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1,500 tested for COVID-19 in Rice County as part of statewide approach

More than 1,500 COVID-19 tests were administered in Northfield at Emmaus Church week as the Minnesota Department of Health continues to expand asymptomatic testing to control the spread of the new virus.

Of the 1,521 tests, 41 were positive — 2.6% Rice County Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Tracy Ackman-Shaw noted that percentage is lower than both the Rice County positivity rate of 3.7% and the state average of 5.2%, adding the 41 positive tests didn’t just cover Rice County and instead included the surrounding area. A breakdown of the demographics for the positive tests wasn’t available as of Tuesday afternoon.

Local asymptomatic testing this week is from noon to 6 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at the Faribault Armory. Ackman-Shaw noted anyone with mobility challenges can request in-car testing. Interpreters are providing services in Spanish and Somali.

Those who are undergoing testing do not need to present a driver’s license, ID or insurance cards.

Appointments are encouraged to regulate the number of those who are undergoing testing for every 15 minutes but not required. Officials hope people undergoing testing go through the drive-thru, but bicycle traffic is accepted as well. Two testing lanes are in place in the church parking lot, and testing mainly takes less than 10 minutes.

The testing is open to everyone, including non-Rice County residents. Insurance is not required. Instead, officials say an email address or cellphone number is requested but not required. Testing is being undertaken through Mayo Health Labs. Spanish interpreters are available.

Ackman-Shaw said mass testing is critical because some people could have the virus while being asymptomatic and unknowingly spread the disease to others. People need to take personal responsibility in not spreading the virus, she said. By doing so, she said people can ensure schools and businesses remain open.

“It’s just a way for people to be able to make decisions themselves,” she said of testing.

Northfield Site Incident Commander Shawn Schloesser noted though mass testing can increase the number of positive local cases, that is only one data point Minnesota Department of Health and Minnesota Department of Education officials consider in deciding whether to implement further restrictions on schools and businesses. He that added mass testing can sometimes trace a COVID-19 outbreak to an assisted living facility, making the odds of the virus having been spread from schools low.

Schloesser, who was representing the State Emergency Operations Center, noted increasing numbers of COVID-19 positive tests are no longer being associated with events or employment. This week, state officials revealed the unknown community transmission rate for those who have been infected with the virus has reached a record high, causing trepidation from health officials who say that makes contact tracing more difficult.

The Northfield testing site was one of 22 selected by the Minnesota Department of Health across the state as part of a targeted four-week testing to expand the testing capacity of areas beyond local limits. Currently, Northfield Hospital & Clinics is only testing those who show COVID-19 symptoms. Schloesser said such mass testing could be extended in areas throughout the state beyond next week, and semi-permanent sites are possible in rural areas.

Many who contract COVID-19 experience mild or no symptoms, but some suffer life-threatening or deadly impacts. Those who are over the age of 65 or with severe comorbidities are at greatest risk of death from the virus.

As of Wednesday afternoon, 113,000 COVID-19 cases and 2,197 deaths had been reported in Minnesota since virus tracking began in early spring. Nearly 2.35 million tests have been completed across the state, and 1.6 million people have been tested.

‘This was a nice setup’

Testing is undertaken through collaboration with the Emergency Operations Center, Minnesota Department of Health and Rice County Public Health. Also, Dakota County Public Health officials, Rice County Emergency Manager Jennifer Hauer-Schmitz and Northfield Police Department Chief Mark Elliott assisted with planning. The Minnesota National Guard was on hand for logistical work.

The state contracted with the company WareEvans for eight nursing staff and a nurse lead to conduct testing. Nurse Miriam Udofot, who has been testing people for the virus across the state since June, said Rice County had the most community support for testing she’s seen.

“This was a nice setup for a smooth operation,” Schloesser said.

County interested in buying land near jail for possible expansion

Another piece of downtown Faribault may soon come under the county’s control, setting the stage for a possible expansion of its main jail.

Next week, a Rice County commissioners’ subcommittee will discuss the purchase of a .04-acre parcel at 306 First Ave. NW. The parcel, which county records show is owned by Eagle Building, of Racine, Wisconsin, sits on the same block as — but just east of — the county Law Enforcement Center.

If the county and buyer come to terms, the county will own all but two parcels on the block: 302 and 308 First Ave. NW. In May 2019, the county paid $217,000 for a .15-acre site, the former Lyons Meats on the corner of First Avenue NW and Fourth Street NW. At the time, County Administrator Sara Folsted said the county had no plans for the site or the block, but acknowledged there was a need for additional space at the county’s main jail, which houses high-security inmates and those with special needs.

