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Lena Smith skybox

Lena Olive Smith was a prominent civil rights lawyer and activist in the ‘20s and ‘30s. She made major contributions toward securing civil rights for minorities in the Twin Cities after becoming the first African American woman licensed to practice law in Minnesota in 1921.

A GIFT OF LOVE: St. Dominic volunteers donate 900 Valentine's cards to seniors
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Faced with the COVID-19-induced loss of in-person interaction and the hope they give to local seniors, members of the Church of St. Dominic knew there was still an underlying need.

As Valentine’s Day approached, they knew how they could help: Deliver 900 cards to seniors at Three Links Care Center, Millstream Commons, Villages of Lonsdale, Northfield Retirement Center, Valley View, Benedictine Community, Wellstone Commons, The Family Residence, and the Northfield Hospital Long-Term Care Center as a token of the appreciation they say they have for seniors and the gifts they continue providing to society.

Many remained anonymous, and several made 100 Valentine cards individually. One parishioner, a Bridgewater Elementary School teacher, led a card-producing effort.

“Valentine’s is just a little thing, and we ask for the intercession of faith who are friends in heaven, and we ask them to pray for us and help us,” said Mara Mangan, the church’s director of faith formation.

“Sometimes those little things occupy the biggest part of their heart.”

Seniors across the U.S. who live in long-term care facilities have faced substantial physical and mental tolls during the pandemic. Of the 6,376 deaths attributed to the virus in Minnesota as of Monday, 4,016 — nearly 63% — have been those living in long-term care or assisted living facilities. That toll and related social distancing measures health officials say are needed to prevent the further spread of the disease, has also limited in-person interaction with those who reside in the care facilities.

Because of that, the state has prioritized vaccinations at nursing homes. The state said earlier this month that people in more than 2,000 long-term care facilities were expected to have their first vaccine doses by the end of January. While nursing homes across the state are mostly finished with first doses and are moving onto their second, the program for the much larger group of assisted living facilities is still ongoing.

‘We miss them’

St. Dominic already had hosted a monthly food distribution program through Northfield Community Action Center on the first Wednesday of every month, an initiative including Three Links and Northfield Retirement Community.

The deliveries also gave volunteers the chance to visit with seniors.

“We miss them,” Mangan said.

“Their lives, their experiences are important,” she continued. “They give us the wisdom, help us to look at things.”

Mangan noted that by showing their appreciation and honor for seniors, church members were also fulfilling their Christian belief that God is present in each person.

“We are called to see the good, be the good and bring out the good in everybody,” she said.

“We are grateful that they are in this world.”

St. Dominic is also taking a leading role in other community programs. One ecumenical program, BeFrienders, allows members to provide spiritual friendship with people who are undergoing tough times, sometimes experiencing the death of a spouse or a child. The church has brought communion to the homebound during the pandemic and has members volunteer through other community organizations such as Northfield Promise, Northfield Shares and Northfield Reads.

Kathy Owens, Villages of Lonsdale community enrichment coordinator, said the cards were especially needed as the facility continues to be in quarantine after some residents have tested positive for COVID-19. Residents have expressed an increase in feelings of loneliness and sadness as they remain away from their families.

Residents have also received gift bags last Christmas and during the Easter season at the onset of the pandemic.

“It was awesome,” Owens said of the cards. “It really made their day.”

Playbook to improve hospital-city communication, assure ownership
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Northfield officials are expressing confidence that Northfield Hospital and Clinics will continue to be a city-owned organization long into the future and are outlining the steps to ensure that happens.

Those steps were outlined in a proposed City/Hospital Governance Committee playbook, unveiled during meetings of the NH+C Board and City Council. The playbook was created to foster mutual understanding about important issues, facilitate collaboration and partnership and serve as a practical action guide. The City Council is preliminary scheduled to approve the playbook Tuesday, and the Hospital Board could provide final approval Feb. 25.

Priorities, communication

A key component of the playbook is its explanation of the ways the hospital and city plan to communicate and collaborate, a topic officials said had led to past contention and misunderstanding. The plan sets an annual calendar of contact points and agreed work, and establishes the yearly Hospital Board appointment/confirmation process.

Under the playbook, the mayor would still have four years of appointing authority. The City/Hospital Governance Committee is expected to continue meeting on a regular basis.

To City Administrator Ben Martig, past misunderstandings have also revolved around the city’s reserve powers role, tasks that include buying and selling real estate and evaluating property.

