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Nov. 4 skybox

Deadlines? We’ve got them, too.

Unfortunately, this edition had to be on the press just about the time the polls closed. Find coverage of yesterday’s Election in the Nov. 5, 2020 edition or online at owatonna.com.

Rice County voters flood the polls in hotly contested election
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As an historic election unfolds across the country, voters in Rice County appear to have weathered the COVID-19 pandemic to again deliver high levels of turnout.

Strong voter participation is a Minnesota tradition, and across the state turnout records were being set even before the Election Day. According to the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office, more than 1.8 million Minnesotans had already voted as of Monday night.

The large number of early votes was music to the ears of Secretary of State Steve Simon. Before the general election even got underway, Simon strongly urged Minnesotans to vote early this year as a way to keep Election Day safer by limiting turnout. Yet with tensions running high, it became clear early on that a large early vote didn’t mean sparse attendance on Election Day. In Faribault, a steady stream of voters made their way to the polls and in Morristown, a large line of voters was ready to go the minute polls opened.

Many of those who voted on Tuesday said they wouldn’t have it any other way. Faribault voter Rick Berg, who cited getting the COVID-19 pandemic under control as his top issue, said he simply felt more comfortable getting in his vote on the big day.

“If I had to vote early I would,” Berg said. “But I like to be part of Election Day.”

Over the years, Rice County has swung back and forth between “red” and “blue” for state offices and Congress, but has generally stuck with DFLers for president, in keeping with statewide results that have seen the state go to Democrats each election since 1976.

That streak was finally snapped in 2016, when Rice County voters narrowly chose Donald Trump while the state narrowly went the other way. The county voted Democratic across the board in 2018 but in several races the margin was modest, and deep divisions clearly remain.

In Morristown, first-time voter Madeline Avila planned on pulling the lever for Biden. Avila said that for her, the biggest reason for supporting the former vice president was his promise to reverse President Trump’s immigration policies.

“We need a more inclusive immigration system,” she said.

On the other side of the spectrum, Luana Pecore was particularly enthusiastic to support President Trump’s re-election, citing the president’s efforts to curb immigration and build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border as one of many reasons to support him.

“There’s so many issues Trump is for that Biden doesn’t know anything about,” she said.

Even though the pandemic and social unrest may top the headlines, many voters cited the traditional hot-button issue of abortion as a top priority. For Faribault’s Brad Utpadel, abortion drove his vote even more than the pandemic itself.

“I’m here to be a voice for the unborn,” said fellow Faribault voter Meg Crombie.

For other voters, healthcare in general was a top issue that helped to make up their minds. They included Jared Pavek, a University of Minnesota student who voted in Morristown, and Nancy Plunkett, a Faribault voter who works at Allina Health's District One Hospital.

“The actions both parties will be partaking in are so important, and health care is particularly concerning to me,” Pavek said.

Faribault voter Kathy Headline also cited healthcare in general and COVID specifically as crucial issues. Yet for her, the most concerning issue was the degradation of political discourse and increasingly polarized political atmosphere.

“The climate of the country concerns me greatly,” she said. “We need to get back to respectful leadership.”

Headline’s comments were echoed by many other voters, including Faribault voter Jordan Northrup. Agreeing with many commentators that the U.S. is as polarized and heated as it has been in many years, Northrup said that leadership is needed to foster unity.

“This is really about getting America back on track,” he said. “We’re divided pretty extreme at this point and need leadership that will bring us together.”

Ring the bells: Salvation Army chapters in dire need of volunteers
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While ringing the bells for the Salvation Army’s Red Kettle Campaign one winter, Jim Dale remembers one woman in particular who touched his heart.

She approached him slowly and poured change and dollar bills from an envelope into the kettle. She then told Dale she saved up a donation for the Salvation Army each year because without the organization’s support, she wouldn’t have had Christmas as a child.

“Those sorts of things are priceless,” said Dale, who co-coordinates Rice County’s Red Kettle Campaign. “You never know who you’re going to meet.”

The Salvation Army Bells will be ringing well before Christmas this year, and in some locations, they’ve already started. Rice County kicks off its Red Kettle Campaign Friday while volunteers began ringing the bells at four Steele County locations a couple weeks ago. But in order to raise the goal of $50,000 per county, campaign coordinators need volunteers to fill hundreds of two-hour time slots.

