As the coronavirus pandemic drags on into a third month, patients across Minnesota have become increasingly reliant on telemedicine.
Locally, Mayo Clinic Health System has dramatically increased their use of telemedicine, where physicians conduct office visits via video chats. The Rochester-based outfit, which serves more than 60 communities throughout Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, has instructed its providers to utilize telemedicine whenever possible.
Similarly, Allina Health, which operates District One Hospital in Faribault as well as Owatonna Hospital, now conducts more than 60% of its appointments online, compared to less than 1% before the pandemic.
Allina’s new emphasis on telemedicine is at the heart of its newly launched Virtual Care Campaign, which seeks to reassure patients that it’s safe to receive medical treatment even as COVID-19 continues to ravage communities Allina serves.
Across the state, medical institutions like Allina Health have seen significant decreases in the number of patients seeking essential care. Those patients who do come in are often very sick, facing severe complications and a long road to recovery.
Fear of contracting the virus is certainly understandable. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, 295 Rice County residents have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Wednesday, putting the county in the top five counties for case count outside of the seven-county Twin Cities metro.
Nonetheless, Dr. Amy Elliot, who serves as Director of Medical Affairs at District One, strongly urges patients to seek the medical care they may need, and not to wait until they’re even sicker. She said that if in-person care is necessary, Allina Health staff work assiduously to keep patients separate. In addition, Allina staff work round the clock to keep their facilities clean, and staff, visitors and patients are expected to be masked at all times. Patient-facing staff wear a mask and face shield, while patients are given cloth masks.
“As care providers, we don’t want people skipping care because they’re worried about getting infected,” she said. “We’re trying to offer lots of ways to help people get around the risk.”
However, Elliot said that patients can receive a surprisingly wide range of care via telemedicine, enabling them to avoid having to leave the comfort and safety of their own home. For patients in rural areas, that can save not only peace of mind but time and money as well.
While the technology enabling the significant shift to telemedicine has been in place for years, most providers have preferred to stick with face-to-face appointments. In addition, Medicare and other health insurance often haven’t reimbursed care providers for virtual appointments.
On both counts, change has come rapidly. On March 30, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced that it would reimburse physicians for telehealth visits at the same rate as for in-person visits.
Effective March 1, the change covers checkups and medical care provided for any reason, not just coronavirus care. Medicare also expanded access by scrapping a rule that required all telehealth visits to take place on devices meeting federal online privacy and security standards.
U.S. Sens. Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar feel that doesn’t go far enough. Together, Minnesota’s two senators introduced the Health Care at Home Act last Friday, with the backing of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the American Psychiatric Association and other organizations. The bill is designed to reduce the gap in coverage for telemedicine visits in comparison to in-person visits. It also prohibits restrictions as to which particular medical issues are eligible for telemedicine reimbursement.
Other restrictions existed at the state level, including limits on the number of reimbursable telemedicine visits per week and a requirement that telemedicine appointments be conducted over video chat rather than by phone.
Maisha Giles, the Minnesota Department of Health’s behavioral health director, said her agency has worked rapidly to help care providers across the state adapt to telemedicine. In addition, she said, the department has provided flexible grant funding for providers.
Thanks to that support, care providers like Fernbrook Health Center have been able to rapidly switch to a telemedicine-based model. Fernbrook, which has six offices in southern Minnesota, barely utilized telemedicine before the crisis but now uses it almost exclusively.
Peter Miller serves as a psychiatrist and medical director for the Community-Based Services in Direct Care and Treatment for the state, providing crucial services for people dealing with mental illness, developmental disabilities and chemical dependency.
Faribault is one of five communities in the state which has a community clinic through the program, known as Southern Cities Clinic. It provides crucial care to patients with developmental disabilities, severe mental illness or traumatic brain injury.
Since the pandemic hit, Direct Care and Treatment’s clinics have been closed but have continued providing consultation via telemedicine. Miller said that is likely to continue even once the pandemic lifts.
“It’s been very well received,” said Miller. “We’re hoping to keep doing the same thing once we get back to a more normal schedule.”
