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Giving birth during the COVID-19 pandemic

When the coronavirus first made the news in December, no one thought much about it because it was happening on the other side of the world. It got real for Minnesotans when Gov. Tim Walz issued a two-week stay-at-home order on March 25. While essential businesses were allowed to remain open, everything else, from restaurants and bars to movie theaters and sports venues, were shut down. 

Amid these unprecedented times — from March 25 to May 15 — 69 babies were born in McLeod and Meeker counties.

Adam and Courtney Bipes of Litchfield welcomed their first child, a boy, Wesley, on April 11, a whole month earlier than his anticipated due date of May 14, and in a different locale than they originally planned. After months of doctoring in Litchfield and planning to have their baby at Meeker Memorial Hospital, the Bipeses found themselves traveling to St. Cloud Hospital to deliver their pre-termer who weighed in at 6 pounds, 2 ounces and was 19 inches long.

The plan from the beginning was to give birth at Meeker Memorial Hospital with Dr. Cassandra Bulau as attending physician.

Courtney, who works as a physical therapist assistant, was apprehensive during her pregnancy, because she didn't know how COVID-19 was affecting babies in utero. 

"I am employed by Pro Rehab, which provides services at Bethesda (in Willmar)," she said. "They were more concerned about me than I was. They made sure I felt comfortable with everything."

"Everything" included wearing masks and taking special precautions between patients, such as taking her temperature twice a day. 

"With my pregnancy, I was kind of worried," she said. "We had a doula (a trained labor coach) hired. I was worried for that — if they would let her be in on my delivery. At that point, of course, we weren't planning on having him early."

Another concern for the soon-to-be mom was news reports about husbands not being allowed in the delivery room.

"I could not imagine," she said. "I was nervous not having my doula I had hired. I can't imagine doing it all by myself."

Marc Vaillancourt, vice president of development and operations at Meeker Memorial, said the hospital jumped on its COVID-19 response right away by forming an incident command system in early March with the goal of keeping patients and staff safe. One of the first changes implemented was visitor restrictions, which had an impact on birth moms, who were allowed only one support person in the delivery room. 

"It has been an adjustment for moms and for us as a community hospital," Vaillancourt said. "We want to provide care, and we believe in families."

Bulau said visitor restrictions have been hardest for first-time parents and grandparents who are not allowed to see their new grandchildren immediately

"For the most part, they understand and don't want to put their infants at risk," she said. "People are very receptive. They go home and have family over."

Bulau, who gave birth to her second child in January, said giving birth during the pandemic is not that much different.

"You have the same nursing staff, same providers," she said. "You have to wear a mask. Your provider looks like they come from Mars with big goggles. We were already wearing a face mask. We're wearing a different type — a big face shield. We do all our births in a negative flow room to reduce the risk of transmission. After delivery, they are moved to another room without the negative flow. We still allow a doula, that's still happening. The holistic things we do are happening. Actual labor is not different. The providers look different."

"We try to maintain normalcy," Vaillancourt added. "It's a special moment, a new life. The new protocol is in the background. All of those things aren't interfering with the experience we're trying to provide. In the past, everything happened in the same room. It's more on the staff side of things now. When that moment comes, Dr. Bulau says, 'push,' that's nature man. That's not going to change. We're doing all the things we have traditionally done. As long as there's no national guidance, we're going to continue the care we've always done in regard to delivery."

Meeker Memorial implemented its initial COVID-19 protocols "really quick," Vaillancourt said, and staff continues to tweak its response.

"Everyone was wearing a mask at the beginning," he said. "Incident command response was innovative rather than reactive. We're a small organization. We don't have to go to five or six committees. We all wear several hats when we gather — the right people are in the room. We have high level discussion that can be communicated and implemented immediately. That's the beauty. We're able to be really nimble, an advantage for our organization and our patients."


Adam and Courtney Bipes never had the opportunity to experience their birthing plans at Meeker Memorial.

"The Tuesday before we had him, I woke up with itchy hands. I Googled, it's a symptom of cholestasis, (a liver condition that can occur in late pregnancy). When it came to Friday, it was still there but not as bad. I called Dr. Bulau to let her know what was going on. She actually had me come in for blood work. It takes three days for test results. ... I didn't think I'd have this condition. I thought everything was fine."

Saturday morning, Courtney's water broke. One of her friends is an OB nurse at Meeker Memorial, so she called her. She told her to go in. At 36 weeks or later, Courtney could deliver in Litchfield. Any earlier and she would have had to go to St. Cloud. She was at 35 weeks and two days — "close," she said, but still at the point where she would have to deliver at St. Cloud Hospital.

The couple arrived at the hospital between 10:30 and 11 a.m. After being screened for COVID-19, Courtney was admitted. 

