The Mayo Clinic Health System’s five hospitals in the Mankato region are full, due to a surge in COVID-19 cases, and the system’s health care officials made a plea for residents to not gather as we enter the holiday season.
Hospital beds across the state are filling up as facilities see a rapid increase in coronavirus transmissions. At the Ridgeview Hospital Network, which has locations in various cities, including Le Sueur, Waconia, Belle Plaine and Chaska, hospitalizations have increased tenfold.
The situation is less urgent at River’s Edge Hospital in St. Peter, where the majority of 25 in-patient beds have remained available.
Mayo Clinic officials said they appreciate the residents who are following public health officials’ guidance to curb the spread of COVID-19, but they need everyone to do their part, Dr. James Hebl, regional vice president of the Mayo Clinic Health System, said during a press conference Friday, Nov. 20.
“We know it’s been a difficult year, and we know that the holiday season is upon us, making this even more challenging. We also know that the holidays typically mean gathering with friends and family, however in 2020, we are asking that we do not do that this year,” Hebl said.
The Mayo Clinic Health System has seen a “very rapid rise” in COVID-19 cases and the hospitals in the Mankato region are feeling the impact on their medical and surgical bed availability, Hebl said. The Mankato and Waseca hospitals were at 100% of their capacity on Friday, the New Prague hospital was at 94% capacity, the Fairmont hospital was at 96% capacity and the St. James hospital was at 92% capacity.
At Ridgeview, a majority of adult staffed and ICU beds have been filled by COVID patients. The hospital network now tests 350 people a day in urgent care facilities, respiratory clinics and emergency rooms. The surge is catching Ridgeview during one of the busiest seasons for hospitals.
“That surge is here folks, and – according to experts to which our industry listens – it will get worse before it gets better,” said Ridgeview President and CEO Mike Phelps. “Traditionally, Minnesota hospitals across the state are already at capacity during this time of the year, and with the rise in COVID-positive cases across the state, there are many more people in our community requiring hospitalization.”
At River’s Edge, which reports only six total patients in hospital beds for COVID since March, there has never been more than two COVID patients in hospital beds at a single time. Chief Quality Officer Stephanie Holden noted that the hospital continues to see asymptomatic positive cases in its Emergency Department and Urgent Care, and those patients are treated, but the hospital is not seeing a surge of patients specifically related to COVID.
“If it was a very, very serious COVID condition, we would likely send them a larger facility,” Holden said. “If someone has maybe a mild to moderate case, and needed to be in for a day or two for observation, that would be something we would do. We do have ventilators available if needed.”
A COVID-19 patient’s average length of stay is four to five days in the hospital, unless it’s a severe case, which is usually at least two to three weeks in the hospital, Hebl said.
As of Nov. 20, 141 Mayo Clinic employees in the Mankato region were absent from work due to COVID-19 restrictions. Fifty-eight of those employees had tested positive for COVID-19 and were in quarantine, and the remaining employees were in quarantine due to being exposed to a COVID-19 case, Hebl said. Ninety-six percent of the staff were exposed in the community.
The pandemic has shortened staff at Ridgeview as well. The hospital has employed new policies to accommodate the pandemic as well as staffing shortages which include “restricting visitors to the hospitals, moving more appointments to video visits, and rescheduling or delaying non-urgent surgical cases to assure appropriate access to care and available staffing.”
River’s Edge has successfully avoided staffing issues. The hospital decided not to furlough workers in the spring, instead opting to keep everyone on and cross-train them in various departments.
“And we have had staff affected by exposures that have had to be out for that 14-day quarantine,” Holden said. “… so when we’re shorted because of COVID exposure, we can pull from other departments to help out.”
Forty-five percent of Blue Earth and Nicollet counties’ COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic have occurred in the last month, according to Dr. Katie Smentek, a COVID-19 lead physician at the Mankato clinic. Andrew Lundquist, chief medical officer of the Mankato clinic, said at the current pace of COVID-19’s spread, Blue Earth and Nicollet counties could see 1,500 new cases in the next 12 days.
“In Blue Earth and Nicollet County, if you have a group of 10 people, there’s a 42% chance that one of those people has COVID-19 right now. That’s sobering,” Lundquist said.
In Le Sueur County, 690 new cases have been detected in the month of November and 287 were detected between Nov. 15-21. Cases have grown at an exponential rate, outnumbering the new cases detected in the months of March-October combined.
Health care officials know it’s difficult to stay home and away from friends and family, Smentek said. But slowing the spread of the virus is the only way to ensure there will be enough health care staff and resources to care for patients, she said.