Miller said that DHS is examining how teledentistry could be used in the long term to help dentists treat their patients. He said he’s excited to see the state expand its telemedicine services to serve patients in a convenient, yet efficient manner.
Bryan Carleton, a registered nurse who treats Psychiatric Patients at Southern Cities Clinic, said that the clinic had experimented with providing telemedicine for years as a way to help homebound patients.
Just before the pandemic, Southern Cities began experimenting with “E-Prescribing,” submitting prescriptions to pharmacies electronically. Thanks to that and other trials over the years, he said his department was as well-prepared as any.
“When the pandemic hit, we had the tools and experience we needed to hit the ground running,” he said.
Sixth-grader Brandon Petricka never performed a saxophone solo before a live audience before, but now, he’s among 25 Faribault Public Schools music students with a YouTube presence.
An online playlist called “Songs for Souls,” featuring the musical talents of Faribault Middle School and Faribault High School students, has been shared with local senior centers and nursing homes during the pandemic.
Said Brandon, “I feel good about that.”
For his solo, Brandon chose to play “The Pink Panther” and recorded a video of his performance from his home. It took a few takes to get it right, but he said he feels great about the finished video.
Brandon’s sister Stacie, an eighth-grader at Faribault Middle School, performed a cello solo as part of the community music project. She chose to record herself playing “Hallelujah,” a song she never before played for an audience. Although she’s performed duets in the past, she preferred playing alone because she didn’t need to coordinate practice times with anyone else.
“I’m pretty proud of [my solo], and I’m glad I’m brightening up someone’s day so they can enjoy it too,” said Stacie.
Elizabeth Barron, Faribault Middle School band director and chair of the middle school music department, collaborated with other music directors in the district to create “Songs for Souls” after schools closed in response to COVID-19.
“At the beginning of distance learning, we brainstormed what we want students to get out of this time,” said Barron. “… We want students to understand the power music can have in connecting people together, even from a distance.”
Band, choir and orchestra students selected songs of their own choosing to sing or play for their solo contributions and then rehearsed their performances on their own time. Students then sent their draft recordings to their music directors for evaluation, and the final recordings were added to the YouTube channel. About 25 solos are included in the playlist, among them pieces featuring clarinet, euphonium, violin, flute, piano and more.
Apart from allowing music students the chance to grow in their skills, Barron said “Songs for Souls” is a creative way to let community members know someone cares and wants to offer support for them. Students have expressed interest in performing more solos for the playlist through the remainder of the school year. Since band, choir and orchestra concerts have been cancelled, the project also gives students an another way to show what they’ve learned. The full playlist is accessible to anyone at bit.ly/2XhtDjR.
Stacie said she was thankful and excited about performing for the “Songs for Souls” playlist. Apart from this project, she’s continued practicing her cello by using apps like SmartMusic since schools closed.
Having a video on YouTube “feels great,” said Brandon, but he also misses being at band class.
“It’s very different to not see your friends around and not seeing the teacher,” he said.
Drug task force agents investigating four overdoses over the weekend, including one that killed a local man, have gathered enough evidence to have charges filed against a 20-year-old Faribault woman believed to have provided the drug that caused one of the overdoses.
According to court records, Kylie Rose Brooks was identified as the person who provided drugs to the male victim. She was charged in Rice County District Court Wednesday with third-degree sale of narcotics and distributing a drug that caused great bodily harm. Both are felonies.
Emergency responders were called to a northwest Faribault home at about 2:30 a.m. Sunday following a report of a suspected overdose. The man, face down in the kitchen, was reportedly unconscious, having great difficulty breathing and was purple in the face.
After witnesses allegedly told officers that the man was overdosing on heroin, an officer administered three doses of an anti-opioid medication and the victim began to regain consciousness. He was transported to the hospital and later released.
When investigators on Sunday evening interviewed the victim, who is not named in court documents, he alleged that Brooks supplied him with the drug. The drug, he reported, was a white chalky powder which he believed was pure fentanyl, a prescription medication 50 times more potent than heroin.
