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Leland teens join health department to stop spread of COVID-19

The Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department


Helene Mitchell, a 17-year-old resident of Leland, kept her friend group small this summer to avoid the coronavirus.

Still her friend tested positive and she was exposed.

Her sister, Flora, was also exposed at her summer job. Suddenly, most of Helene’s friends were told by the health department to quarantine.

“Up here it’s so rare that people were getting it you kind of forget,” Helene says.

Benzie and Leelanau’s cases of COVID-19 have more than tripled over the past month. The latest figures show 49 positive cases in Leelanau County and 22 in Benzie County.

Local health department workers say 16 young people in Leland recently tested positive for COVID-19 after exposing 100 friends, family, and coworkers in the community.

“The extent of positive infections and the number of potentially infected is concerning as we can assume at this point that COVID-19 is fairly widespread,” Michelle Klein, the director of personal health for the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Departments, said in a statement. 

“While most of these young people have had either no symptoms or mild symptoms,” she continued, “the concern is that if this continues to spread, we will soon begin seeing more severe illness in those community members who are most vulnerable.”

To get the word out to young people, the health department issued a public health alert, and reached out to several engaged teens from Northport to Glen Lake and Frankfort to Manistee who volunteered to help.

Helene was one of them. She says her experience made her want to get the word out.

Credit Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department
Helene helped design this poster to remind people to make smart COVID-19 decisions

“This is just a reminder, at least in public, to try to respect other people’s space.”

She created a Google doc, where she and a few other girls designed logos that would be printed on posters. They focused on catchy phrases and colorful images they figured might cause them to take a second look on the street.

“They’ve got some cheesy slogans, kind of,” Helene says, of one poster that reads ‘No crowded gatherings. Bet.’ “But I think they’re going to probably catch the eye of teens more than the traditional health department statement.”

The girls plan to post the flyers in spots around town this weekend. Flora will go in Helen’s place since she’s still in mandatory quarantine.

Helene says she hopes people take the spread seriously. She’s headed to the University of Michigan in the fall, and already lost out on a month of summer and wages she could have earned from a job. But her biggest concern is for her friends’ and family’s health.

“If (I or my friends) have it we’ll probably be asymptomatic,” Helene says. “So just the idea of having it and spreading it to my parents and my parents friends is not a good idea.”

But, knowing her peers, does she think they will follow the guidance?

“I think it’s hard because honestly we are 14, 15, 16, 17 so we’re bound to make bad decisions and not think everything through,” she says. “But I think people are starting to care much more now.”

Helene’s dad, Johnston Mitchell, says he’s also optimistic their messaging will work. He believes the health department’s March 31 travel advisory prevented spread in the community.

“It made everyone aware of our concerns,” he says. “I think it helped put a wall up from people coming from southeast Michigan and downstate even out of state to come up early. They observed the protocol and I think that stopped the spread early here.”

Taylor Wizner covers heath, tourism and other news for Interlochen Public Radio.