Storm Lake reacts to deepening concern

Tuesday, March 17, 2020
School ends, but the need doesn’t - Hours after the decision to close schools for a month due to coronavirus concerns, four workers from Lunchtime Solutions were mass producing and handing out sack lunches off the loading dock of the Storm Lake High School Monday in a cold mist, making sure that everyone under 18 in need would have food. By noon, over 150 lunches had been handed out in drive-up fashion, as recipients passed through drive-up style. By Tuesday, the district has begun an innovative system also taking food around the city using school buses.
/Pilot photo by Dana Larsen

The fallout continues from the COVID-19 health emergency. Storm Lake city officials are urging residents not to hoard supplies, as President Trump suggests that the emergency could drag on into July or August. Restaurants, bars and theaters are being closed or curtailed. The governor has acted to forbid gatherings of 10 or more. Tuesday morning, the Buena Vista County Courthouse was put on lockdown, with business to be conducted by phone or online.

At this time there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Buena Vista County and the nearest case was reported in Carroll County.

Here’s the latest information:

CITY OF STORM LAKE

The Storm Lake city government has been preparing for a possible coronavirus outbreak for weeks, and by Monday, was rapidly putting plans into place. The mayor formally declared a state of emergency Monday evening during a city council meeting.

The police department was given clout to enforce the rules against gatherings, Mayor Mike Porsch said.

He said that he had seen store shelves stripped of key goods, and urged residents not to hoard, suggesting that people buy only what they need for a week’s time, so that there would be supplies available for others.

The indoor waterpark at city-owned King’s Pointe Resort has been closed for at least 30 days. The hotel will remain open, with increased sanitizing. Regatta restaurant will serve by takeout.

The public library remained open as of Tuesday for checking out materials only - use of public computers, games, puzzles, children’s toys and other offerings has been suspended. The library meeting room will no longer be available to the public, and special efforts are being taken to disinfect all the public surfaces. The decision to keep the building open is “day by day,” and the city intends to follow state library commission recommendations.

City Hall hours are being reduced to 9-4 weekdays. The extra hours the facility will not be open will be used by the staff to disinfect daily, although phones will be answered. The public is being encouraged to use online services, to conduct business by phone at 732-8000, and to use a payment drop box where possible. Elderly customers or those with underlying health issues may call city hall to arrange times for payments or other business when the building is closed to the general public.

Because library computers will not be available for those wishing to complete Census forms online, those without equipment may call city hall to schedule a time to use a computer there.

All of the city-related events planned for the near future have been canceled, including the legislative coffee scheduled for King’s Pointe Saturday, and the Meet the Mayor/Storm Lake Proud event April 8.

No new reservations for the park shelter houses will be taken until further notice. Current reservation holders are being asked to reschedule if possible. No gatherings of more than 50 people will be allowed.

The city will continue doing commercial new construction inspections for now, but will suspend rental housing inspections until further notice.

Public meetings including city council meetings will be provided through a conference call number people can call in on. They will be able to hear the meeting and make comments through the phone line.

City officials have contacted the DNR about testing for lead and copper in water.

“Those kind of tests require going into people’s homes, so we need to see what we can do to work through that,” City Manager Keri Navratil said.

There’s no shutting down when most of the city’s workers perform essential services, she notes.

“We are taking whatever steps we can to make sure not only our employees but the public that relies on us stay safe, so we can keep our essential services such as water and wastewater management going.”

For example, if there is a sewer backup, city workers will no longer enter residents’ homes. They would repair a line, but if the problem is within the branch into the home, residents will have to call a plumber. Public access to the water plant is being strictly limited.

Police and fire employees, who often cannot avoid direct contact with people, are being advised to use their best judgement, and utilize protective gear as much as possible. “Again, we will be trying not to enter people’s homes, similar to the actions that EMS is doing at the hospital. Our public safety people have been working closely with the medical center to coordinate efforts,” Navratil said.

The police station hours will be reduced to 9 a.m.-3 p.m. to allow time for additional cleaning.

