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COVID fatigue: Officials urge people to fight it
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COVID fatigue: A new term becoming common in late 2020.

It is just what it sounds like — a lingering tiredness that is constant and limiting caused by all that is and has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As local schools monitor county positive rates, and a smattering of businesses temporarily close due to the virus, Koochiching County health officials say now is not the time to let down our guard.

They say everyone can play a role in whether area schools and businesses stay open, by fighting against COVID-fatigue and complacency, and continuing to wear masks, staying socially and physically distant, and washing your hands.

Anything less will prolong the pandemic, causing more limitations to regular life, they said.

County Public Health Director Kathy LaFrance, Supervisor Derek Foss and John Decker, Red Cross volunteer and long-term care provider, met with The Journal mid-October to discuss the correlation between recent holiday gatherings and an increase in the rate of positive COVID-19 cases locally.

They said at those gatherings oftentimes, people are not wearing face masks.

“The highest incidence of spread is community spread, so if people are not wearing masks, we are going to get a lot more,” LaFrance said.

The concern about keeping schools open and reducing exposure to the virus surrounds staff and faculty more than the students, she said.

“Keeping our schools open and running is not just about the students and whether they are getting COVID, it’s also about the staff and whether the school has enough staff to staff classrooms when teachers and other professionals in the building are having to quarantine or isolate because of exposure,” she said. “We heard loud and clear from the schools that probably their bigger risk than COVID actually being in the classrooms and being in the school, is staff having to quarantine and then not having replacements for those staff.”

Teachers and school staff are often connected through marriage and family. “You could potentially be taking a whole family, could be taking out a couple of positions in the school, when you have an exposure,” LaFrance said.

The three health professions encouraged members of the community not to give up on wearing masks, distancing and using good hygiene.

“It really is important for everyone to do this,” LaFrance said.

“As cases go up, it prolongs where we need to be,” Decker said. “How do we turn this new norm into a norm and be safe in how we do it?”

Local progression

Decker, who is a member of the local Emergency Response Team, charted the rise in COVID-19 cases for a Koochiching County perspective, starting from the beginning of July when local cases began to rise and COVID fatigue began settling in.

Decker said shutdown measures were put in place in early spring, before COVID-19 cases were in the area.

“It took so long to get here, by the time it got here people were already tired of hearing about it, and that makes it hard,” Decker said of COVID fatigue.

July 4 weekend, Koochiching was at level of 14 cases.

Then the holiday prompted gatherings, and a major escalation of positive cases were recorded over the next month. “It’s very apparent, and you would expect that would happen,” Decker said.

July 25 the state mask mandate went into effect, Koochiching was at 55 cases.

“We saw a dramatic difference in this rise, into the mask mandate,” Decker said. “We went from around 54 cases, and increased rapidly, and over the next month we dropped down to 20 cases after the masking.”

Decker said the local curve flattened over that time frame.

“That entire end of July all the way through August and into September. It flattened dramatically,” he said of the rate of increase.

School started and Labor Day weekend, Koochiching was at 96 cases.

“Then a one or two week lag, and now (Oct. 12) we are seeing the results of that,” he said.

What’s working

Some may wonder if the mask mandate has had an effect on the number of positive cases, Decker said, because the cases are going up now.

“There’s a compliance issue, or a willingness to comply,” he said. “And the main reason we’re willing to comply is a willingness to help. By not helping, it’s prolonging this.”

LaFrance agreed, adding Gov. Tim Walz did not want to punish people with the mandate.

“He wanted it to be a way to educate and hopefully get people’s buy in to do what’s right and to do what’s helpful (to reduce the risk of exposure to others),” she said.

“It is your right to make some decisions, but this decision is not about you,” she said. “It’s about everybody else. It’s about keeping vulnerable people safe, keeping our schools open, our businesses open, it’s about all those things. It is not about you as a person, whether someone is trying to take away your rights.”

Decker said rights come with responsibilities.

“How do you educate the humanitarian aspect of it?” he said, adding that he recently encountered someone in public who said they were not wearing a mask because they were not sick.

“You are wearing it for somebody else,” Decker said, adding he takes that idea personally, as the leader of a long-term health facility, a local health care professional, and Red Cross volunteer. By wearing a mask, he said people can help seniors in care facilities continue to be able to have visitors.

