Back in early March, Dr. Kurt Schwieters watched as the coronavirus spread quickly across Europe and Asia.
His college-age daughter was studying in Spain, so he kept a close eye on it from his medical clinic in the small central Minnesota city of Melrose. His clinic is the kind of place that treats people from the moment they're born until the end of their lives.
Dr. Kurt, as his patients call him, has been a family physician there for 21 years. He knows pretty much everybody in town, and they know him.
And as he watched the pandemic spread from afar, he knew it was only a matter of time until it reached rural Stearns County.
"So I just went on my little Facebook, and I just said, ‘Well, I think I'm going to try to help,’" he said.
Schwieters started by posting some basic information about the virus — how it’s spread, and what people can do to prevent it — the same things he was telling his patients.
"The best thing you can do with infectious disease is assume you have the disease, and then make decisions that help your neighbor,” he said. “Be kind, be home, be masked, be smart.”
The post was popular. People started asking questions, and Schwieters tried to answer them. Then somebody suggested he do a video.
"A hundred people watched,” he said. “And by six o'clock that night, a thousand people had watched.”
Schwieters made more videos, calling them, "A Reliable COVID-19 Update." They are low-budget and low-tech: It's just Schwieters in his office, wearing blue scrubs. He holds up charts and signs with stick figures hand drawn in marker.
The Reliable Updates Facebook group grew to more than 2,000 members. People posted questions and thanked him for his responses. Sometimes he was joined by his colleagues, or his wife, Mary, who’s also a doctor.
People seemed to appreciate the factual information presented without politics or pretense — and the same comfort that Schwieters has provided as their family doctor.
“During the early stages of COVID-19, Dr. Schwieters’ reliable updates brought comfort to many in the area because it was coming from a familiar face and someone they trusted,” said Bryan Bauck, administrator at CentraCare Health’s Melrose clinic, where Schwieters practices. “It provided a little ease and calm to the storm, while also helping CentraCare get the word out locally.”
Since it arrived in Stearns County, COVID-19 has hit the Melrose community hard. Dozens of workers tested positive at the town's Jennie-O turkey processing plant, which briefly shut down in April.
Stearns County has had more than 3,500 positive COVID-19 cases and 23 deaths since the outbreak began.
In his videos, Schwieters' advice is simple and sometimes repetitive: Stay home. Social distance. Wear a mask.
But he doesn't just stick to medical facts. He also delves into the human side of the pandemic.
"We will live this. We will do it,” he says in a video from June. “The question will be, how well we do it, and how well we do it for each other."
The basic information of how to prevent the virus’ spread is not very complicated, Schwieters said, but the weakest link is human behavior.
"It's not that the disease is so great. It's that we don't do what we should do,” he said. “And then when we fight with each other, it's a disaster."
Schwieters said he took all the precautions he recommended to others, rarely going anywhere but home and work, wearing a mask and protective equipment while seeing patients.
But COVID-19 is unpredictable. In early September, Schwieters suddenly developed all the symptoms he'd been warning others about: chills, shortness of breath, cough, muscle aches.
"I was on my way home, and I said, ‘I don't feel very good,’” he said. “It hit like a shade just came down."
Schwieters returned to his own clinic, this time as a patient, where he tested positive for the coronavirus. After spending 10 days in quarantine, he’s been cleared to return to work, and plans to return to the clinic on Wednesday.
Schwieters decided to make his diagnosis public. He figures some people might choose not to tell others, because they're embarrassed, or don't want to be blamed for other people's illness.
"In order to do the right thing, you just have to let that all go,” he said. “It's not about whether you believed or didn't believe, or didn't or whether you made a mistake or not, it doesn't matter.”
Infectious diseases are powerful, Schwieters said. There are steps people can do to try to prevent them, but they’re not guaranteed, he said.
“As Americans, we just don't accept that,” he said. “We think we have so much control over everything that when something doesn't work, that it's somebody's fault. And that's wrong."
Schwieters knows some people, especially in rural Minnesota, think the pandemic is overblown. He hopes his diagnosis will make it more real to them.
"It's easy to have an opinion on something if it didn't touch your life,” he said.