Faribault police who responded to another overdose later that day reportedly found a white powder similar to what the overdose victim described. It reportedly tested positive for fentanyl.
In all, Faribault police have responded to five suspected overdoses in the last few days, including one at the same residence late Saturday.
An Owatonna man who reported a Saturday overdose in Faribault was charged Monday with three felonies: possession of a sawed-off shotgun and possession of ammunition, both by a person convicted of a violent crime, and fifth-degree drug possession.
Police responding the the Saturday evening overdose reported that Joshua Robert Drabek, 30, left the residence where the overdose occurred before they arrived. Drabek was located later driving a vehicle reported at the overdose scene; police the conducted a traffic stop.
When the officer reportedly asked Drabek if he had any weapons on him, Drabek showed the officer a knife attached to his belt. During a pat search of Drabek, the officer discovered a hypodermic needle, a marijuana pipe and a small bag with a white crystalized substance inside that later tested positive for methamphetamine, court records show.
Drabek allegedly denied that the meth was his, and said that he “tried to help the girl that overdosed” and “this is what I get for trying to help that girl.”
During a search of Drabeck’s vehicle, the officer reportedly found two cell phones and a black backpack on the floor behind the driver’s seat with a sawed off/short-barreled shotgun measuring about 22.5 inches total inside. Though it was missing the handles, the officer said the gun appeared to be fully functional.
Drabek, who has several felony drug convictions and an assault conviction, was sentenced in Rice County September 2017 to 60 months in prison after being convicted of possessing a ammunition or firearm by a person convicted of a violent crime, according to Minnesota court records. He was released from prison in December, but is on supervised release until November 2021.
District Court Judge Christine Long set Drabek’s bail at $100,000 without conditions and $75,000 with conditions. He was still in the Rice County Jail early Wednesday afternoon.
Genova Products, a now-defunct manufacturer of vinyl construction products, has had its Faribault plant and other assets sold to a Salt Lake City-based plastics manufacturer.
Plastic Services & Products has two locations, one in Salt Lake City and another in Washington state. It is one of the largest producers of ABS pipe (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) in North America.
Before it closed, Genova had around 570 employees in its six plants across the U.S. In addition to Faribault’s plant and its headquarters in Davison, Michigan, Genova plants were also located in Rensselaer, Indiana; Ft. Wayne, Indiana; Paducah, Kentucky, and Sparks, Nevada.
A news release from the Paducah Area Chamber of Commerce suggested that the company intended to begin hiring at the former Paducah Manufacturing Plant.
However, company officials, reached by phone, declined to confirm any expansion or hiring plans at this time. They said additional information would be forthcoming in the near future.
With more than 50 years of experience manufacturing vinyl products, Genova Products was one of the largest and most established companies in the industry. Starting with vinyl plumbing, the company expanded to manufacturing vinyl gutters, fencing, railing and deck flooring.
Genova’s Faribault plant is located at 500 12th St. NW, next to Jennie-O-Turkey Store and across from the Cannon River. It was built in 1973. Genova registered in Minnesota as a foreign company in 1987.
Genova halted production in mid-November, citing a raw materials shortage. At the time, the company said that it expected employees would be able to return to work by the first week of December.
Days before employees expected to return to work, the company announced that furloughs would continue “indefinitely,” and a sign was posted outside the company’s Faribault facility stating “Plant is closed until further notice.”
In a press release to Paducah, Kentucky, news outlets, company officials blamed the layoffs on a shortage of raw material that lasted longer than anticipated. Later, they said that Genova’s bank abruptly cut off its financing, leaving it unable to afford the raw materials needed to continue manufacturing.
Under the WARN Act, most businesses employing at least 100 people are required to give at least 60 days notice before announcing mass layoffs or plant closings. Many disgruntled employees believe the company failed to abide by the act and threatened to sue.
However, company officials argued that Genova fell under the “Faltering Company” exception, which states that a company facing an imminent plant closing has the right to withhold notice from employees while it seeks new capital or business to stay afloat, in order to avoid scaring off potential investors.