Going to the grocery store has become a bigger stressor than ever since the coronavirus outbreak, but for many, it’s financial hardships rather than the fear of getting sick that keep them from shopping.
Ever since stay at home orders began in Minnesota, Faribault Youth Investment Executive Director Becky Ford said her organization and others have reached out to residents to find out their needs. Obtaining food is a big one.
“We started hearing from community members, and particularly older youth ages 18 to 21, that they were having trouble accessing food at the time because they’re too old for the school-based program,” said Ford. “ … It became clear right away we had a bit of a gap in the community.”
For the past couple weeks, Faribault Youth Investment, Growing Up Healthy and nine other community partners and faith-based organizations have teamed up each Thursdays and Fridays for a free food box distribution at various pickup locations. The boxes, provided by Channel One Food Bank, contain nonperishable food items, enough to last one week for a family of four. Distributors themselves don’t have control over the contents of the boxes as they contain whatever local food shelves have in stock.
The contents of the boxes may not be culturally appealing to all, said Ford, so volunteers are in the process of collaborating with SNAP-Ed (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education) and Growing Up Healthy to learn which foods Somali and Latinx clients might prefer in their boxes.
“This is really an incredible effort to sort of lift up the conversation about food insecurity in our community,” said Ford. “I’m hopeful larger conversations will start because of this program.”
Rather than “reinventing the wheel,” Ford said she and other community partners wanted to instead expand upon the system Faribault Public School established when schools first closed in March. Where the Faribault school district has provided hot individual meals for breakfast and lunch during the week, the free food boxes contain uncooked ingredients for home meals. The community partners also added more sites to the distribution to reach as many corners of Faribault as possible, since transportation is a common barrier. Clients simply drive into the parking lot of the location nearest them, and volunteers load the vehicles with the packages.
Natalia Marchan, coordinator for Growing up Healthy, said she’s connected those without access to transportation with church volunteers willing to pick up their food boxes. So far, she said that process seems to be going well.
Anne Kirchberg of the Northfield Area Family YMCA, one of the community partners involved in the effort, said that although these boxes are intended for low-income families, volunteers won’t turn anyone away. Those who pick up food boxes self-verify their need and aren’t required to share their names, but volunteers do record totals to give Channel One a picture of the specific need in Faribault.
Hiawathaland Transit drivers deliver the packaged food boxes to the participating locations Thursdays and Fridays, and they also help with the distribution process. Hosanna Church in Northfield, Our Savior’s Lutheran Church and River Valley Church have offered donations, and an individual, School Board member Carolyn Treadway, started a Go Fund Me page (find it at bit.ly/2ymaSUj) to fundraise for the cause. Hosanna Church also donated dry food boxes to distribute at the next community pickup later this week.
Sandy Malecha, senior director of Northfield Healthy Community Initiative (HCI) said that the leading organizations have a limited the number of volunteers at each site to make sure their space is conducive to standing 6 feet apart, complying with social distancing protocols. Participating organizations base their protocols off those the Northfield Community Action Center food shelf and the Minnesota Department of Health already established. They also make sure volunteers have appropriate masks, gloves and other necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) for the distribution process.
The volunteer base for the distribution initially included community partners alone, said Kirchberg, but in the past couple weeks, these volunteers have branched out to individual community members. Several have even expressed interest in delivering boxes directly to homes, but community partners aren’t sure they have the necessary resources to follow through with that now.
If community members are interested in making donations, Kirchberg encourages them to donate to existing food shelves in the community and to local churches. Marchan said monetary donations are accepted online at northfieldhci.org/donate.
“We’re not thinking we can solve all the food resource issues in Faribault, but we want to really build upon the resources existing,” said Kirchberg. “People might not be able to live off our boxes alone, but we can direct them to the other resources available.”
Marchan added that if she receives a call from someone outside Faribault, inquiring if the free food boxes are “worth the drive,” she instead directs them to the Northfield Community Action Center since they have extended hours and more variety. Soon, she plans to add a “frequently asked questions” portion to the website. Check growinguphealthy.org/food for updates.
