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Jason Hommes / By JASON HOMMES jhommes@faribault.com 

Brielle Bartelt, pictured earlier this season, scored her 1,000th career point for the WEM girls basketball team during a 64-20 victory against Bethlehem Academy in Waterville. Bartelt is the sixth player in program history to score at least 1,000 points. (Daily News File Photo)

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Mental health remains a high priority during coronavirus pandemic

Ever since the novel coronavirus entered the forefront of minds across the nation, two common goals have become staying well and protecting others from sickness.

But while respiratory health is a valid concern, COVID-19 and social distancing protocols could also shake an individual’s mental and emotional wellbeing.

“Nationally, online screenings for anxiety have increased by nearly 20% over the last few weeks, and for many, social distancing inevitably means isolation and loneliness,” Shannah Mulvihill, Mental Health Minnesota’s executive director said in a news release. “It’s essential that people take care of their mental health as well as their physical health at this time, and we are working to share information, resources and suggestions that can help with that.”

Eric Lundin, a master’s level psychologist who works for Rice County Social Services, said new outpatient clients are welcome to schedule appointments, and child case management services also continue to take new clients. Community providers continue to see new patients as well, he said, all set up with telehealth, which allows providers to “see” clients online. However, not everyone has access to high speed internet, so therapists still see patients in person also.

Patients may start to use online billing or pay via telehealth, said Lundin, as Gov. Tim Walz is taking steps to allow for it.

“The main point I want to make is that mental health providers are open for business, and they’ll continue to see patients by telehealth,” said Lundin.

Mary Morgan, clinical director and a marriage and family therapist at Fernbrook Family Center in Owatonna, said her facility continues to provide in-office sessions and in-home appointments if clients are comfortable with that. Especially for those experiencing symptoms, Fernbrook also provides telehealth opportunities.

“If [clients] are healthy, we’re certainly willing to see them,” said Morgan. “We have just asked people to utilize social distancing and good hand washing when they come into our office. We have a sign on the door of [coronavirus] symptoms.”

Terri Reuvers, licensed independent clinical social worker at Resilient Living in Faribault, said she had to make major adjustments to her practice to maintain connections with her clients. No longer seeing clients in her office, she’s established a secure video conference system to provide telemedicine. She’s received four client referrals in two days, and she can only accept them because she implemented telehealth.

“I meet with my patients while they’re in their home and I’m in my home office and I still have to abide by all of the HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) rules for compliance and privacy,” said Reuvers. “And it’s interesting that my younger patients are very easily adapting to this format where some of my older patients are having a little bit of a challenge with making connections in this format.”

Reuvers said she’s also received information from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services on the coronavirus 1135 waiver, under which therapists may apply for telehealth with less fear of violating HIPAA. The CMS encourages telehealth use during this time, she said.

While Reuvers has received a number of client referrals in recent weeks, she said this is typical in February through May. However, she does believe COVID-19 is elevating anxiety across the board because of all the unknown.

“What we are doing as therapists is trying to help people identify points to focus on ‘now’ rather than what’s being taken away from them,” said Reuvers. “Now’s the time to be able to get to some of those things you’ve been putting off.”

Making the best of uncertain times

Lundin offers several pointers for anyone struggling to keep their heads above water during the coronavirus pandemic and social distance practices.

To avoid falling into a slump, Lundin recommends establishing a schedule. That means having a consistent bedtime, setting a goal for the day or maybe the week, and/or getting outside and moving once a day.

He also advises those living in close quarters with their families to give others the benefit of the doubt. Put simply, that means being kind and remembering everyone is doing the best they can under the circumstances. A helpful tip: everyone in the home should have their own “retreat space” if possible.

“The other thing is to lower your expectations,” said Lundin. “What this means is life isn’t going to be what we want it to be for a while, and the more we protest the harder it’s going to be … Your children are going to misbehave. Expect children to misbehave. If you can recognize that, maybe you won’t be so upset. It’s critical to lower expectations of everyone.”