The SLPD posted a statement Monday assuring residents that officers will remain on duty “24/7.”

“Our officers have been proactively taking measures to ensure they stay healthy and safe so we can continue services to the community,” the post says. “At this time the immediate risk of being exposed is low for most of our community, but that risk is increasing as the outbreak spreads. We will get through this together, but we need your help.”

The department directed people to “stay calm,” and reminded the public that people over 60 should stay home when possible and avoid gatherings, and that people should wash hands frequently, cover coughs and sneezes, stay home if sick, and consider social distancing.

“We’ve entered into an entirely new situation that none of us have experienced before. We have been planning, and ordering all of the necessary disinfecting and other materials ahead, we believe, to get through,” Navratil said.

Council members followed some of their own advice Monday. Two members who felt ill attended the council meeting by phone conference.

The city plans news releases to regularly update the public.

BVRMC TAKES

ADDITIONAL PRECAUTIONS

Buena Vista Regional Medical Center is working to prepare for any coronavirus patients that may present themselves to the hospital.

On Monday, the Emergency Room Entrance will have an outdoor screening station that will screen any patient prior to entering the building.

The Fitness & Health Center closed on Monday and will remain closed until further notice.

“The most important thing for the community to do is stay away from the hospital if you do not need to be there. That includes visiting patients. No one under the age of 18 is allowed to visit or accompany a patient,” BVRMC said in a statement.

Departments that schedule patients for non-emergency appointments will continue to see patients at this time, but may be limiting appointments as needed. Call ahead with any concerns regarding your non-emergency appointments to 712-732-4030.

For more information on BVRMC updates, go to www.bvrmc.org. You will also find a link to the Center for Disease Control and the Iowa Department of Public Health, which will give you the most up-to-date information on how to best prepare and symptoms to look for.

People can also dial 211 from their phone for additional information on COVID-19 and referrals to services in time of crisis.

Those with respiratory or flu like symptoms should call their family doctor or emergency room prior to coming for instructions to keep you safe and to lessen exposure to others.

“At this time all measures are just precautionary and the most important thing for people to do is stay calm and do their best to stay home,” states CEO Rob Colerick. “By taking precautionary actions now it will make providing care much easier if coronavirus patients present themselves to the hospital.”

MEDICAL UPDATE

Emergency room doctor Garrett Feddersen spoke with county leaders Tuesday, reporting that the facility is working toward drive-through testing. All elective surgeries are being postponed, including mammograms and colonoscopies. Access to the emergency room will continue and necessary surgeries will take place normally. The facility is having some difficulty obtaining supplies, and even surgical gowns.

Hospital workers are dressing in full protective gear that he calls “space suits,” which can scare some patients, but is necessary to protect the staff. “I don’t have that many nurses,” he said.

He said that the COVID-19 virus does not seem to be serious for children, “but they are great contagion spreaders.”

“We are miles ahead compared to other communities,” he said. “There are hardships on people and there are going to be more hardships, but the more we can do now, the more lives that will be saved.”

Janessa Mechler, Clay County Board of Health Chair, added: “Please be careful to help keep yourself and loved ones from becoming infected. I cannot emphasize enough the importance on only making necessary trips to public places. People must be selective about going to public places. If it’s essential that you make a trip to a store, volunteer to drop off supplies for a neighbor. If you must be out, the recommendation is to maintain at least six feet of distance from others. Also, remember, thoroughly and frequently wash your hands with soap and water.”

The Buena Vista County region is “very lucky” to have no cases at this time, county Public Health Director Pam Bogue said. “The preventative measures will help us out the most.” People voluntarily staying home will help themselves and others, she said.

Health care advice:

• Practice social distancing. Only make essential trips. Avoid places where 10 or more people may gather. Avoid all non-essential travel.

• Stay home if you are sick. Call your health provider’s office in advance of a visit.

• Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, making sure you scrub palms, backs of hands and between fingers. If soap and water are not available, use hand sanitizer with 60% or more alcohol content.

• Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth without washing your hands first.

• Be as healthy as you can. Get plenty of sleep, eat healthy, exercise and manage your stress.

SCHOOLS REACT TO SHUTDOWN

Immediately following the governor’s recommendation Sunday night, most area schools announced that they would follow the directive and close for a minimum of four weeks.

“Based on new information today from the Iowa Department of Public Health, now is the time to move to the next level of response,” Gov. Reynolds stated.

Through Thursday, Storm Lake schools are allowing staff to come into their rooms, one-third at a time to avoid having too many people in close proximity. Teachers will be using the coming days for professional development, in hopes of coming back better than before, COO Jeff Tollefsen said.

Parent-teacher conferences were to be this week, and teachers are connecting by telephone with parents if there were any concerns about performance.

The district will probably not be able to do any classwork online, out of equity concerns as a lot of families do not have internet access. “We’re looking at different things, not to give an appearance of this being a four-week vacation. At this point you could say we’re going to be looking at every possible option on the table,” said Tollefsen. “At the moment we are unfortunately in a reactionary situation as information changes all the time, we’re doing our best to keep people safe. This is very hard - as educators, when we are told to practice social distancing, it goes against every instinct we have to help.”

The state plans to waive the required length of the school year, and local officials aren’t sure if they will try to make up some time after students return to classes. “It’s good and bad - the kids need that education time.”

If districts need to close longer than four weeks, the governor would have the authority to extend the waiver statewide or on a case-by-case basis. Lawmakers said she could address questions that may arise, such as graduation requirements for seniors. Reynolds noted that she realized the closing of the schools would come with difficult “ripple effects.”

Storm Lake and area schools superintendents are speaking daily if not twice a day, sharing information on their efforts and plans they are considering.

The state is grappling with ways to ensure that child care continues as a wave of students are suddenly ou of school, and concerns that the home life some students will experience over the coming month is far from ideal.

Many school districts are continuing food service to students in some non-gathering format.

Storm Lake schools are offering drive-through meals handed out at the high school loading dock from 8:00 to 8:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. each weekday for anyone under age 18.

School buses are also being used to hand out meals at the following stops:

Park Street: 7:30 a.m. & 1:00 p.m.

4th and Expansion: 7:45 a.m. & 1:15 p.m.

RJM Apartments (E. Milwaukee): 8:00 a.m. & 1:30 p.m.

Majella & Lake Street: 8:20 a.m. & 1:50 p.m.

Daphne/Lakeview Lane: 8:35 a.m. & 2:05 p.m.

Seneca Street Apartments: 7:30 a.m. & 1:00 p.m.

9th Street Ball Field: 7:45 a.m. & 1:15 p.m.

South School: 8:00 a.m. & 1:30 p.m.

China House: 7:30 a.m. & 1:00 p.m.

Grace Lutheran: 7:50 a.m. & 1:20 p.m.

W. Lake Estates: 8:10 a.m. & 1:40 p.m.

Emerald Park: 8:25 a.m. & 1:55 p.m.

COUNTY LOCKS THE COURTHOUSE

While the Buena Vista County Board of Supervisors was meeting with department heads for an emergency discussion on the COVID-19 situation Tuesday morning, county emergency management leader Amy Barrett received notification on her phone of the governor’s latest orders.

Almost immediately, the courthouse doors were locked, with signs advising the public to contact the office they need to do business with by phone, or to conduct the business online or by mail.

The county continues to work on how to handle necessary access, such as absentee voting for the upcoming primary, and court dates. Those who are admitted, such as for a court appearance, will be asked to come alone.

It was suggested that for any non-essential public contact, people be told to “turn around and walk away.”

While the measures seem “crazy and strange,” the greatest threat is to those over age 60, which is a big part of the county population, county department heads told supervisors. “It could overwhelm our system instantly” if an outbreak were to spread, Barrett said.

Some of the departments had already taken action. The county attorney’s office was already locked up, and some departments have been seeking to have non-essential employees working from home.