His Red Cross experience has taught him to think of CDC, which stands for cover, distance, clean. And it’s works, he said, as evidenced from his disaster response to Hurricane Laura. He said the first three weeks he was assisting, no volunteers came home with COVID-19.

“We were in the hardest hit COVID areas in the South, and our teams just complied — cover, distance, clean — and we didn’t come back with one positive case, and we were working in COVID environments all day every day,” he said. “It works, it just really works.”

Meanwhile, encounters with people who are not wearing masks in public settings may not be a good idea, they said.

Instead, LaFrance encourages people to talk about masking up and helping the situation with family, friends and neighbors to keep it fresh in everyone’s experiences.

“Not that it should rule your life, or you should live in fear, you are just aware and you do what you need to do to help the situation, not make it harder for other people,” she said.

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Hemp 101: Local couple looks to grow business

An International Falls couple this year started a business unique to Koochiching County, and report big plans for the future.

Erik and Hailey Silvers started Grindstone Farms, located east of International Falls. The new greenhouse this summer wasn't full of plants typically seen in the area, instead it was home to about 400 hemp plants, before it was harvested earlier this fall.

“(The effort) is exciting,” Hailey said. “This was something we'd been thinking about for years and years, and the opportunity presented itself this year.”

Earlier this year, Erik was one of 542 Minnesotans approved for a Minnesota Department of Agriculture Hemp Pilot License. The program is an agricultural research program for hemp, which is a commodity that can be used for numerous industrial and horticultural purposes including fabric, paper, construction materials, food products, cosmetics, production of cannabinoids (such as cannabidiol or CBD), and other products, according to federalregister.gov.

The idea to start growing hemp plants didn't cultivate overnight; the couple has been considering growing hemp for about 10 years. Recent legislation, opened the doors to explore the opportunity in Minnesota.

“There was a time we considered going somewhere else to do this,” Hailey said. “We didn't know if we'd be able to in Minnesota.”

Growing and learning

With state programs in place, Erik spent the last handful of years researching the many benefits of hemp farming, coordinating with friends in the industry and attending conferences. Late last year, he traveled to hemp conferences in St. Cloud and Las Vegas, gathering information and preparing for the next step in the business venture.

“We knew we were going to do some version of this,” Hailey said. “Then, when COVID happened, there was a whole bunch of surrendering happening in our family anyway... We know this industry can work and we knew we had to start somewhere. The time was now.”

Erik's initial plan was to start on a small scale and “test the environment,” but when the pandemic hit, it created opportunities to push ahead.

“We decided to double down and get the greenhouse up,” he said. “Things were shut down. While that happened, we took advantage of it.”

The couple own Snap Fitness and are in the process of merging it with Stride Fitness, so while their gym was shuttered during stay-at-home orders, it freed up their focus.

“The environment wasn't shut down,” Erik said. “And hemp (farmers) were considered essential workers.”

While the pandemic delayed shipping of the 16-by-100 foot greenhouse, everything else began to quickly fall into place.

“We're big into believing to 'trust the process,'” Hailey said. “So we just trusted the process.”

Hemp 101

It was unclear which was stronger – Erik's wealth of knowledge about the industry or his passion for it. Regardless, both were conveyed while describing the growing process and potential benefits the plants carry after leaving his greenhouse.

The plants grown at Grindstone Farms are not what is used to get high. Seeds of plants certified with no THC are required, and if the crop exceeds a certain percentage of THC, it is destroyed upon inspection by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

“If (the plants) test out of range, it all has to be destroyed,” Erik said. “(The plants) look like this thing people identify as a drug. That is not the case.”

Healthline.com breaks it down: The term “hemp” is used to mean cannabis that contains 0.3 percent or less THC content by dry weight.

Usually, when people say “marijuana,” they’re talking about cannabis that can get you high. Legally, marijuana refers to cannabis that has more than 0.3 percent THC by dry weight. THC content can vary among cannabis plants. Some strains are bred to be higher in THC than others.

And, just to be sure to eliminate confusion, the couple contacted local law enforcement about their business plans from the beginning.

“Erik was very transparent about the whole thing,” Hailey said. “The THC is bred way down.”

But, because of stigma associated with hemp, Hailey admits deciding to start the farm felt less risky than hitting enter on a social media post about the effort last week.

“It got a good response and people are extremely supportive,” she said of the post.