The city can also levy or impose taxes to operate or maintain any part of the hospital system and has a say in the ownership and ownership structure of the hospital and clinics.

The mayor appoints Hospital Board members, serves as the chief executive officer of the city government, chief spokesperson for the council, and leads policy formation.

The Hospital Board administers, operates and maintains the health system, including undertaking repairs and maintenance, and purchasing equipment and supplies, establishing committees.

The relationship between the city and health system is governed by the city charter and statutes. The council retains exclusive authority over any decision to privatize the health system.

Councilors, hospital administrators applaud playbook

During a Feb. 8 council meeting, Councilor and Hospital Board member Jessica Peterson White said the work will facilitate a clearer, more intentional approach between the two boards.

Fellow Councilor and Board member Brad Ness agreed, expressing hope that the document should mend any previous communication issues. Mayor Rhonda Pownell said “a lot of thoughtful input, writing and rewriting” went into the document. She predicted the playbook will serve the two boards “long into the future.”

Councilor Jami Reister, a physician, said she hopes the community understands the “gift” of the locally owned hospital.

NH+C President/CEO Steve Underdahl said the playbook helps the hospital and city “stay connected” and could prove “tremendously helpful.”

The playbook was released 12 months after former City Councilor David DeLong suggested a conversation take place on the future of the city-owned hospital.

During a February 2020 City Council meeting, he suggested the council “have an in-depth, informative discussion to make sure we are on the right track.” It came shortly after NH+C announced that it would reduce hours for some employees, transfer others within the organization and lay off another dozen to fend off a projected $1 million budget loss brought on by changes in the health care industry.

At the time, DeLong said the city could review a 2012 discussion on the possibility of changing the hospital to being independently owned.

That process began with information gathering, as the City Council and Hospital Board considered the benefits and drawbacks of possibly transitioning the hospital to an independent ownership model. Informational meetings for residents, hospital staff and the medical community took place, and the hospital remained under city ownership. The council did not take up DeLong’s suggestion.

All school staff could receive COVID vaccine within 6 days
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Northfield Public School Superintendent Matt Hillmann said he has “a strong feeling” that all district staff members will be able to receive their first COVID-19 vaccine doses this week.

Hillmann made the announcement during a School Board meeting. As of late last month, 140 of the 630 district staff members had been vaccinated. Since then, 28 have been vaccinated through Rice County Public Health. On Feb. 4, Northfield Hospital and Clinics announced they would have 250 doses available for school staff Wednesday, Feb. 10. Hillmann added that some employees said they would not be vaccinated twice, allowing for more people to receive doses.

Hillmann attributed the quick pace of vaccinations to the district’s partnership with NH+C.

Through the health system, Northfield Public Schools initially offered COVID-19 vaccines for Tier 1a workers including school nurses, health aides, special education teachers and educational assistants who work closely with children deemed vulnerable.

Following the initial tier, 1b employees, who are being vaccinated through the MDE school staff pilot program, include elementary and early learning program school staff working in an in-person model, bus drivers, school-aged child care workers and employees working in a hybrid learning model with serious underlying health conditions. Following that, middle, high school and Area Learning Center staff who are working in a hybrid-learning model and staff working primarily in settings where students are not regularly present and social distancing among adults will receive their first doses.

Officials consider vaccines to be a key component in keeping students learning in-person while ensuring school staff is safe from COVID-19.

Hillmann marveled at the pace the vaccines were developed and that all staff will be able to receive a vaccine despite a relatively small segment of the statewide population receiving COVID-19 doses. As of Tuesday, Feb. 8, approximately 10% of the statewide population had received at least one vaccine dose. Nearly 3% have completed the vaccine series. Hillmann attributed the relative quick pace for educator vaccinations to a statewide focus on ensuring students can return to classrooms.

“We have been blessed in this,” he said.

Pre-K to second graders returned to in-person learning Jan. 19. Students in grades 3-5 returned Feb. 1, and those in grades 6-12 came back to hybrid learning Feb. 2.

The most-recent two-week Rice County infection rate was 43 per 10,000 residents, below the 50 per 10,000 level at which the state recommends exclusive distance learning. Hillmann, who has consulted with the Minnesota Department of Education during the process, said MDE welcomed the district’s approach after he described the “successful” safety protocols undertaken within the district last fall as students returned to school. Also, he noted most of the COVID-19 cases in Rice County are coming in the southern area.