Dale said only 60 slots out of about 580 are covered in Rice County so far. Linda Seljeseth, coordinator of the Steele County Red Kettle Campaign, said recruiting volunteers is a struggle in her area as well.

“We’re just kind of worried about making that goal because of everything going on [with the pandemic],” Seljeseth said. “So we just need all the bell ringers we can get.”

From 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in Rice County, participating businesses will host bell ringers during four two-hour time slots Fridays and Saturdays. The weeks of Thanksgiving and Christmas will not have bell ringing on Friday and Saturday. Instead the bell ringing will take place the weekdays leading up to the holidays. If a church or organization wants to volunteer on another day that isn’t scheduled, the Salvation Army will make accommodations.

Locations starting Friday in Rice County include Fareway and HyVee in Faribault, Family Fare and Cub Foods in Northfield and Mackenthun’s Fine Foods in Lonsdale. The Faribault Walmart begins the campaign at both doors Nov. 21.

Steele County locations include HyVee, Fleet Farm, Fareway and Cabela’s in Owatonna. The official Red Kettle Campaign kick-off for Steele County is Friday, Nov. 20, when Walgreens, Walmart and Cash Wise join. Time slots will be from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. starting Nov. 20, but until then, shifts are 1 to 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

While it’s unclear at this point how COVID-19 will impact the campaign, both Rice and Steele counties are taking precautions to ensure the volunteers and those who donate stay safe and healthy. Coordinators will provide sanitizer and wipes for cleaning off the bells and aprons, and ask everyone to wear a mask or face covering and stand six feet apart.

Where the funding goes

Apart from making donations at local businesses, community members may send a check to 617 Third Ave. NW, Faribault for the Rice County Red Kettle Campaign, or to the Steele County Red Kettle Campaign by sending or hand delivering donations to the Salvation Army Steele County Service Unit at 1810 S Cedar Ave., Owatonna.

For the second year in a row in Steele County, donors may use their credit cards to make payments at the kettles. Donors may also type a code into their phones and select a donation of $5, $10 or $20.

The Rice County Red Kettle Campaign generated $36,000 last year, which was enough to meet the needs of those who contacted the Salvation Army for assistance. However, during the coronavirus pandemic, the Faribault Salvation Army store couldn’t make enough of a profit to stay open. It closed in May.

Dale said around 200 families in Rice County benefited from the donations last year. For families and individuals in a crisis situation, the Red Kettle Campaign meets emergency assistance needs like food vouchers, clothing, a temporary shelter and car repairs if someone’s vehicle breaks down in the area.

In addition, the Red Kettle Campaign proceeds go to the Shop With a Cop program in both Rice and Steele counties. Ten Faribault children and 10 Northfield children attended the Rice County event this October, in which they shopped for winter wear with local law enforcement at Walmart and Target. Steele County hosts its annual Shop With a Cop in December.

The Red Kettle Campaign proceeds also goes to a children’s summer camp at the Boundary Waters, for which the Salvation Army provides transportation.

In Steele County specifically, the Red Kettle proceeds also go to the back-to-school program in which the Salvation Army Steele County Service Unit distributes backpacks and school supplies to students. Last year, Seljeseth said her unit gave away 300 backpacks.

Seljeseth explained that 13% of donations collected in a county go to the Salvation Army Headquarters to assist those impacted by natural disasters like hurricanes or wildfires.

“It helps with homeless people and families that just need help right now. And there are a lot of people really hurting,” she said.

Increasing hospitalizations pose challenges across the state
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While hospitals in the region remain below capacity, officials worry that as winter nears and the number of novel coronavirus cases and other illnesses continues to march upward that that the number of patients needing care could quickly outpace available beds.

During Thursday’s Northfield Hospital and Clinics Hospital Board meeting, hospitalist Tom Holt said the hospital has “been fine with capacity”; but added that he wouldn’t be surprised if NH+C had to temporarily stop admitting patients, noting that possibility nearly became reality Wednesday night. The Emergency Department has sometimes been full, and Holt said there is a possibility of consistently high admission levels over the next few weeks due to seasonal conditions and the continuing pandemic.

