal, progressive law enforcement officers and firefighters, he wanted to support the community in its movement for equality while also supporting his family and friends in law enforcement.
“It was this really odd dissonance that I still struggle with,” Otis said. “I think everyone is feeling a weight from not having that physical connection with people, and that, to me, is almost causing some disruption mentally.”
Ghoram said being unable to agree to disagree has created a rift among people. He said the racial justice movement made him very afraid for the safety of his colleagues in law enforcement.
“I don’t condone any violence to get your point across — that’s not what I stand for — but those events brought many people together and that alone signified unity,” Ghoram said. “With the current lack of civility in our country, that’s the answer to bridge the divide amongst us: unity.”
Westbrook and Hall said there was a surprising amount of disagreement surrounding the medical field as well.
“It’s been surprising how divisive the response to a public health crisis can be,” Westbrook said. “Public health is based in science and it really is about the good of the community’s health. Having different messaging about that from different levels of government, I think, did not help us at all.”
Hall said he has been frustrated by the number of people who do not believe the death toll and the severity of the pandemic.
“I never expected science to be politicized or divisive,” Hall said. “I am constantly blown away by how people are questioning the integrity of someone who is trying to do their best to save their life or provide them care based on data.”
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The last year has been difficult for everyone, but those difficulties are not all equal. While some effects of the pandemic will last forever, various steps are being taken to help people in the community in many different ways.
The nonprofit Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly launched a statewide phone chat line to connect older adults with volunteers for “friendly conversation and access to resources to support their overall well-being.” The toll-free line is available from 8 a.m. to noon weekdays at 877-238-2282.
An $899,000 grant awarded to the Duluth Police Department is being used to address the opioid epidemic, including the creation of the Lake Superior Diversion and Substance Use Response Team for outreach, assessment and services within the community. The Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crimes Taskforce is also working to remove drugs and firearms from Duluth streets.
The department said it continues to educate and facilitate conversations about addiction in hopes to decrease the demand for drugs in the community. The department's opioid response technician can be reached at 218-391-9639.
Organizations like CHUM help people facing homelessness by providing shelter, warmth during the winter and food to those in need. Project Nation is a locally based nonprofit that provides care packages and preparation to help people with job interview readiness.
Of course, the frontline workers like those in this story also continue to help the community.
Saxton said at school, she’s been taking a proactive approach to helping her students by teaching them lessons about health and wellness, including depression, anxiety, motivation, mindfulness and organization.
She said all teachers have had to go above and beyond to try to keep their students engaged during the pandemic, and even after putting in more effort than ever before, most feel they still aren’t doing enough.
“This is heartbreaking to me because I see them doing incredible work, I see how much they care about their students, and I see the difference they make to the students,” Saxton said. “Every day, even during a pandemic — especially during a pandemic — they are making a difference.”
All members of the panel said being kind to everyone and thanking people for doing their part in the community can go a long way.
“People always say, ‘Oh, you guys are the real heroes.' However, to me, the real heroes in our community are those that take care of our children, like teachers or day care workers or those who work in gas stations or grocery stores and other retail stores,” Lisa Consie said. “We couldn’t do our job if they weren’t there to help us do our jobs. So it’s really a community type of thing.
"I get it, we see the divides, but I try not to focus on them personally," she said.
This story mischaracterized enrollment at Marshall School during the pandemic. While the students withdrew emotionally, enrollment has increased. It was updated at 8:45 a.m. Feb. 13. The News Tribune regrets the error.