Over the last several days, the number of lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the immediate area has spiked, with Rice County sitting at 30 positive cases and Steele County with 27 as of Tuesday.
It’s a trend the counties’ public health officials believe this will continue as testing becomes more available.
“I anticipate that we will see those numbers continue to grow in the way that they have over the last few days and we’ll see an additional five every day,” said Deb Purfeerst, the director of Rice County Public Health. “We knew that as soon as there would be increased testing capacity that we would see increased lab confirmed cases, so that was expected.”
Both counties have had one patient admitted to ICU for COVID-19 complications. One Rice County died due to complications from the coronavirus.
Though the confirmed cases have grown drastically, Steele County Public Health Director Amy Caron said that the public should take that as a sign that the virus is spreading at a more rapid rate.
“We know that we have community spread in our counties and across the state, there could be a lot of people out there with mild symptoms that aren’t calling in to get tested,” Caron said, adding that increased testing is allowing Public Health departments to identify hotspots of the virus more quickly and efficiently. “We were testing 1,000 people a day in Minnesota and last week we got to about 2,000 a day. Then we were at 3,500 a day. The goal is to test 20,000 people a day in the state, and seeing testing ramped up we are going to see more positive cases.”
The Minnesota Department of Health reported 455 deaths, up 27 from Monday, with the counts of people currently hospitalized (434) and in intensive care (182) hitting new highs. Total cases since the pandemic began leaped again Tuesday to 7,851, up 617 from the prior day, although department statistics show nearly 60 percent of patients with the disease have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.
“Minnesota’s numbers, we are not at our peak yet,” Gov. Tim Walz said Tuesday morning. “There are some dark days ahead of us. But we have changed the calculus on this.”
What’s the plan?
With the evidence of community spread becoming clearer, both directors say it’s more important than ever to take the necessary precautions to slow the spread. Caron said that Public Health departments across the state are working closely with businesses as they slowly begin to open back up. In Steele County that has largely been the manufacturing companies.
“We first started doing some outreach by letter and then by phone calls with our focus first on manufacturing,” Caron said. “We go over what resources are out there and ask a series of questions of what plans they have in place, how they are protecting their employees, incorporating the 6 feet social distancing rule, and the possibility of wearing masks with certain jobs.”
Caron said they also have been putting an emphasis on large manufacturing companies implementing staggered shifts and staggered breaks, to limit the exposure of employees coming in contact with a greater number of people as well as reduce the chance of congregating together during break or lunch time.
“We also go over what their plan is for when they do have a positive case,” Caron said. “My guess is that with all businesses, those of us out there in the community and working are likely among someone who could be positive that have no symptoms or mild symptoms and keep going to work.”
Ideally, Caron said that when a business learns of a confirmed case of COVID-19 among its employees that it shuts down for 24-hours and begins the deep cleaning process, though she knows that is not always an option for certain companies.
“We really encourage them to consider shutting down and do a deep cleaning, though we can’t enforce it,” Caron said. “Even if they close for a couple hours just to clean, though, that is better than nothing.”
In the area, the Daikin facility in Owatonna and the Faribault Foods facility in Faribault have both gone public with known cases of COVID-19 in the last two weeks. As more businesses are moving towars opening following some lifting of restrictions to the governor’s stay-at-home order, Purfeerst encourages residents to refer to available resources with how to proceed with the upmost caution.
“We have been reaching out to businesses and encouraging them to review their business strategies and how to safely return to work,” Purfeerst said. “There is a very good guidance and business plan available on the governor’s website that I encourage people to look at.”
The business plan referenced by Purfeerst comes from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development and is linked to the Governor’s Office website under the COVID-19 response. It provides COVID-19 preparedness plans, guidance on which businesses can open and in what format, and links to financial assistance for businesses affected by COVID-19. It can be located at mn.gov/deed/newscenter/covid/safework/business/.
Beyond businesses taking the necessary precautions, both Caron and Purfeerst said that these safety measures are necessary to tamp down the virus’ spread.