While controlling others isn’t realistic, Lundin encourages individuals to find something within their control. Social distancing could be an opportunity to try something new, or to revisit an old hobby that took a backseat in the busyness of ordinary times. Whether that means playing an instrument or journalling, Lundin said having a control factor is essential during a time when everything else seems chaotic.

He also encourages others to “find the lesson we can learn from this” and look for the positives. For some, this may mean more time with a spouse and/or children, more time to self-reflect or time outdoors.

“I think finally, it’s really important that you continue to connect with your friends as much as possible via video conference or by text,” said Lundin. “Those connections are probably more critical now than ever.”

Reuvers also encourages individuals to think about the elderly or anyone without a smartphone, and connect with them through phone calls or texting. Helping out others in general during a time of uncertainty is a way to boost gratitude and become more hopeful, she said.

While Reuvers believes social media is an excellent tool for connecting with people while social distancing, she recognizes that certain platforms on social media sites may implant inaccurate information regarding COVID-19, thus causing unnecessary anxiety in its users. She encourages her clients to seek updated medical information from the Minnesota Department of Health as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overall, she recommends those experiencing anxiety to limit their intake of news media, even if they’re accessing factual information.

“I’m not usually one to say [not to watch or read the news], but it doesn’t make sense for people to inundate themselves,” said Reuvers. “You have to limit how much you’re going to hear. You do want to know what’s going on but don’t want to feel hopeless and desperate.”

For those dealing with pre-existing mental illnesses, like anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, Reuvers recommends patients touch base with others. At a time when overreacting has become the norm, she said it can be difficult to know a reasonable amount of times to wash hands or how to react at all. Knowing how other people respond to COVID-19 could help clients set reasonable expectations for themselves.

“I think if you let people know what your needs are, folks may come forward,” said Reuvers. “ … Now is just a good time for people to be good to themselves and the other folks in their life.”

New loan program could aid small businesses amid crisis

With Minnesota small businesses reeling from the coronavirus pandemic and accompanying closures, Gov. Tim Walz signed an executive order Friday that could provide much needed assistance.

The new loan program was created under the governor’s Small Business Assistance Executive Order, issued Monday. Utilizing $30 million in special revenue funds, the program will provide a short-term funding solution for businesses most in need. Under the guidelines of the new program, loans of between $2,500 and $35,000 will be made to qualifying small businesses. Should federal loan programs or other financing become available, businesses would be expected to repay the loan.

Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism President Nort Johnson encouraged small, local businesses to consider applying soon given the limited funding. However, some of those businesses are holding off on making decisions for now, hopeful that they can reopen soon.

Kelli Sackett of Sisters Salon in Owatonna is among those small business owners. The governor’s order forced Sackett to close up shop last Wednesday. Prior to that, she said she hadn’t seen a significant drop in customer traffic.

“For every person who cancelled because they weren’t comfortable coming in, the phone would ring right after with somebody who wanted to get in,” she said. “It was an abrupt cutoff.”

Sisters Salon remains partially open, selling shampoo, gel and other hair products, but can’t take any haircut or styling appointments. For now, Sackett said that she hopes that will change very soon, but acknowledges that she might need to look into other options.

“We haven’t looked too far into (state or federal loans) yet because we’re waiting to see how long this goes on for,” she said. “But any help we can get for a small business is helpful.”

Some businesses may be interested in the Small Business Administration’s Disaster Relief loan program. While such loans are not forgivable, their interest rate is capped at 4% their term at 30 years, and qualifying businesses can receive up to $2 million.

By contrast, the loans issued by the state are much smaller but carry no interest and are 50% forgivable. DEED estimates the new program could support anywhere from 1,500 to 5,000 small businesses across the state.

