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By Carol Stiffler

Twenty-five Newberry High School students should be finishing their 14-day quarantine after an exposure to COVID-19.

In Curtis, five staff at Three Lakes Academy have been diagnosed with the virus. Multiple students have been asked to quarantine, and the school building remains closed through at least the end of this week.

In Pickford, a visiting group of men rented a church building for a weekend at the start of October. They didn’t wear masks, slept in the church hall together, and didn’t practice social distancing. Now at least one of them has been diagnosed with COVID, and the group won’t cooperate with contact tracers to identify who else was there.

The recent flurry of COVID activity has threatened to overwhelm hospitals, and the LMAS District Health Department is now pleading for greater public cooperation.

“In the last two or three weeks, the increase has been phenomenal,” said Kerry Ott, public information officer with the LMAS District Health Department. “We do have people who are quite ill right now with COVID.”

Ott understands the public is tired of the virus, and masks, and may want to let down their guards. Some even believe death reports have been falsified and inflated.

“That is a rumor that’s been going on for months,” she said. There is no chance that is intentionally happening, she stated.

“We are so careful with our numbers,” said Ott. “If someone dies in a car accident and they also have diabetes, diabetes is not on their death certificate. They got injured in a car accident and died in the car accident.”

Similarly, if a person has diabetes and becomes sick with coronavirus and dies, those conditions are listed as coexisting factors and the medical examiner will study to determine if COVID was the main cause.

“They are very, very strict on death certificates,” she said. “That medical examiner doesn’t want to risk their license by just putting things to inflate numbers.”

Rather than getting distracted and fatigued, it is critical to stay vigilant, she said.

“We have to do everything we can to not inflict this on ourselves or other people,” she said. “And we need people to answer the phone when the health department calls them. We are getting more and more people who are not responding to us.”

And there is a small list of things – not all that different from protocols encouraged during flu season – the department says the public must do to curb the spread.

Ott feels like a preacher at times, but she stands by her message: “Wear cloth face coverings. Keep your distance. Avoid large gatherings. If you don’t feel good, stay home,” she advised.

A good number of people are still doing that, she said. “But we need more people who were doing that, who stopped, to stop making this political. Go back to doing those small things. We are not taking their freedom away from them. We are trying to protect their health, their lives, and their long-term health.”

There have been no COVID deaths so far in the four counties served by LMAS, but Ott doesn’t want people to pay attention only to the death rate.

Ott said research from respected institutions like Johns Hopkins has indicated there are and will be long-term effects for some survivors of coronavirus, and the virus is too new to know exactly what.

Some people who have recovered from the virus now have new cardiovascular, pulmonary, and even neurological damage.

“We don’t know what is happening in these systems,” she said. “All we know is that this is a new virus.”

As flu season approaches, Ott warns it will be particularly important to take precautions against both viruses – get a flu shot, and continue to protect yourself from coronavirus. The flu typically sends some people to the hospital and claims some lives each year, and hospitals may already be taxed with COVID patients.

We need to take care of each other, she said, and get back to the basic, small things to bring our risk back down.

“We have staff at the health department who have been working seven days a week for months,” Ott said. “We need our public to HELP US. And to help each other. And wear masks.”