A year ago this weekend, the deadly COVID-19 pandemic had already breached the coastal United States, and Duluth was waiting.

The school year remained in full swing, but Duluth Public Schools was receiving concerned calls from some parents about the emerging pandemic. At the time, it was leaning on the expertise of staff nurses as it awaited the first COVID-19 guidance from the state health department.

St. Louis County was still two full weeks from opening its emergency operations center outside Duluth in Pike Lake. The center would end up running nonstop through Easter as the county and its partners worked to stockpile enough personal protective equipment to outfit emergency services throughout the entire Arrowhead region.

At St. Luke’s hospital, signs were up in the urgent care asking people with respiratory symptoms or who had recently been to China to notify the front desk.

The hospital had pandemic plans dating back to 2009’s H1N1 flu, and even guidance from 2002’s SARS outbreak.

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“We ended up having to totally change those plans, but really the framework and ideas contained within were helpful,” said Dr. Andrew Thompson, of St. Luke’s Infectious Disease Associates.

So much has changed since the start of the pandemic. To understand how far we’ve come, the newspaper revisited some of the sources from its first featured local COVID-19 story, published Feb. 28, 2020, under the headline, “Northland preps for COVID-19.”

“I feel like I’ve done 10 years of work in the last year,” said Jason Crane, special services director for Duluth Public Schools, talking about the volume of changes.

Registered nurse Jen Christianson prepares the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine before administering it to Cory Kolodji (right) in January at a vaccine clinic in Mountain Iron. (Tyler Schank / 2021 file / News Tribune)
Registered nurse Jen Christianson prepares the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine before administering it to Cory Kolodji (right) in January at a vaccine clinic in Mountain Iron. (Tyler Schank / 2021 file / News Tribune)

Some are positive. The pandemic has taught the district that some students excel in the virtual format, meaning it will have a place going forward.

“We’ve found new and engaging ways to connect with students,” he said. “We went down different pathways for learning.”

Crane also addressed a sad truth from the past year: Some families are hurting and no amount of Chromebook or wireless hotspot distribution can fix it.

“We are not able to make as much progress with students across the board right now because of COVID implications,” he said.

The virtual experience has been “extremely challenging for working parents, especially in single-parent households,” Crane said. It remains a reality for middle and high schoolers as the district ramps up to their return to in-person learning this spring. Students in pre-K-5 are back in the classroom.

Jason Crane
Jason Crane

A more hidden impact: Educators are still not back in homes for early childhood programming, in which from birth to 2 the district identifies and begins providing in-home services during a critical time for families with children in need of special education.

At the University of Minnesota Duluth, Lisa Erwin’s enthusiasm seems to benefit from engaging on a daily basis with older students whose maturity has shined throughout the last year.

“I’m just really proud of the Bulldogs,” said Erwin, vice chancellor for student life and dean of students. “We certainly saw cases; we expected to see COVID cases, and yet students for the majority were very compliant with precautions.”

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As a result, a successful fall led to 53% of undergraduates and 56% of graduate students having at least one in-person or blended class on campus for the current semester.

More good news as a survey of students within the pandemic year showed overwhelmingly positive results in three areas: Students were connecting with one another in safe ways; they were eating healthily and getting good sleep and exercise; and they were finding ways to be productive with their time, engaging with things like hobbies and pets.

Irwin also noted the Student Association, the voice for UMD students, successfully advocated for the extension of the school's pass-fail deadline — an important calculation and feature for students to manage stress as they try to maintain their grade-point average.

Dr. Lisa Erwin
Dr. Lisa Erwin

“I attend all of their meetings,” she said. “They’re doing amazing work.”

Two big areas UMD is working on now? Commencement, along with fall semester and what that will look like.

Last year, UMD participated in a systemwide commencement. This year, it will return to a UMD-specific event. Gatherings in the state are still restricted to less than 250 people, which makes an in-person ceremony difficult, but a committee is working through ideas.

At St. Luke's, the pandemic hit as one might imagine, stressing a hospital system and its people.

“We directly see the suffering of people sick and dying of COVID-19, and that’s an additional burden,” Thompson said. “But there’s no denying it’s been stressful for everyone. Many people lost jobs, businesses suffered.”

Early waves of the virus were lighter than anticipated, allowing the hospital to buy time and adapt heading into fall’s peak of cases. St. Luke’s implemented a negative-air-flow intensive care unit and medical floor to prevent the escape of disease particles.

“It’s hard to quantify, hard to know, if we prevented a case," Thompson said. "We don’t see it when we do.”

Dr. Andrew Thompson (Photo courtesy of St. Luke's)
Dr. Andrew Thompson (Photo courtesy of St. Luke's)

Still, exposures both in the hospital and outside of it resulted in scores of staffers being placed into quarantine.

“There were times where enough people were out on quarantine, or even ill, that we had to watch our staffing very closely,” Thompson said. “This was sometimes happening in a surge of patients, too. It was stressful to try and take care of patients when you don’t have enough staff.”

He praised the work of the specialists who managed to fill the endless hours of shifts.

“I’ve seen a lot of dedicated, caring, hardworking, kind behavior in my co-workers,” he said. “That’s definitely a bright spot of the past year.”

Thompson gave a sobering assessment when he told how every time he and his colleagues were asked to rise to the occasion, he considered it also to be a drill for the next calamity or even pandemic.

“The microbes aren’t done with us,” he said. “We need to be ready to respond to whatever new plague could come.”

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For Scott Lesnau, St. Louis County emergency preparedness coordinator, the pandemic year started with him trying to figure out how to get groceries and medicines to people isolating in their homes who had fewer supports around them.

The county managed deliveries with grocery stores and pharmacies on board. Now, he’s using current vaccination sites to get ready for more widespread inoculations later this spring and summer. Right now, there’s not enough vaccine to keep a drive-through clinic going.

But once heavier loads of the vaccine arrive, “The only thing that’s going to limit us is the size of the parking lot,” Lesnau said, describing over 100 area physicians and nurses who’ve volunteered to give injections.

Scott Lesnau
Scott Lesnau

Lesnau’s colleague, Dewey Johnson, is the emergency preparedness coordinator for the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office.

Early on, when the Pike Lake emergency operations center was in high gear, he and others were acquiring and stockpiling personal protective equipment, which was accessed by police and emergency services across the Arrowhead region all the way south to Pine County.

He credited several years of drills and trainings across departmental and jurisdictional lines with a positive response. Whether it's a Lakewalk under assault from high winds and waves, a forest fire or pandemic, the drills bolster familiarity between one agency and the next, sharpening the response.

“Our whole business is relationships,” he said. “Doing those exercises every year builds relationships and helped us get through this past year.”

The emergency operations center is not currently operating, coming online when needed.

“It’s been a roller coaster,” Johnson said. “It’s been stressful; it’s been emotional, but we’ve had our successes, too.”

Fans wear masks and social distance while attending the Minnesota Duluth women's hockey game against Minnesota State on Feb. 20 at Amsoil Arena; 250 fans were allowed in the arena for the game. (Tyler Schank / 2021 File/ News Tribune)
Fans wear masks and social distance while attending the Minnesota Duluth women's hockey game against Minnesota State on Feb. 20 at Amsoil Arena; 250 fans were allowed in the arena for the game. (Tyler Schank / 2021 File/ News Tribune)