Another provision of the executive order could open up an additional $28 million in credit to local businesses, according to DEED. That provision would allow local governments and lending partners to provide small business loans from their revolving loan funds for the next 90 days.

The state’s new loan funding isn’t available quite yet, but should be by the end of the week. Once it’s ready, it will be doled out through DEED’s approved network of 23 lenders, which includes the Southeast Minnesota Initiative Foundation.

Faribault Community and Economic Development Director Deanna Kuennen said that she is very pleased that the state has taken an active approach to helping businesses hit hardest by the pandemic.

“This is an unprecedented time for our local business community,” Kuennen said. “In order to get through this, all agencies will need to step up.”

Kuennen has stayed in contact daily with DEED leadership and other economic development officials across the state. While the situation changes day to day, she promised to continue providing important information for local businesses.

For the loan program specifically, Kuennen said a one-page flier would be posted on the city’s website later this week. The Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism has already advertised the program on its website, faribaultmn.org, and in conversations with small businesses.

Johnson said that the terms of the loan make them an especially attractive option for local small businesses. He noted that any business affected by the governor’s order could receive funds, not just those that were closed by it.

“We are pleased to see that DEED is looking out for our existing small businesses,” said Johnson. “They are the backbone of our economy, and we want to make sure they have every opportunity to survive this pandemic.”

Agencies restrict services as county declares coronavirus emergency

Rice County’s Board of Commissioners voted Tuesday to declare a state of emergency over the coronavirus pandemic as the number of cases ballooned to 262 across the state and to more than 50,000 nationally.

The county joins the state as well as the cities of Faribault and Northfield in making such a declaration. Rice County Public Health reported its first lab confirmed case of coronavirus on March 19 and a second on Monday. But confirmed cases likely represent just the tip of the iceberg. At a Monday press conference, Kris Ehresmann of the Minnesota Department of Health said given the lack of testing, it’s likely that there are 10 or even 100 undetected cases of coronavirus for every lab confirmed case.

County Administrator Sara Folsted said that at this point, the county’s declaration is largely symbolic. The county is already covered by the state declaration, and its agencies are taking direction from corresponding agencies at the state level.

The county has shifted in recent days to helping as much of its workforce transition to working from home as is possible. Previously, its approach was centered around social distancing and regular cleaning. While visitor traffic is heavily restricted, many county employees still come to their office every day.

Folsted said that’s because their computers may be equipped with special files or software that they are unable to feasibly transfer to a home computer.

The County Board followed the lead of its telecommuting staff, holding its first virtual meeting in recent memory, allowed in the case of a health pandemic or declared emergency, such as the Peacetime State of Emergency declaration issued by Gov. Tim Walz March 13.

Both Northfield and Faribault have approved heavy restrictions on visitor traffic at their respective city halls. In Faribault, all visitor traffic is strictly restricted to the lower level, meetings are held via teleconferencing and much of the city’s staff is working from home.

On March 20, Northfield’s City Council decided to close City Hall and the Northfield Library until April 3. While limited use of City Hall and the library was approved, most city staff are now working remotely and meetings are held online.

After announcing that the Faribault Community Center would remain open at an emergency meeting on March 15, Faribault Parks and Recreation Director Paul Peanasky closed it on March 17, in accordance with the governor’s order.

As promised March 15, Faribault’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority announced that it is trimming back on some of its responsibilities. Annual recertifications will not be conducted in person and maintenance will be deferred aside from emergencies.

The Community Development Department at City Hall has closed, leaving residents unable to pay their rent in cash. Other in-person city services are still available at City Hall, but City Administrator Tim Murray urged residents to only utilize that option as a last resort.

“If you can’t get your business done any other way and you need to drop off (forms or payment) at City Hall, we can still accommodate that,” Murray said. “But it is very limited.”

Even so, the situation could change quickly, especially if Walz follows the lead of other states in issuing a “stay at home” order. Murray said that if the governor were to do so, the city would likely consider closing City Hall completely.