“The stay-at-home order has slowed this down and allowed our clinics and hospitals to keep up,” Caron said. “Social distancing, staying home when we are sick and wearing cloth masks when out and about where we might run into other people is all we have until there is a vaccine, which is a year to 18 months away.”
Purfeerst echoed Caron, adding that slowing the spread is a community effort.
“I think one of the most important takeaways to this increase in cases is that it serves as a reminder that everyone has a part to play with the mitigation strategy,” she said. “Washing our hands, social distancing and staying home when sick — these recommendations aren’t going to change over the next year and they are all important things that we definitely need to be more mindful of.”
Testing in the area is now available at the Mayo Health Clinic in Owatonna and New Prague, District One Hospital in Faribault, and at the Northfield Hospital. Anyone who suspects they may have the novel coronavirus are asked to call ahead to make an appointment for the drive-thru testing triage.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread, local emergency physicians are raising concerns that Minnesotans are taking advice to stay home a bit too literally and foregoing necessary medical care.
Terry Nelson, manager of North Memorial Ambulance Service, says that even as the public health concerns have mushroomed, the Ambulance Service has seen a large decrease, not increase, of 38% in call volume.
“Initially when all of this started. the thought process was, stay home unless you have the COVID symptoms,” Nelson said. “I think a lot of people are scared to go into a facility due to the fact that hospitals or clinics may have COVID patients.”
Nelson said that despite what some patients may fear, the risk of contracting COVID on an ambulance ride is low. North Memorial takes rigorous steps to avert the spread of coronavirus, stocking every ambulance with ample PPE and conducting a thorough cleaning after every call.
Dr. Adina Connelly, an emergency care physician, said that patients can be similarly confident seeking care at a hospital emergency department. However, she’s seen too many patients waiting too long to come in for care.
As a result, she’s seen patients with chronic conditions face medical crises that could have been avoided with ongoing or preventative care. Oftentimes, those crises not only put heavy strain on the healthcare system as a whole, but are life threatening.
“Patients come in exhausted and extremely sick,” she said. “They’ve done their best to care for themselves at home and they just can’t do it.”
Connelly acknowledged that caring for patients with chronic medical conditions has become more challenging. Not only have regular checkups gone “virtual,” but procuring needed drugs and treatments can be a challenge.
Some patients may shy away from seeking care because they feel the need to avoid putting additional strain on the medical system at a time where medical institutions like Allina Health, Mayo Clinic Health System and Northfield Hospital have postponed non-essential procedures to conserve resources. So far, the state’s projected surge in COVID-19 patients has not yet occurred. Although several recent outbreaks at meat processing plants have helped to drive the state’s total number of positive cases to nearly 8,000, that number remains lower per capita than many other states.
Connelly and Dawn Steffen, interim director of nursing and emergency department manager at Faribault’s District One Hospital, credited the state’s aggressive response and public compliance for the relatively lower rate.
With the COVID peak pushed back, Steffen said that District One and Owatonna hospitals, both operated by Allina Health, have begun offering additional services to patients so long as they have the capacity. Still, with the peak only delayed, she acknowledges that the hospital will soon have fewer resources.
Even as the caseload continues to increase, Steffen urged patients never to shy away from seeking needed medical care. She noted that in order to keep all patients safe, hospitals have already implemented special procedures.
“We don’t want people to wait on seeking care for severe, often life-threatening conditions,” she said.
In addition to beefing up cleaning procedures and consistently wearing PPE, District One and Owatonna hospitals have established separate waiting rooms for patients with COVID-19 like symptoms and those without, and are doing everything to keep patients separate during the care process.
Likewise, Northfield Hospital + Clinics has instituted significant measures to keep patients safe during the pandemic and is urging people not to skimp on crucial preventative care, including pediatric vaccinations.
Precautions include tough visitor restrictions, health screening for all patients and full PPE for all staff. Like other area health systems, Northfield Hospital + Clinics has also dramatically expanded the use of telemedicine.