“Remember, every interaction counts, whether it’s a hunting trip with your brothers or coffee with a friend,” she said. “Lives depend on your actions right now.”
Mayo Clinic staff is working long hours to care for patients, Smentek said. The average number of patients in their respiratory clinic has increased 104% from March to November and telehealth visits and drive-thru tests have nearly doubled in November. Their COVID-19 hotline has long waits even though they’ve more than doubled the number of nurses answering the calls.
“Our health care workers, we don’t have a second line. We’re it and we’re in danger of becoming overwhelmed,” she said.
The health system has been preparing for this surge for months and is coordinating with facilities across the region on telemedicine, virtual appointments, monitoring patients at home and transferring patients from the Mankato hospital to other hospitals, including Waseca, New Prague, St. James and Fairmount, Hebl said.
“However, there is a finite amount of resources and the reality is that this situation can and likely will become untenable if our communities do not take precautions and act now,” he said.
Holden at River’s Edge and Phelps at Ridgeview also advised the community to take action to slow the spread.
“It’s a really difficult time right now, because of the increased number of cases, and people really want to be with other people” Holden said. “So the advice is just to be careful; wash your hands often, use hand sanitizer; keep physical distance as much as possible; just do the things that help bring the numbers back down.”
“As ‘COVID-message’ fatigued you may be, I want to remind everyone that the first line of defense in holding COVID at bay is taking proactive measures to mitigate spread: wear a mask, social distance, wash or sanitize your hands, get tested, stay at home if sick, and avoid large gatherings,” said Phelps. “On behalf of your local health care workers, thank you for taking these necessary steps to keep you and your loved ones – and all of us – healthy and safe.”
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” or at least that’s what Andy Williams sang long before COVID-19 became a reality.
Mary Jo Kreitzer, the founder and director of the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing at the University of Minnesota, acknowledges the worst and most dangerous days of the pandemic are ahead, and after dealing with restrictions and adjustments for the past several months, it’s common to feel “COVID fatigue.” The two together could make these last couple weeks of 2020 especially challenging.
Dr. Craig Sawchuk, clinical psychologist at the Mayo Clinic, recognizes the difficulty of two values — keeping loved ones healthy and spending time with loved ones — being at odds with each other. After months of keeping interactions at a minimum, it’s not unexpected that people crave social interaction more than ever right now. But from a public health standpoint, the usual in-person festivities like shopping, travel and large-group gatherings won’t help reduce the spread of COVID-19.
It might feel like a “lose-lose” situation to some, but despite the challenging times, both Kreitzer and Sawchuk believe it’s possible to prioritize mental health and avoid public health risks while navigating the holiday season.
For Krietzer, enjoying the weeks ahead is about having the right mindset. That means thinking about the holidays not as worse than other years, but different. One piece of advice Kreitzer offers, even in a non-COVID year, is to “prioritize what’s important and let go of perfectionism.”
Many of the usual holiday outings that lead up to Christmas are off the calendar this year, so Kreitzer considers this season an opportunity for individual households to embrace what matters most to them.
“I think people have gotten so creative,” Kreitzer said. “People are planning to cook together, have meals together, open gifts together and attend virtual events together. I think it’s a time to focus, instead of what we can’t do, with what we can do.”
Many people who are lonely or without close family nearby may struggle during the holidays regardless of the pandemic. Considering the number of those who have died this year, from COVID-19 or other causes, grief and loss will weigh heavily on many families as they experience traditions without their deceased loved ones for the first time.
Keeping this in mind, Kreitzer encourages families and individuals to embrace the giving spirit and remember to reach out to others in need by dropping off food or flowers, making a personal connection, shoveling snow or calling someone who lives alone. For those who want to give back to the community, she recommends supporting local food shelves.
Sawchuk, a professor of psychology, also encourages being open and flexible to doing things differently. Not only that, but staying optimistic both for today and for the future.
“It’s been hard, and we have to acknowledge that it’s been hard,” Sawchuk said. “It’s not normal what’s going on, but we’re going to get through this. Even look at what’s been developing with a vaccination and other therapeutics making their way out. There are reasons for optimism.”
One point of contention for a number of families this holiday season is whether or not to gather with family or friends outside one’s immediate household. As Sawchuk mentioned, this is one of those matters in which two values come into conflict.
