FAIRMONT, MINN. – Eugene Borchardt hadn’t traveled anywhere exotic in the last weeks of his life. The healthy 88-year-old waved to neighbors while taking his daily walks outside or in the local mall. He drank coffee with friends at restaurants in town. He went to the grocery store and to church and honored fellow military veterans at funerals, as he always had.
His family isn’t sure exactly where he picked up the insidious novel coronavirus in a farming county of fewer than 20,000 residents.
Friday, on the eighth day of his hospitalization, Borchardt became Martin County’s second COVID-19 fatality, underscoring the harsh reality that the global pandemic can quickly infiltrate and spread even in remote communities that often feel insulated from such worldly threats.
As of Monday, according to state health reports, two county residents had died from the virus out of 23 who had tested positive — including nine from a local church congregation, according to the pastor — making the small county an unexpected hotbed for the illness.
“It’s probably a good assumption that it’s been here for a while,” said Chera Sevcik, community health administrator for Martin and Faribault counties. “I think people are scared. People are looking for an understanding of why our numbers are much higher than everybody else’s in rural Minnesota.”
State health officials haven’t been able to determine how the virus entered this county on the Iowa border, where the Fairmont water tower sticks out on the prairie horizon. The first people with symptoms in the county in mid-March hadn’t traveled and were classified as community transmission cases, according to the state Department of Health.
Official case numbers may be higher there because the local hospital is part of the Mayo Clinic system, which has its own testing capabilities. But the numbers stand out in contrast to other rural counties in Minnesota and surrounding states, leaving no doubt among residents that the virus is in their midst.
County and city leaders are doing their best to release all the information they can on each case, Sevcik said, while sending a united message urging people to stay calm and stay home to slow the community spread.
That spread is what has people here on edge.
“My neighbor messaged me yesterday, freaking out,” said Eva Wagner, who works at a local farm supply store.
While the governor’s stay-at-home order kicked in over the weekend, people are still allowed to go to essential businesses, including the store where Wagner works.
Clerks there said they have been as busy as ever. Some customers aren’t good at social distancing, they said, while others come in with masks and even gloves. The store is constantly disinfecting surfaces, she said.
“Martin County is not that big of a county,” Wagner said. “You don’t know if those [infected] people have been around. We don’t know if those people have been in our store.”
Several miles away in Northrop, a town of about 200, the pastor at St. James Lutheran Church said he believes nine members of his parish, which includes a church in a rural township, had tested positive for the virus.
“I kind of have spent a little time racking my brain to what degree it came through the church,” the Rev. John Henry said. But the positive cases have surfaced in both churches and include some people who had gone away on vacations, he said.
Besides holding Sunday services online now, he is focusing on ministering to congregants who are struggling in various ways.
“One of the words that just pops up everywhere ... is this word ‘overwhelmed,’ ” Henry said.
People worry about the local hospitals being overwhelmed. People feel overwhelmed with the isolation. One mom who tested positive hasn’t been able to hug her children for two weeks, he said, and adults who can’t see their parents in nursing homes are distraught. Others who tested positive feel stigmatized.
“It’s really tough,” he said, adding that in some cases, “it might be worse than the actual symptoms itself.”
Congregation members Larry and Annette Bremer can attest to that.
The couple never suspected they would get infected with this new coronavirus. On the evening of March 11, after Annette attended a Lenten service, she went home and curled up into her recliner, telling her husband that all of a sudden she felt like she had been “hit by a bus.”
She lay low for the next three days until Larry took her to the emergency room, where she tested negative for the flu. Late the next evening, they learned she tested positive for COVID-19.
She was so shocked, she said, that “you could have knocked me over with a feather.” With an underlying condition that often makes her cough and feel short of breath, early symptoms didn’t raise concerns, she said. Plus, news of the virus wasn’t at the forefront of everyone’s minds at that point — certainly not in their small community.
Larry quickly got tested, too, though he had no symptoms except remembering mild fatigue and lightheadedness two or three weeks earlier that he had chalked up to stress and tried to cure with extra cups of coffee.
Health officials never put Larry on an isolation list, he said, because he recovered from the illness before anyone knew he had it.
The couple isn’t sure where they got it. Their daughter had traveled to China in January, but they said neither she nor anyone around her has had symptoms. They believe Larry, a crop insurance agent, somehow picked it up in the local community, they said.
In recent days, Larry went to his office, a convenience store and a grocery store in town, he said. He was told he was not contagious and was likely immune from catching it again.
He learned that people called the sheriff to report that he was out and about.
“It’s kind of like you’re the leper, needing to yell ‘I’m clean!’ ” Larry said, smiling.
But the couple said they understand people’s apprehension. They want their neighbors to know the facts and stay calm, they said, because the majority of people who get the virus will be OK.
“It’s important just to stay away from each other. Stay home. Don’t react to everything that you’re hearing,” Annette said. “People have been freaking out and getting all worked up.”
Annette has a letter from the state Department of Health, dated March 26, giving her the go-ahead to “return to school, work, travel and all usual activities.” She plans to return to her job as a social worker soon.
Now, Annette said, she and Larry are “probably the safest people to be around.”
Larry said he is willing to help researchers with antibodies if he can and is looking for a way to volunteer in areas where others might not feel safe.
A family’s nightmare
That volunteer spirit was something Eugene Borchardt held dear, friends and family said.
Eugene was always positive and led by example, family and friends said. A proud and patriotic Korean War veteran, he was always ready to lend a helping hand.
“He would do anything that anybody asked of him if feasibly possible,” Fairmont Mayor Debbie Foster said. “He was just a really good guy. He made a difference in people’s lives.”
Doug Borchardt said he took his father to the doctor on March 19. Eugene was shaking, extremely short of breath and his throat was full of phlegm. Staff at Mayo Clinic Health System in Fairmont put him on oxygen and quickly sent him by ambulance to a Mayo system hospital in Mankato.
“That’s the last we saw of him,” Doug Borchardt said. “It’s been a nightmare.”
Eugene was the rock of the family, gathering with his sons once a month for a boys’ night out and sending weekly e-mails with his musings, entitled “Sunday afternoon with Gene.”
It crushed his family that they couldn’t visit him in the hospital. After a test came back positive for COVID-19, those who had been in contact with him were told to quarantine themselves for two weeks.
While the family had to make decisions remotely about Eugene’s care, they praised Mayo hospital staff for showing incredible compassion.
Friday, through a conference call, the family decided it was time to let him go, Doug Borchardt said.
There were still no funeral plans Monday; quarantined family members still couldn’t go to view his body.
While community members have reached out from a distance to send their condolences and share memories of the man who many considered a community pillar, the virus has robbed Borchardt’s family of grieving together, too.
“We can’t support each other and hug each other,” Doug Borchardt said.
“Later on, when this all blows over, we’ll have a great send-off for him.”
He and other family members said they hope everyone in the county is following social distancing guidelines and staying home and not making a political issue of it, he said.
“I just hope people are taking it seriously,” he said. “It’s nothing to laugh at.”
Staff writer Joel Rippel contributed to this report.