"It's hard for me because I don't know what would be normal," she said. "We couldn't leave our room. Everyone wore masks. We had a big room. That was kind of nice. Usually people would walk the halls. We weren't able to do that. There was no company at all. Because he was premature, they expected him to be there a week. I was doing OK. The scary part was, they were going to discharge me on the second day. That meant Adam would have to leave, because you can only have one person per patient. When I was a patient, Adam could be there. Once I was discharged, only I could be there (with the baby)."

Fortunately, mom and baby were discharged together. Once settled at home, grandparents wearing masks met their first grandchild. 

"Someday we'll look back at baby pictures of his family and think that's kind of weird, they're all wearing masks," she said.

While the couple is grateful for a healthy child, they were disappointed not to deliver in Litchfield.

"To go eight months talking with your doctor however often," she said. "They know what you want, your personality. It was easy to talk to Dr. Bulau. St. Cloud was great. We felt Wesley had the best care. The doctor was nice. We saw three or four different doctors. Wesley had the same pediatrician two out of the four days we were there. I had a different doctor everyday, which I wouldn't have had in Litchfield."


Among the parents experiencing a child's birth during a worldwide health crisis were Zandra Floeder and Brian Kalenberg of Hutchinson, whose first child, Kulani Kalenberg, arrived April 10. 

"I tried not to pay too much attention, so I wouldn't get overwhelmed by it," Floeder said. "After she was born healthy, it made me feel better."

Kulani Kalenberg weighed 8 pounds, 4 ounces and was 21 1/2 inches long when she was born at Hutchinson Health Hospital. 

Up until three to four weeks before Floeder gave birth, Brian attended doctor appointments with her.

"Sometime in March, they ended up not allowing spouses for ultrasounds or check-up appointments," she said. "It was pretty upsetting. They were supposed to call us ahead of time. When we got to the hospital and they told us he couldn't come in, I ended up leaving. Dr. Byron called me and talked to me about it and explained why. He talked things through with me. He was really good about explaining it. I had anxiety." 

When it came time for Floeder to be induced, she and Brian were screened for COVID-19 symptoms before they entered the building.

"The nurses had masks on," she said. "I didn't have to wear a mask (or anything) crazy like that when I gave birth. There were no visitors. Originally, Brian was only able to leave one time per day. He was able to run to the store. He went out two or three times one day and then he couldn't leave. The nurses and doctors had masks. There was hand sanitizer outside the door."

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, all employees at Hutchinson Health are wearing masks. All hospital units have gloves, gowns, masks and protective eyewear.

"The nurses and physicians are ready to care for you and your newborn," said Teri Smith, OB manager at Hutchinson Health. "Don't be afraid to see your doctor or come to the hospital. We have the personal protection needed to care for you safely."

The biggest impact COVID-19 has had on the birthing unit is to its visitor policy.

"The birthing unit nurses are happy to meet all members of the family," Smith said. "Now they only meet one member of the family, as we are limited to the labor coach only. They're encouraged to stay as long as possible and not come and go. Oftentimes, dads are spending the whole time here, sleeping on the cot. That's the trend we've seen in OB. If there's not a lot of children at home, dads are staying with first-time moms."

Floeder's advice: "Don't overthink it." 

"It went perfectly," she said. "The OB team in Hutch is amazing. They are really good at explaining things and making things as normal as possible. Don't stress about it."


When Michael and Holly Sanken of rural Brownton shared the good news they were pregnant, the couple had no idea their daughter, Hattie Lynn, would arrive April 28 in the midst of a worldwide pandemic.

"When we announced it in September, it was such an exciting time," Holly said. "We never imagined something like it. We had talked about it at work when it was in China. It wouldn't get here. It's real for us now, too."

In the beginning, the couple admitted there was a fair amount of fear because of the unknown. 

"They didn't know if the baby would get it," she said. "Mike (co-owner of Foster Mechanical in Hutchinson) goes into a lot of places with a lot of people. It was scary knowing we were both coming home from being around people who could have it."

Holly, who works as a radiologic technologist at Glencoe Regional Health, wore N95 masks with patients who had symptoms. 

"Everyday you went to work it was something new you had for guidelines what the CDC would recommend," she said.

Due to being a high-risk pregnancy Holly stopped working five weeks before her delivery date. 

"The hospital gave me the choice to continue working or not," she said. "We heard in New York, you potentially may not be able to be with your baby. We decided to play it safe."


According to Dr. John Mark Johnson, a board-certified obstetrics and gynecology doctor, although the COVID-19 virus has provided some unique challenges, Glencoe Regional Health has maintained its high level of obstetrical care and ensured the safety of patients and staff by implementing the following:

  • Only one support person is to be there for laboring moms and they have to stay the duration of the labor, delivery and post-partum recovery.
  • Patients are discouraged from roaming the halls or leaving the facility for any reason until mother and baby are discharged.
  • In order to decrease staff and patient exposure risks, children are not allowed to visit their new sibling in the hospital.
  • Staff all wear masks and eye shields.
  • Patients and visitors are asked to wear masks.
  • All patients and support people are asked to enter the facility through the established well-patient clinic entrance for screening before being admitted to the birthing center.