Sawchuk offers a couple of pointers for those who want to say “no” to gathering in person but feel anxious about that conversation. He encourages first of all to have the conversation early rather than waiting until the last minute, and to remember “this really isn’t a debate.” Instead of arguing a case, he promotes simple messaging that ends in a period — not an exclamation point or a question mark. Simply saying, “We love you and we would like to spend time with you, but this year we’re choosing to sit this one out,” and repeating that statement if necessary, is sufficient.
“This isn’t a court of law,” Sawchuk said. “You’re not trying to present all the evidence for or against people. When you’ve made this decision, it’s important to stay with that. You may have to agree to disagree.”
No matter someone’s response to the pandemic, Sawchuk discourages throwing guilt around, and to set boundaries with those inflicting guilt.
“I know human relationships are complicated, but it boils down to, ‘Is it more important to be right, or is the relationship more important?’ Sawchuk said. “…We love these folks, so of course we want to be able to spend time with them, but when we’re made to feel guilty, when that guilt rises up, we may cave in and act outside our values, and that doesn’t help the situation at all.”
For those bothered by others’ choices relating to the pandemic, Kreitzer said, “I think it’s wise to focus on what’s within our control and influence. We do have control over what we do and what we can do with the family. Honestly, we can’t control what everyone else is doing within the community.”
That being said, Kreitzer acknowledged the importance of encouraging one another to think about not only what’s best for themselves but what’s best for others.
“What’s so challenging and interesting at this time is my choices impact myself also but others in my community,” she said. “Sending those strong messages of care for the community is really important.”
Before the Le Sueur County Board of Commissioners considers a proposal to raise sales taxes in Le Sueur County by 0.5%, County Administrator Darrell Pettis and Highway Department Director David Tiegs held an open house on Tuesday, Nov. 24 to inform the public about the new tax.
The half-cent sales tax would raise sales taxes in the county by up to 0.5%, bumping up the total general sales tax rate from 6.875% to 7.375%. In 2018, the half cent sales tax would have generated an additional $737,000 in revenue, $774,000 in 2019 and $697,000 in 2020.
County officials say that additional revenue would be a boon to the county’s Highway Department, raising the office’s near $3 million in revenues by nearly 25%. These dollars could be used to finance transportation projects, transit operating costs or highway maintenance facilities. Director Tiegs said the influx of revenue would also allow Le Sueur County to accelerate work on street projects that are scheduled five to six years out.
“We possibly could expedite two whole additional years of that scale of construction and move that number of projects to the forefront that in all reality would be less than a few years down the line,” said Tiegs.
The Le Sueur County Highway Department has prepared a list of 28 rural construction projects, totaling $39 million, and 11 municipal projects, totaling $17 million, that the county could generate revenue for with a half-cent sales tax.
The list of municipal projects includes reconstruction on Hwy. 99 outside Le Center, Hwy. 60 near Madison Lake, Kilkenny Road and streets near the city limits of Le Sueur and Cleveland.
If the sales tax is approved, the Board of Commissioners would approve it along with a list of projects they wish to fund. That list could range from just one project to all of them. If Le Sueur County completes construction on all the roads, the county would need to pass another resolution with a new list of projects if the County Board wants to renew the half-cent sales tax.
A half-cent sales tax has been discussed by the county board and staff for several years, but there has been a renewed interest in Le Sueur County and other counties as COVID-19 threatens state transportation aid and sales tax revenues. Le Sueur County expects a $1 million drop in transportation aid from the state in 2021 after receiving a total $6.8 million this year on account of reduced traffic cutting into fuel tax revenues.
Even if state aid returns to normal levels, Pettis said that statewide transportation funding is at a stalemate and the legislature is putting pressure on counties to take on more responsibility for local transportation revenues.
“With the recent stalemate at the legislature dealing with transportation, it’s now being turned back on the counties,” said Pettis. “The legislatures are saying, ‘Why haven’t you done this? We gave you this opportunity. We’re not going to give you additional funding, it’s time to take care of yourselves.’”
The half-cent sales tax has been implemented in all counties surrounding Le Sueur with the exception of Sibley County.
County staff also say that the half-cent sales tax would make transportation funding more equitable. Many pavement projects on rural roads in the county highway system are funded entirely by property taxes. Pettis said the sales tax puts some of the financial burden on visitors and commuters making purchases in the county.
Attendance at the open house was sparse. There were no in-person visitors and seven virtual participants which included four County Commissioners and three township officials. The public will still have the option to share their questions and comments with the Le Sueur County Commissioners at the scheduled public hearing at 10 a.m. on Dec. 1. After the hearing, the sales tax will come to a vote before the board. If passed, the sales tax would kick in on April 1, 2021.