Horns honked as a crowd gathered at Library Square in Hutchinson Monday for a rally opposing vaccination mandates, especially those related to COVID-19.
People in attendance carried signs with slogans opposing vaccination mandates, while speakers addressed the crowd from the band shelter in the park.
The rally was organized by a group called Triple M Medical. According to a person who claimed to be one of the organizers, it’s a group of 3M employees concerned about President Joe Biden’s Sept. 9 announcement that ordered workers at companies with 100 employees or more to get vaccinated or undergo regular testing. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, the federal agency overseeing workplace safety, is in charge of working out the details and is expected to issue a rule this fall.
But J.P. Whittington, one of the organizers of the Hutchinson rally, said it wasn’t just about 3M.
“This is about medical freedom for our country,” he said. “This is going to affect our kids. It’s not going to stop here. This is not about any vaccine, this is about freedom.”
Whittington and others say the purpose of the rally was to inform the public and bring together like-minded folks who “want medical freedom.”
“Freedom to choose what goes in their body,” Whittington said.
“I want you to look at each other, I want you to meet each other, you need to know who your allies are,” said the rally’s emcee. “We need to know who our allies are. This is a fight that we’re taking, and we’re not going to take it sitting down.”
The keynote speaker of the event was Dr. Scott Jensen, a former Republican state senator running for Minnesota governor in 2022. Jensen has gained notoriety since the pandemic began as a voice of resistance and criticism to medical guidance from people such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Michael Osterholm, and Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm.
During the rally, Jensen said Minnesotans have “been violated” by lockdowns and mandates intended to stop the spread of COVID-19. But while a handful at the rally had signs opposing vaccinations, most, Jensen said, are not anti-vaxxers, “we are for health freedom.”
As Jensen spoke, he eventually veered from the topic of health freedom to other political issues he is running on, including second amendment rights, law enforcement, election integrity and school choice. He ended the rally by answering questions from people in the audience.
Before Jensen took the stage Monday, he sat down with a reporter to talk more about health freedom and his campaign for governor. Look for that story in the Oct. 13 issue of the Leader.
The integrity of the 2020 election continues to make national headlines and spark debate in numerous states across America, and Minnesota is no exception.
Amid the discourse, Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, has repeated claims regarding Minnesota's 2020 election that Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon says are "unsubstantiated garbage." Those claims were recently highlighted in a Sept. 21 YouTube video in which Gruenhagen cites allegations from Midwest Swamp Watch, a limited liability company with a Brookings, South Dakota, address, with Rick Weible, Minnesota GOP operative and former St. Bonifacius mayor, listed as its agent.
“According to their research, 39% of Minnesota ballots were not connected to a registered voter as of Nov. 29, 2020, five days after the Minnesota canvassing board met and certified the election on Nov. 24," Gruenhagen says in the video. "Those 39% also included 700,000 absentee ballots that were not connected to a registered voter. ... We need a forensic audit here in the state of Minnesota to find out what the actual vote was."
In response, the Secretary of State's Office highlighted a comment left on a different Midwest Swamp Watch video earlier this year. The comment appears under the name Max Hailperin, a professor emeritus in math, computer science and statistics at Gustavus Adolphus College who has been awarded the National Association of Secretaries of State's Medallion Award for service in election-related technology and legislation.
“This analysis of absentee voting records was based on a misunderstanding. … Accepted absentee ballots are immediately recorded in the Statewide Voter Registration System as required by Minnesota Statutes section 203B.121, and those records are available contemporaneously under section 203B.12," he writes. "(The error is) to think that those records were the same as the voting history records available under section 201.091. ... Those voting history records can be posted up to six weeks after the election under section 201.171."
A spokesperson for the Secretary of State's Office said the two databases are not intended to match, and have different purposes. The voter history database is an "active snapshot in time" of who is registered to vote, and not a complete tally as Minnesota residents move, change names, die or are convicted of felonies.
"Trying to match an active snapshot in time to the accepted absentee ballot list will never result in a true 'match,'" the spokesperson said, "especially as the group in the video appears to have been looking at data during the six-week time period counties have to resolve any discrepancies."