"We are constantly reassessing current guidelines and recommendations from the Centers for Disease and Prevention, American Academy of Family Physicians and American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists to keep our moms and babies safe and healthy," said Dr. Kristine Budahn, a family medicine doctor who provides obstetrics and family care at Glencoe. "We will be ready to implement new changes and recommendations or relax current restrictions as appropriate moving forward."

In an interesting twist, Holly was induced at 41 weeks because she was overdue, not because of COVID-19. 

"Our experience was really good during the pandemic," she said. "Nurses were very, very good. They took a lot of pictures for us, so we could share. They went above and beyond. We had a really good experience even though it was a pandemic. Once we got home, it was very overwhelming. It was nice not to have visitors at the hospital. It was just the three of us. It was very different, very quick."


William Anthony Stoneburg was born on April 26, the second child of Chad and Lindsay Stoneburg.

"In a way, it was a lot of the same," Lindsay Stoneburg said. "Leading up to, I had a lot of anxiety, not knowing what to expect. Not knowing if my husband could be there. What delivery would like like. Would I even be able to get into the hospital? What if we had to do a home birth? There were a lot of thoughts you never had to think about crossing your mind. The unknown was the most scary."

While giving birth was pretty much the same for the Stoneburgs, what was different was her husband had to leave after the baby was born. He had to let the dog out, and he wasn't allowed to come back because of the no visitors rule.

"It was different with my daughter," Lindsay recalled. "We had people coming and going. We had tons of family visiting. My parents live in Indiana. They were supposed to be here and they haven't gotten here yet. We had so many visitors with my daughter. This time, no one. My sister was in the room with me the first time. She met (William Anthony) 2 1/2 weeks later. That was weird. Everyone met him via video chat versus in person. At least they have video chat, but it's definitely not the same." 

Looking back at her son's birthing experience, Lindsay said she probably wouldn't have had to be so nervous.

"The nurses and doctors did a great job making you feel normal, once you got past the check in," she said. "They did a COVID screening. She handed us both a mask. I was a little nervous I was going to have to wear a mask through labor."

Lindsay's best advice: "Try not to stress about it."

"The doctors and nurses know what they are doing and do their best to make everything seem as normal as possible," she said. "Other than having one support person, it goes very smoothly."

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LHS graduation plans head to track complex, virtual stage

Jason Michels

It has been challenging, amid the fast-changing and sometimes confusing directives around the COVID-19 pandemic, to plan a high school commencement.

But Litchfield High School Principal Jason Michels said earlier this week that he believes he’s found an option that can both celebrate the Class of 2020 and offer appropriate health safeguards for those who take part.

“I’m going to do whatever I can in a safe way for my kids to get up and have their cap and gowns on” and receive their diploma, Michels said.

Achieving that goal has been difficult, Michels said, because of what he called “inconsistent” communication from Gov. Tim Walz’s administration regarding what is an is not permitted in terms of graduation ceremonies.

“We’re all scrambling,” he added.

But he believes the district has a solution now, which he shared in a letter to members of the senior class and their parents May 18, and later, with the Independent Review. Commencement will be observed in two ceremonies — an in-person diploma pickup Saturday, May 30, at the Litchfield High School track and field complex, and a virtual commencement Sunday, May 31.

Participation in the in-person event will be “on a voluntary basis,” Michels’ letter said, and will take place from noon to 3 p.m. May 30. The event will include staggered arrival times for seniors, with those with last names starting A to E from noon to 1 p.m.; F-M from 1-2 p.m.; and N-Z from 2-3 p.m. in the complex parking lot.

In order to meet social distancing requirements and “ensure the health and safety of all participants,” the letter said, seniors and up to four family members will enter the track and field complex from the northeast, near the tennis courts, and walk south on the track. Three to six seniors and their families will enter at a time, in staggered alphabetical order. They will circle the track, pick up their diploma covers, have the traditional diploma photo taken, then return to their vehicles.

No seating, restrooms or water fountains will be used at the complex during the ceremony.

The virtual commencement celebration will include a “live stream pre-recorded broadcast” that will include presentation of the senior class, speeches, music and more on Facebook and YouTube. The ceremony also will be broadcast on KLFD at 1:30 p.m. May 31.

“...(G)raduation is a right (sic) of passage that is very important,” Michels’ letter said. “That being said, it is crucial that you understand that plans, especially the “Salute to Seniors” on the track, may need to be adjusted accordingly, contingent to the Governor’s orders. The safety of our students, staff and community is and must always be at the forefront of our planning and decisions.”

