LAKE PARK, Minn. — Losing a parent is hard, but for Stephanie Schindler, the most devastating part is what's happening now, three weeks after she buried her father.

“We’re having such guilt and heaviness about everything," she said. “Knowing that everyone got sick is harder than losing my dad.”

Schindler says an estimated 30 people who attended her father's July 13 funeral in Lake Park have either tested positive for COVID-19 or are currently symptomatic. She says five of her close family members have been hospitalized.

Stephanie Schindler (left) with her parents Francis and Ann Perreault. Stephanie says her father would have hated that so many people got sick after attending his funeral. Submitted photo
Stephanie Schindler (left) with her parents Francis and Ann Perreault. Stephanie says her father would have hated that so many people got sick after attending his funeral. Submitted photo

An outpouring of support

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The July 4th death of 78-year-old Francis Perreault of Lake Park was not unexpected.

“He had had a stroke and Parkinson’s disease, so we were losing him day by day,” Schindler said of her dad.

Around 50 people showed up for his prayer service and funeral July 12 and 13 at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Lake Park.

Longtime friend Kathleen Keene of Fargo was one of them. She says she and husband Karl thought about COVID but opted to go to the funeral.

“I just felt like, there's no way I can miss this. I have to take a chance. I knew I was taking a chance," said Keene. "But you know, it's one of those things in life where you're just like, I have to be there for her. She's been my friend for 40-plus years."

Keene, who says she's hardly left the house since March when the pandemic began, says she was happy to see the church had taken precautions.

“During the service, almost everybody wore a mask, and we all were kind of separated from each other," Keene said. “And they have partitions in the pews.”

But Keene says social distancing and mask-wearing kind of "fell apart" after the service, during the burial and the coffee and donut hour.

“People relaxed and took their masks off and arranged chairs to all sit together,” said Keene.

Father Bob LaPlante, the priest at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, said he was concerned with how closely people were standing after the service.

“I think one or two people came to the funeral not feeling well,” he said. “It’s what they always say, if you’re not feeling well, stay home."

Karl and Kathleen Keene of Fargo, believed they got COVID while attending a funeral in Lake Park, Minnesota. It's believed at least 14 people also tested positive following the July 13 gathering. Submitted photo
Karl and Kathleen Keene of Fargo, believed they got COVID while attending a funeral in Lake Park, Minnesota. It's believed at least 14 people also tested positive following the July 13 gathering. Submitted photo

The calls came

Schindler says she heard the first person fell ill on the Tuesday following her father's weekend funeral, then word kept spreading of more people who had been at the funeral or prayer service complaining of COVID-19 symptoms. Schindler herself wasn’t feeling well.

“I thought I was just exhausted because I was the one planning so much with the funeral, but as the days went on, I knew it was something worse,” she said.

Stephanie Schindler (left) with her family, daughter Sophia,  husband Dale and daughter Savanah. Stephanie, Dale and Savanah all tested positive for COVID-19. Sophia was never tested but was having some mild symptoms so Stephanie believes she had it as well. Submitted photo
Stephanie Schindler (left) with her family, daughter Sophia, husband Dale and daughter Savanah. Stephanie, Dale and Savanah all tested positive for COVID-19. Sophia was never tested but was having some mild symptoms so Stephanie believes she had it as well. Submitted photo

Schindler tested positive and so did her mother, husband and older daughter, Savanah. Her younger daughter, Sophia, was never tested, but Schindler believes she had it as well. Fortunately, their cases were relatively mild. The same could not be said for many other members of the family. Schindler says her sister-in-law was put in the intensive care unit in Arizona, her brother was hospitalized in Seattle and two aunts are in the hospital in Grand Forks.

“And now my uncle was just moved from the hospital in Grand Forks to Fargo because they didn’t have room up there, and now he might have blood clots,” she said.

Over in Fargo, Keene tested positive for the virus around the same time as her best friend. She says the last two weeks have been like “one, long asthma attack” coupled with extreme lethargy, headaches, nausea, brain fog and stabbing pains in her head, abdomen and even her feet.