McLeod County DFL Chair Lowell Ueland called Gruenhagen's allegations unrealistic.
"He has his own agenda," Ueland said. "It's not the people's agenda in McLeod County."
This past week, Gruenhagen said he still has concerns regarding Minnesota's 2020 election. In emails he cited accusations of election fraud through ballot harvesting in Minneapolis from 2018 when residents were allegedly paid to vote. He also cited complaints of changes to voting rules that came about due to a lawsuit from a left-leaning group, which Simon did not oppose, and skipped legislative approval. Both subjects were discussed in New House Republican Caucus videos featuring Minnesota State Rep. Steve Drazkowski, which Gruenhagen referenced.
He also pointed to France’s banning of mail-in voting in 1975 due to fears of voter fraud, a video highlight reel of Democrats calling into question election security prior to 2020, and referenced Minnesota GOP Election Integrity Committee recommendations on voting security. Those recommendations, which follow Republican National Convention initiatives, include:
"I also was chief author of the voter ID bill in the House and I had (approximately) 20 co-authors, all Republicans, and not one DFL would sign on," Gruenhagen said. "Voter ID would go a long way to solving the election controversies, but the DFL refused to hear (the) bill in committee."
IS A FORENSIC AUDIT NEEDED?
Also late last month, Gruenhagen signed an open letter calling for all 50 states to undergo a forensic audit. The letter is signed by 41 state legislators, primarily from Arizona, but including several other states. Gruenhagen is the only legislator from Minnesota who signed the letter.
"It has come to our attention from an audit of 2.1 million ballots in Arizona complemented by an in-depth canvass of votes in Arizona, as well as through multiple different data reviews of voting by independent experts; that our representative republic suffered a corrupted 2020 election," the letter reads.
The letter calls for the United States House of Representatives to decide the winner of the election if an audit shows Biden would receive fewer than 270 electoral votes, or if Trump would receive more than 270.
In response to questions about the letter, Gruenhagen shared an email from Arizona state Sen. Wendy Rogers that shares figures claiming thousands of discrepancies and reactions to the findings of a group called Cyber Ninjas, which was hired by Arizona state Senate Republicans to audit the 2020 presidential election in Maricopa County, Arizona.
“Any one of these discrepancies would be enough to merit decertification,” Rogers said in the email.
A forensic audit of voting machines found no malfeasance, lawsuits challenging Arizona’s election outcome have been dismissed, and multiple hand recounts, including those done by Cyber Ninjas, have confirmed the Maricopa County election results.
“Truth is truth, numbers are numbers,” said Karen Fann, the Arizona Senate Republican who commissioned the vote review.
In Minnesota and many other states, statutes already require post-election reviews, or audits.
"I believe in our county’s and state's election processes as administered, and I have witnessed McLeod County recounts where our equipment was proven to count accurately," said McLeod County Auditor-Treasurer Connie Kurtzweg, who is in charge of administering local elections.
The Minnesota Statewide Voter Registration System database is regularly updated throughout the year with information exchanged with the Department of Health and county election officials.
"Prior to election day, all equipment to be used in the election is tested by county election officials," Kurtzweg said, "then followed by additional testing by the precinct election officials during Public Accuracy Test as stated in Minnesota Administrative Rules 8220.1550."
Kurtzweg also pointed to paper ballots used in all Minnesota precincts as another check on election integrity.
"If the ballots need to be recounted they can be,” she said.
Many are recounted.
Following elections, Kurtzweg said, every county in Minnesota audits its votes before certifying them to the state. Statute 206.89 also requires counties to perform post-election reviews of election results returned by the optical scan ballot counters. Each eligible election — U.S. president, U.S. Senate, U.S. House of Representatives and governor — is reviewed with a hand count of the ballots in precincts selected randomly by the canvassing board. Results are posted to the Secretary of State's website.
Despite these checks, Republican legislators feel more is needed to protect against voter fraud.
Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Acton Township, said that while there are audits in Minnesota, they have not had the detail a forensic audit would provide. He thinks there was probably some manner of aberration, but the extent is unknown.