The number of patients NH+C sees varies daily. But there are other factors that play into the hospital’s ability to admit new patients, including staffing levels, equipment and the level of care needed. As of Thursday, NH+C Director of Communications Betsy Spethmann said the hospital typically had been seeing between zero and three COVID-19 patients at a time. COVID-19 patients are treated separately from other non-respiratory patients.

Holt noted hospitalization numbers are rising across the state, and the hospital system is having a difficult time transferring patients to other places.

“It’s going to be one day at a time,” he said.

As of Tuesday, 157,096 Minnesota residents have tested positive for COVID, 2,499 coronavirus-related deaths had been reported. In Rice County, 1,823 cases have been reported during the pandemic along with 12 deaths. In Steele County, 874 positive COVID-19 tests and four deaths have been reported. As of Thursday, Rice County’s COVID-19 test positivity rate was at 3.6%, lower than the state’s average. In Steele County, the positivity rate is at 4.5%.

David Albrecht, president of District One and Owatonna hospitals, said hospitalizations have “been picking up somewhat from earlier this summer, even during the early onset of COVID-19.” To him, that corresponds with the increasing statewide spread of the virus.

Still, Albrecht said the current issue isn’t the capacity of the buildings but instead relates to staffing. As of late last week, at least a couple District One employees in Faribault have needed to quarantine for 14 days after being exposed to the virus in mainly off-campus settings. In Owatonna, that number is approximately 10.

Those temporary absences can leave a large hole in smaller units that sometimes rely on one employee at a time. For now, the hospital system is asking employees to backfill positions. In the event of insufficient staffing, the hospital could transfer patients to another facility.

“You can only do it for so long,” Albrecht noted of backfilling positions.

NH+C President and CEO Steve Underdahl also said the patient influx is happening throughout the state, adding higher hospitalization numbers are typical this time of year. He said NH+C benefits from its relationships with other regional medical centers, and he anticipates the influx will likely be a challenge for the next 60 to 90 days.

To Underdahl, though COVID-19 cases are manageable, trends are moving in the wrong direction. He is also concerned about staffing levels an increase in community spread of the virus mean more people must quarantine for 14 days. As of late last week, 221 positive COVID-19 tests and 5,724 negative results had been reported at NH+C — a 3.72% positivity rate. However, that number has increased slightly over the last few weeks. Earlier this month, the positivity rate was well below 3%.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, 1,074 ICU beds were in use earlier this week across the state. The capacity is listed at 1,521. However, more than 400 extra beds could be in place within 72 hours if capacity limits are hit.

To Underdahl, the Minnesota Department of Health’s decision to stop reporting the current number of COVID-19 hospitalizations was not “malevolent as much as bureaucratic,” adding those numbers were good data points. He noted the state is trying to grasp how many ICU beds are available on a daily basis. Typically, COVID-19 patients have occupied 15% to 20% of ICU beds, but that number has reportedly gone up recently.

‘It’s scaring people’

NH+C Vice President and Chief Medical Officer Jeff Meland said the hospital system used to rely on transferring COVID-19 patients to a Minneapolis health care provider. Now, that organization isn’t immediately committing to be able to do so.

However, NH+C administrators say the hospital is in a better position to combat the virus than it was at the start of the pandemic due to the introduction of better personal protective equipment and a greater understanding of the disease.

District One and Owatonna hospital administrators are trying to increase the turnaround time on COVID-19 tests to allow employees to be cleared as soon as possible.

As winter draws near, Albrecht said he doesn’t know if the pandemic will worsen but is aware that other illnesses often appear as the weather becomes colder, including influenza and the norovirus.

Meland, who praised NH+C nurses for their work, said having to hold patients who can’t be transferred to other places for longer is making them nervous.

“It’s scaring people that typically aren’t upset by this kind of thing,” he said.

To ensure sufficient hospital capacity, Spethmann advised taking COVID-19 precautions by wearing a mask over mouths and noses, keeping 6 feet of distance or more from others who don’t live in the same household, regularly washing hands, and staying home when sick. She advised anyone experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or having been exposed to a confirmed case to call their health care provider and discuss their symptoms to determine whether to be seen.