Despite the concerns, people have not necessarily been paying attention, some departments heads said. Sick people have been coming in to the driver’s license stations, people have brought entire families to attend court dates, and on Monday, the courthouse had been full of kids brought along by the public.

One department head said that while her office is directed to keep working, “the people making the decisions are behind closed doors in Des Moines.”

Barrett noted that directives are changing rapidly, and often come in the form of recommendations, not rules. “The burden will fall on you guys’ shoulders,” she told supervisors.

While people are told to stay home if sick, some offices may not be able to function if three people do not attend, a department head said. Barrett worried about what might happen if another spring flood hits, or a storm, and road workers are not available. If people use up sick time for a cough now, and get sick later, families could be put in crisis, some felt.

Supervisor Don Altena noted that while county workers are separated by office, employees in the local packing plants work 500 at a time, shoulder to shoulder.

WALMART ENDS

24 HOUR SERVICE

Elsewhere in the community, Storm Lake Walmart and other stores that had been 24 hours have announced that stores will be closed between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. until further notice, to allow staff more time to clean and disinfect.

HyVee reduced hours to 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Fareway set aside the first hour of business each day (8-9 a.m.) for those over 65, expecting mothers, and those with chronic health conditions.

Other businesses are adopting changes as well. For example, Casey’s in Storm Lake posted that it is stopping can and bottle redemption and use of refillable drink cups.

Retailers that sell liquor, beer, wine, carbonated beverages, and other beverages with an Iowa beverage container deposit are allowed to stop accepting empty cans and bottles for the duration of this disaster emergency.

TYSON CREATES NEW POLICY

Storm Lake’s largest employer, Tyson Foods, said in a statement that it has been actively monitoring COVID-19 and adjusting its policies. The company earlier suspended all international business travel on commercial carriers, and effective immediately will ban U.S. commercial business travel. Employees are asked to avoid airline travel and may be required to self-quarantine if they choose to travel. Only essential public access to Tyson plants and offices will be allowed. Attendance policies will be relaxed to eliminate any penalties for missing work due to illness. The company’s health insurance will waive co-pay, co-insurance and deductible for doctor visits for COVID-19 testing.

UPPER DES MOINES OPEN

The area’s leading charity and food pantry location, as of Tuesday, planned to remain open with normal hours. To limit the public access, applications will be taken online or by phone appointments, food pantries services will be pre-packaged and handled at curbside, and the public is advised to call the Storm Lake office before coming in for any services. No one with COVID-19 symptoms can access the office, but may call for information.

RECYLING CENTER

The Buena Vista County Recycling Center announced policy Tuesday barring the public from the facility or its office. Those who had dropped off trash are urged to retain a private hauler. Scale tickets will be faxed or emailed to customers who call the center with contact information.

CHURCHES

St. Mark’s Church pastor Dave Kebschull said that many individual congregations in the community are being left to the own devices to make decisions.

His church, like others, has suspended worship services. The church will be open Saturdays 4-6 and Sundays 9-11 for individuals to pray if they wish. He said he would serve communion individually to those who ask, with some alterations for health purposes - which he said churches perhaps should have looked at long before this. The church is working on offering some messages via Facebook Live, as others are turning to electronic means. Funerals will apparently be limited to immediate families statewide, with the possibility of larger events to be held later.

The congregation is being urged to utilize social distancing, with the exception of sobriety recovery groups, which will continue for now within the numbers guidelines. Contact individual churches or see web pages for how COVID-19 concerns are being handled.

The Sioux City Diocese has suspended all public masses for eight weeks, with re-evaluation at that time. Bishop Walker Nickless said, “This was the most difficult decision I have made during my time as bishop.” Pastors will be encouraged to broadcast mass using electronic means if possible. Weddings, funerals and baptisms will be allowed, but only with immediate family and appropriate officials. Parishes will hold no receptions, and clergy are not allowed to attend social functions. Church buildings can remain open for private prayer at the discretion of the pastors. No religious classes will be held.

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