"They haven't found anything yet, but I think an in-depth investigation isn't a bad thing," he said. "I'm also concerned about elections going forward."
All Minnesota votes are cast on paper ballots, but some technology is used to tabulate, assist those who need help filling out ballots, and track registration. Urdahl said he would like Minnesota to no longer use digital technology at voting locations going forward.
"Maintaining our voter integrity is essential to our democracy," he said. "We have to make sure, going forward, it's done properly. Because of the pandemic and other issues we strayed away from that."
Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, called the issue of a forensic audit in Minnesota “a very difficult question.”
"After the 2020 election, there were multiple investigations, multiple court cases around the nation,” he said. “So far, no wrongdoing that I am aware of has been uncovered.”
But he believes some form of voter fraud always has and always will exist. He doesn't know if it's to the scale some Republicans believe. There is, however, a second issue, he said: trust.
"There really are a lot (of voters) who feel fraud occurs, and occurred in the 2020 election," Newman said. "Whether or not it's true is important. But what's also important is the faith people have (in the process)."
He listed mail-in ballots with no witnesses or notaries, and Minnesota's lack of a voter ID law among his top concerns. He thinks changes would help restore some Republicans’ faith in elections and lessen the calls for an audit.
“I would feel much better if the Democrats would agree to some voting integrity reforms,” Newman said.
Hutchinson's tax base growth has outpaced the levy, which means the tax rate for city residents is expected to decrease next year. The complicating factor is an increase to home values.
That's the explanation Hutchinson Finance Director Andy Reid gave the City Council this past week when seeking approval of the city's portion of the preliminary 2022 property tax levy. A preliminary levy must be approved each year by Sept. 30, and a final levy in December. The final levy can be smaller than the preliminary, but not higher.
Preliminary data the City Council reviewed showed:
Preliminary data also showed:
The general fund is balanced, and the 3.3% increase in the levy is mostly due to wages and benefits, Reid said. The increase may have been closer to 5%, but the city saved money by eliminating dispatch center expenses.
Notably, the city's tax capacity is increasing 10.5%, compared to the 7% proposed levy increase.
"When our base outpaces our levy, it ends up with a declined tax rate," Reid said. "We're estimating a percent decrease in our tax rate based on this preliminary levy."
Last year, the median home in Hutchinson was $186,000. Had the value stayed flat, "that homeowner would be seeing a 3% decrease in their (Hutchinson) taxes. It just shows how much the value comes into play," Reid said.
However, the expectation is that a Hutchinson house previously valued at $186,000 will be valued at $200,000. That means such a home is expected to see a $62 increase to its city property taxes.
The preliminary levies were each approved 4-1 by City Council, with Council Member Patrick May opposed.
As COVID-19 case rates rise in McLeod and Meeker Counties, health care providers are feeling the strain and asking residents to do more to mitigate the spread of the contagious and potentially deadly coronavirus.
“We have to stop pretending it’s not here,” said Dr. Deb Peterson, chief medical officer at Meeker Memorial Hospital in Litchfield. “We have to go back to not having big gatherings. In big gatherings, at church or in school, we should be wearing a mask. Stay home if you’re sick. All the things that were talked about at the beginning of the pandemic — and people are tired of now, I know — but we need to do them.”
The Minnesota Department of Health reported 163 new cases for the past week in McLeod County, marking the fourth straight week of new cases in the triple digits. The county’s 66th death since the pandemic began, a person age 30-34, was also reported Friday, the fifth local death in the past month.
In Meeker County, 112 new cases were reported last week, and on Monday the county reported its 50th death since the pandemic began and fourth in the past month.
Health care providers at Meeker Memorial, Hutchinson Health and Glencoe Regional Health described in dire terms the current state of hospitals and COVID-19 infection in communities, suggesting they are on the brink of crisis. Jim Lyons, president at Hutchinson Health, said that on Oct. 1, the hospital suspended non-emergent inpatient surgical procedures to conserve resources such as inpatient beds and staff to care for those with COVID-19 and emergent issues such as heart attacks, strokes and other life-threatening illnesses. He said that beds at Hutchinson Health have, at times, been completely full, and routinely have been 90% full. Lately, as many as 50% of the hospital’s beds are filled by people hospitalized with the virus.