Future plans

With one summer in the books for Grindstone Farms, the couple have plans to expand the effort in the future, but said they'll keep “some cards close to their chest.”

“This summer was just testing the strains to figure out which one would work the best,” Erik said. “Eventually, this will be so vertically integrated that I will breed the seeds myself... We'll have businesses extracting the oil here.”

The hope to add local jobs accompanies the couple's future plans. Jobs could range from the farming side, to processing the crop and eventually, retail opportunities.

“Essentially, our goal is to create and educate,” Hailey said.

Erik agreed.

“I want to offer as much education about this as I can,” he said. “There is a lot of opportunity in this and I'm looking forward to seeing where it can go.”

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Local 49, industry evolves with readiness program
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Al Shannon

For most kids, the traditional course offerings of a public high school are enough to stimulate thoughts about their future career paths and options.

But for some high school students, the traditional offerings may not seem to relate to the real-life needs of a career. And they may not be interested in more school after high school.

Al Shannon, CEO of Shannon’s Inc., International Falls, encourages local kids to consider an apprenticeship readiness program offered in a partnership with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49 and Minnesota Virtual Academy.

The program offers Minnesota students a way into the International Union of Operating Engineers Registered Apprenticeship Program.

Shannon said the readiness program offers young people a “leg up” on the way to a career.

The program allows high school students to complete online elective courses designed to introduce students into the heavy equipment industry while earning credit for high school and college credit.

“This program is motivation to some students, some who are on the fringe, but like to run equipment and like to do other things that might be in the construction trades,” Shannon said.

Shannon knows about apprenticeship programs, as he serves on three boards involved in selecting course work for the programs and selecting those who will be accepted into the coveted career paths.

This is the first “readiness” program he’s seen among the three apprenticeship programs he’s involved with, he said.

“This is the first one that allows students to take some of the module online,” he said referring to the four different modules students can take. “It’s an introduction to the construction trades, to see if they like it.”

Shannon’s shop uses a lot of tradesmen, in sheet metal and plumbing. Shannon’s Inc. provides mechanical contracting services including sheet metal, plumbing and HVAC in commercial and residential projects.

“These folks excelled at trades, and didn’t do well in college preparatory classes,” he said. “These are kids that may not look like and don’t think their doing well in math, but give them a smartphone and they operate it like crazy.”

Finding the right path for some young people is more about interest and motivation than it is about ability, he said.

Many young people from northern Minnesota make good tradespeople because many have grown up developing mechanical abilities to keep snowmobiles, four-wheelers and tractors working.

“This allows them to see what might go on in the construction industry,” Shannon said. “It teaches math, using lasers, transits, all these things that grade leveling equipment needs.”

High school students can enroll in the online courses from any school district in the state of Minnesota. They can be taken anywhere at any time at no cost to the student. The program includes four semester courses that give an overview of skills needed to successfully prepare students for entrance into the IUOE Local 49 Registered Apprenticeship Program. These courses include construction exploration, basic grade and construction math, construction equipment fundamentals, and basic maintenance of mobile equipment. Students are eligible to receive college credit through North Hennepin Community College that will transfer anywhere throughout the state system.

What’s needed

Shannon said the program is designed by operating engineers, who know what knowledge and skill is needed to be successful in the trade, and may lead to college, going into the trades and signing a contract with the Operating Engineers for the apprentice program.

Shannon also said this is the first trade he knows of that has created a virtual program that can be taken by high school or college age people.

“I am hoping the other trades get on board,” he said mentioning electricians, plumbers, sheet metal and mill rights.

Employers are working to expand diversity of the people in the trades, Shannon said.

“We do have some A-No. 1 trades in the northern area,” he said.

Part of the draw for some young people, he said, is the lack of college debt at the completion of an apprenticeship program. In fact, he said apprentices make money while they learn.

“Compare that student out of college or university with $100,000 debt and you end make about same amount of money as someone in the trades,” he said.

Meanwhile, Shannon said the trade industries are changing dramatically, and he points to his own shop, as example.

“You go into a plumbing shop like ours and your computer doesn’t work and you might as well go home,” he said. “When you are out in the field, it’s Ipads and smartphones.”

Serving on apprenticeship program boards allow him input into what will be taught in the program for the evolving trades.

“The world has changed dramatically and we need to change the training to keep the trades up with the new world,” he said.