Kayla Abrahamson took extra measures to fortify her Rochester daycare program against the coronavirus, but like a burglar, it still slipped through.

To keep the virus at bay and limit mingling, parents were asked to drop off their children outside the daycare area. Children washed their hands once they entered. Toys were rotated and washed every night.

It still happened. Three weeks ago, on Halloween, Abrahamson was notified by one of her families that their infant daughter had tested positive for COVID-19. Five other children in her in-home daycare tested positive. So did other parents, Abrahamson herself and her husband.

"It was a shock to all of us," Abrahamson said.

Thankfully, all the children displayed mild symptoms and recovered quickly. And after quarantining and working with a Olmsted County Public Health nurse, whom Abrahamson called "very helpful" and "reassuring," Abrahamson was able to re-open her daycare business two weeks later.

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Yet it remains a mystery how the virus snuck in and spread so rapidly. The parents of the infant have no idea how she picked it up.

"I mean, we have no idea how it ended up (with her). It can happen to anybody anywhere," Abrahamson said.

Daycare centers and in-home providers have always been a critical workforce link. If the daycare provider isn't able to take care of the kids, parents can't go to work. Now as the pandemic enters a dark new phase and essential workers, such as doctors and nurses, try to cope with a surge of sick patients, daycare has become vital.

Added to their other duties, providers must be ever-vigilant against a rapidly spreading virus. A single infection in a facility has the potential to trigger a domino effect, impacting parents, their ability to work, and other businesses.

Gov. Tim Walz, in announcing a four-week closure for bars and restaurants Wednesday to contain the virus, underscored the critical work of providers in his remarks.

"When this is all said and done, and the stories of this 100-year pandemic are written, there will be heroic stories written about child care providers," Walz said.

The daycare industry in Olmsted County -- nationwide, really -- was struggling even before the pandemic struck. A shortage of providers was exacerbated as some closed their doors in the wake of the pandemic.

Eleven in-home providers here have closed since March, either because the virus posed a health risk to someone in the home or because of licensing issues, a county official said. Six others are currently closed because of COVID-19 exposures or infections.

That's still a fraction of the 316 in-home providers in the county, which does not include day care centers. But with K-12 schools shifting to distancing learning again and school-age children working from home, new stresses could be added to an already fragile system. School-age children who work at home have to be included in a provider's child care numbers.

"Right now, we don't seem to have, compared to other parts of the state, as many in-home providers who are closed, but that could shift," said Tiffany Kacir, program manager for Olmsted County's childcare licensing. "A larger number then trickles down to parents not having child care and having to take work off."

The situation is far from critical, but county officials have developed contingency plans in the event of a crisis and "there's a huge need in the community." Earlier in the pandemic, the county worked with the YMCA in developing a fallback plan.

Statewide, 356 childcare providers have closed permanently during the last eight months, compared to the 322 that did so last year, a state official said.

Some states, said Erin Bailey, executive director of the Walz's children cabinet and co-chair of a workgroup focused on education and child care, have seen a rate of closure far worse than Minnesota's -- some as high as 50 percent.

Bailey credits Walz's investment in the state's child care system, including $180 million since March, in helping providers deal with the added costs of meeting public health guidelines, including keeping areas clean and sanitized. Those added costs can be considerable, as much as $18,000 a month for center and $1,200 for a home provider.

"We knew right away that we needed financial support to help ensure that these would be safe places and to help keep them afloat," Bailey said. "And support heroes on the front lines."

Rochester daycare providers have adjusted to this pressurized environment in different ways. Jackie Harrington, who has been a daycare provider in Rochester for 22 years, decided to reduce the number of children in her care. When two children graduated from her program at the end of May, she chose not to fill the slots.

"I just wanted to reduce the risk of additional exposure -- just to keep this a very small group," Harrington said.

Harrington said many of her decisions revolve around avoiding the coronavirus. She's aware that a misstep has the potential to impact her business, her family and other families. She has cutback on social outings, including weekend shopping trips with her sisters-in law, whom she calls "her little sanity people."

"It just weighs so heavily on me, even though they work from home," Harrington said. "They're like me. We stay home. We go to Costo to shop. We come back home. Even knowing them, I couldn't risk it."

Daycare Provider Jackie Harrington sings and signs a goodbye song with children as they wait for parent pick-up on Tuesday, November 17, 2020, at the Plummer House in Rochester. The Plummer House is a short walk from Harrington’s home and allows for a more socially distant parent pick-up. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Daycare Provider Jackie Harrington sings and signs a goodbye song with children as they wait for parent pick-up on Tuesday, November 17, 2020, at the Plummer House in Rochester. The Plummer House is a short walk from Harrington’s home and allows for a more socially distant parent pick-up. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

Harrington's program isn't year-round. She structures it so she is off for the summer. When May arrived last summer, "I was never so glad for the end of the school year to come."

Now nine months into the pandemic, Harrington has adapted in different ways to preserve her equilibrium. Harrington has cutback on Facebook and teaching class online. Some things have increased, like eating chocolate. "Mashed potatoes are really comforting." She has reduced her consumption of news.

"If you bombard yourself with information all the time, it's so overwhelming. You just have to give yourself the time to check on it once a week and then live life," Harrington said. "So there's a lot of self-care going on, so that I can be present with the group and my family right now."