“There is a limit to beds. There is a limit to health care staff. There is a limit to the care that can be provided under these circumstances,” said a letter published Sept. 29 to the Glencoe Regional Health website written by Patricia Henderson, GRH president and CEO, and Dr. Kristine Knudten, chief medical officer. “We have reached that limit.”
While local hospitals deal with shortages, the story is the same throughout Minnesota. Lyons said that when Hutchinson Health runs out of beds and staff locally, “which has happened recently,” patients are sent to the emergency department while workers search for a hospital with availability. Sometimes those hospitals can be hours away, but other times they may not find anything at all.
“If somebody comes to the ER right now, say, with injuries from a motor vehicle accident, or they’re horribly ill and need a ventilator, or if they have anything that requires a higher level of care, they are likely not going to get to go somewhere else,” Peterson said.
Health care providers agree that the surge is being fueled by a combination of misinformation about the virus and vaccines. Most in the local health care community are reluctant to use the term that some on the national stage have used — a pandemic of the unvaccinated — because the issue has become so politicized. But they do not hesitate to share their experiences.
“Every day we directly see the effect of misinformation spread across social media, of large gatherings and classrooms with no masking, and of a largely unvaccinated population,” wrote Henderson and Knudten.
Across Minnesota, the MDH reports 70% of people age 16 or older and 91.6% of people 65 or older are fully vaccinated. Those numbers lag locally but follow a similar trend of older adults being more vaccinated than younger people. In Meeker County, about half of people age 16 or older are fully vaccinated, and it’s about 74.4% of people age 65 or older. In McLeod County it’s 58.7% for people age 16 or older and 82% for people age 65 or older.
While the past perception has been that the virus is a threat mostly to older adults, health care providers say they are seeing an increase in the number of younger, unvaccinated people being hospitalized with serious illness.
“Our older population in the county and across the state are vaccinated at a considerably higher rate than the younger populations,” Lyons said. “We are seeing more young people hospitalized than in previous surges. More importantly, we are seeing significantly higher rates of hospitalizations and severe COVID-19 among unvaccinated people, regardless of their age.”
Adding to the fire for health care workers is an unwillingness from members of the community to follow even simple mitigation strategies, such as wearing masks, getting tested and quarantining if sick. Henderson and Knudten at GRH reported patients who have received care for COVID-19 symptoms but refused to be tested, while others have tested positive and refused to quarantine. Lyons said he’s heard the same stories locally.
“If this is happening, these individuals are exposing others to COVID-19 and accelerating the spread of the virus, which puts our entire community at risk including older adults and immune compromised people,” Lyons said.
This unwillingness to take simple steps to stop the spread of the virus compounds the exhaustion health care workers are already feeling after 20 months of dealing with the virus, Lyons said. Rude behavior from patients upset about long wait times or mask requirements in facilities further drain morale in a critical profession facing shortages.
So how can people help slow this surge and take some of the burden off health care workers? Lyons said the same things we’ve been told daily for the past year: get tested and stay home if you’re sick, wear a mask and social distance when around others, and most importantly, get vaccinated if you are eligible.
Lyons said the COVID vaccines “have been monitored more than any other vaccine on the market.” While some people may experience mild or moderate side effects such as aches and chills, he said he is not aware of anyone locally who experienced severe illness or death from the vaccine. Most importantly, he said, they are “extremely effective,” citing a Sept. 17 study report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that shows unvaccinated people are five times more likely to be infected, 10 times more likely to be hospitalized, and 10 times more likely to die from COVID-19.
“COVID-19 is real, dangerous, and spreading throughout the county,” Lyons said. “Many are dying and others are now facing serious long-term effects that come with this disease. But it’s all preventable, so everyone who’s eligible should get vaccinated against this virus. Wear your mask, get tested and quarantine if you don’t feel well. This is how we’re going to get back to safely living our normal lives.”