That conclusion to his letter was necessary due to the shifting communication and directives coming from the state since the pandemic and stay-home orders began.

Once the traditional commencement in the high school gym was nixed, Litchfield administrators — like many other school officials around the state — shifted their attention to an outdoor ceremony at football stadiums. But on May 8, the Department of Education issued guidance prohibiting indoor graduations as well as large outdoor gatherings in places like stadiums or football fields.

“My communication with parents has been very, very consistent,” Michels said. “(But) the rug got pulled out from under me.”

So, Michels began searching for other possibilities that could still deliver a special celebration, and on May 11 he told the Litchfield School Board that a drive-by graduation in the high school parking lot, with students having their “diploma photo” taken in front of the school entrance, was likely the best option. But days later, Michels said, the governor said such drive-by ceremonies were permitted, as long as participants did not leave their vehicles.

And that brought Michels back to the track and field complex, with participants staying in their vehicles until they begin their walk to receive their diplomas, leaving ample social distancing.

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Council offers support to businesses, but not for 'constitutional' resolution

Litchfield City Council members left no doubt of their support for local businesses during their meeting Monday night.

But that support stopped short of passing a resolution that would challenge Gov. Tim Walz’s executive orders that have kept bars, restaurants and other small businesses closed during the past two months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At least for now.

Following a lengthy discussion, the City Council voted unanimously not to act on a request from Councilor Darlene Kotelnicki to consider a resolution “regarding Litchfield being a Constitutional & Business Friendly city.”

“The governor’s ears have been stretched to the limits of … he doesn’t really need to hear any more,” Councilor Vern Loch said. “I do not think we need (a resolution for) businesses to open. Common sense is going to prevail. I think the governor is aware of what all the communities are thinking and hoping for.”

That sentiment was shared by most of the other council members, some who spoke about resolutions passed by other cities and counties that challenged the governor’s orders, which they said probably went too far.

Earlier this month, the Lakefield City Council passed a resolution opposing the governor’s executive orders and declared Lakefield a “Constitutional and business friendly community.” The city council in Pequot Lakes passed a similar resolution. Closer to home, Cokato Township Board passed a resolution saying that as a “Constitutional and business friendly community,” the township “hereby declares its intent to oppose any infringement by Executive Order or any other directive on the rights of law-abiding citizens to keep their businesses open…”

In her memo sent to fellow council members ahead of Monday’s meeting, she thought it was time to consider a resolution, though with “a more positive tone toward supporting local residents and businesses….”

Kotelnicki’s memo explained that “Between the highway project and COVIUD-19 (sic), our businesses are in crisis. I think we all recognize this.”

Indeed, other council members expressed their support for local businesses, but not for opposing the executive order.

“I’m in favor of sending a message to our businesses that we fully support them during this time of uncertainty,” Councilor Ron Dingmann said. “As much as I support (local businesses) … I’m not ready to support any resolution that would defy the governor’s order.”

The Lakefield and Pequot Lakes resolutions “are all templated” and “I’m totally against anything like that,” he said.

Dingmann said he didn’t like the “one-size-fits-all” approach of the governor’s executive orders, but seemed to acknowledge the public health vs. healthy economy debate was fraught with challenges. If one followed only science of fighting the pandemic, many businesses would never reopen again, killing the local economy, he said. But if one took a “purely economics” approach, more busineses might survive, but more people might also die.

Councilor Eric Mathwig said he was approached by a resident in his ward, who was “leaning more toward doing something like Cokato.” But many more residents opposed that approach, while still trying to support local businesses.

Rather than a resolution or sending a letter, Mathwig said, he preferred waiting a couple weeks to see whether the governor loosened restrictions and began to allow more businesses to open in a safe way.

Walz announced May 20 a loosening of some business-related restrictions, allowing restaurants to open — with outdoor dining only. Salons and barbershops, as well as public and private campgrounds were cleared to reopen June 1.

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County Administrator Paul Virnig announces retirement plans

Meeker County Administrator Paul Virnig announced during the May 19 County Board meeting that he plans to leave the position next March.

Virnig, who had discussed his decision with commissioners prior to the meeting, said he was leaving to be able to spend more time with family. His parents are getting older and live in the Little Falls area, he said, and he hopes to be able to see and help them more.

“I appreciate the opportunity,” Virnig said, adding that he felt “blessed” to have worked with many different staff members and commissioners during his tenure. “I can’t even think how many different staff.”

Virnig was hired as county coordinator in December 1989, and the County Board elevated him to county administrator in January 2003.

In addition to spending time with his family, he said, he plans to engage in volunteer work and “probably work somewhere a little different” at some point, as well.

“It has been an honor and a privilege to work with the citizens of Meeker County,” he added.

Some commissioners, gathering via web conferencing for their meeting, thanked Virnig for his years of service to the county.

No announcement was made about finding a replacement for Virnig or what process or timeline might be followed.