“I think I had all of the symptoms of COVID except the rash,” Keene said of her 14-day ordeal that was like nothing she’s experienced before.

“I woke up with the worst body aches on the planet I've ever had. It was so intense, and I went back to sleep," said Keene. "I woke up and felt like a ton of bricks was on me, and I had a fever.”

Keene’s husband Karl also tested positive.

'What we did wrong'

The Minnesota State Health Department is reporting an increased level of community transmission recently related to social gatherings, which in turn poses increased risks to long-term care facilities, schools and workplaces.

“We do have church gatherings, including funerals, among those places where we have traced recent outbreaks,” said Minnesota State Health Department Information Officer Doug Schultz when contacted about the Lake Park funeral. “We are not able to name them, as that would identify the individuals involved, and those who are ill and their close contacts know who they are.”

Stephanie Schindler sits outside her home Wednesday, Aug. 5, in rural Lake Park, Minn. She caught COVID-19 at or after attending a funeral in Lake Park. 
Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
Stephanie Schindler sits outside her home Wednesday, Aug. 5, in rural Lake Park, Minn. She caught COVID-19 at or after attending a funeral in Lake Park. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Schindler says she’s gone over and over what they should have done differently.

“I think one of our biggest no-no’s is that we had people staying here with us and staying with my mom,” she said. “You know you wear your mask, but after a while, you take off the masks and just feel like family. But you’re bringing everything with you.”

Keene was wearing her mask, even at the more lax social gathering after the funeral, but she admits she ignored social distancing more than she should have.

“I did hug my friend. I made the choice. I took the leap. I hadn't hugged anybody since March, except for my family here,” Keene said. "I hugged her brothers, her mom, her cousin, and that was it,” she said.

Keene says she didn't talk to anyone at length, but she does remember touching her face to wipe away tears.

“That’s the problem with funerals,” Schindler said. “There’s going to be happy tears, and there’s going to be sad tears. I saw people wiping their eyes, but I don’t think any of us took the time to wash our hands afterwards.”

Words of advice

Keene and Schindler are both coming forward with this story to encourage everyone to take COVID-19 seriously.

Keene says it all happened so fast. She felt she just slipped up that one time, not being as vigilant as she had been in the past few months. But, she says, that’s all it took. She gets emotional when she talks about how people are taking unnecessary chances.

“Seeing that Hairball concert in West Fargo (last weekend) with 2,000 people, I saw one person with a mask in the picture, and it just frustrates me to no end," said Keene. "You know, so many people are going to take that home to their parents or grandparents or spread it around, and it just frustrates me.”

Her thoughts are echoed by the health department.

“It’s important to remember that any gathering of people not of the same household, where people are not wearing masks or social distancing, is a potential source for spread of the virus,” said Schultz. “Please wear your mask, stay six feet from the next person, cover your coughs and sneezes, wash your hands and stay home if you are ill.”

Keene says while she is on the mend, she is still feeling the impacts of COVID-19, but she’s looking forward to being active again and moving on with her life. She says she appreciates that her nurse from Essentia Health still calls to check up on her every day, but hopes those calls won’t be necessary soon.

Kathleen Keene on Day 11 of the COVID-19 virus, calling it "the worst virus I've ever had." She's urging people to take it seriously, wear masks and observe social distancing. Submitted photo
Kathleen Keene on Day 11 of the COVID-19 virus, calling it "the worst virus I've ever had." She's urging people to take it seriously, wear masks and observe social distancing. Submitted photo

LaPlante, whose church took precautions to prevent the spread, has words of advice for people who still want to gather at church or in other social spaces.

“We need to be so careful,” he said. “I don’t know why people don’t take this more seriously.”

And now Schindler is not only dealing with the death of her father and the hospitalization of close family members, but also a lot of ‘what if's.’

“We kept saying Dad would have been so upset that people got sick at his funeral,” she said. “Of course we’re so thankful to everyone who came. There was so much sharing and healing, but we feel like, what if they had just Skyped? This might not have happened.”