Since then, the Minnesota Department of Corrections notified the county that because its main jail doesn’t adhere to its standards for recreation and programming space it planned to limit the length of time inmates could be held there. A 90-day limit, set to go into effect last November, was postponed when Rice County began a study to review existing jail facilities and determine possible solutions. A committee is currently working with a consulting firm on the study. Sheriff Troy Dunn has said a final report should come before the Board of Commissioners in December.

While any jail expansion could cost tens of millions and come on the heels of the expansion of two other county facilities — the Government Services Building and main Highway Shop, both in Faribault — doing nothing could quickly rack up costs and headaches for county law enforcement.

Last year, Dunn estimated the cost to use other counties’ jail space and to transport prisoners between those jails and the courthouse for hearings or trials at about $500,000 annually. While the pandemic-induced virtual hearings would likely limit prisoner transports, the county would still be responsible for covering housing costs for inmates held in other counties’ jails.

The county’s Parks and Facilities Committee meets in a closed session Wednesday to discuss the possible sale. The parcel, which includes a 1,660-square foot structure, is valued at $132,100, according to county records.

Any purchase would need to be approved by commissioners.

NH+C denies allegations, call for dismissal of whistleblower lawsuit

Northfield Hospital & Clinics officials are denying allegations that the hospital system violated the state Whistleblower Act by firing a former employee who claimed two of its physicians used improper surgical techniques and delayed follow-up visits, and are asking that the lawsuit be dismissed.

The hospital’s response, filed in Dakota County District Court, pertains to a lawsuit filed by Kaya Latzke, who served as the hospital’s endoscopy program manager for 5½ years. Latzke is seeking damages, back pay and compensation for benefits she would have received if she was still a hospital employee. The allegations of improper surgical techniques involve endoscopic physicians Katya Ericson and Ashley Marek, who both still practice at NH+C.

In seeking a dismissal, hospital officials stated any damages Latzke suffered “were caused by or contributed to by acts, omissions, fault, or other wrongful or improper conduct” by Latzke. They said Latzke’s allegations were barred by the doctrine of after-acquired evidence. The doctrine reportedly pertains to information discovered by NH+C after Latzke’s termination, which, if discovered earlier, could have led to her dismissal. Evidence relating to the hospital’s allegation was not included in its response.

NH+C also refuted Latzke’s statement that she had never been “coached, counseled, disciplined or warned with respect to her performance until she reported the alleged violations.”

Marek is an independent contractor providing services at NH+C since March 2019. Ericson has served as an independent contractor at the hospital since August 2014.

According to her LinkedIn page, Latzke served as a patient care supervisor at Abbott Northwestern Hospital from 2013-14 and as a registered nurse for a group of gastroenterologists from 2006-13. She is now the director of medical content development at Twin Cities-based Provation Medical.

Lawsuit: Physician “was putting patients at serious harm”

In the lawsuit, Latzke said she discovered last year that Ericson “was putting patients at serious risk of harm and breaching national clinical standards,” by having most of her colonoscopy and polypectomy removal procedures last well beyond the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy standard of 30 minutes, “directly resulting in increased sedation medication well above national standards.”

In late June 2019, Latzke reportedly learned from her staff that Ericson and Marek were putting their patients “at serious risk of injury during colonoscopies by placing an excessive amount of pressure on the abdomen,” also a violation of national clinical standards. According to the complaint, Ericson used “an outdated and dangerous medical technique for the piecemeal removal of colorectal polyps with a forceps instead of a snare, which is now the standard of practice that must be provided.”

Health system officials, in the court filing, haven’t directly admitted to the allegations but did say Latzke “received reports that certain physicians were requiring an amount of abdominal pressure during colonoscopies that (Latzke) deemed excessive.”

They stated they didn’t have “sufficient information to admit or deny” whether Latzke had learned that Ericson’s patients were being called back in three to five years, far beyond the recommended six to 12 months. However, the hospital system admitted the presence of a physician’s report stating patients who had piecemeal polyps removed should be recalled within 12 months.

In mid-October 2019, Latzke said she learned the hospital’s medical malpractice insurance carrier advised Ericson to author a letter for impacted patients informing them of the issues, the deviation from the standard of care and their rights. The carrier also advised the patients should have the choice of where to be seen, have no out-of-pocket expenses and not be operated on by any physician from the surgeon group.

In its response, hospital officials said “a decision was made to advise certain patients that they were due for a follow-up sooner than initially recommended.” However, they denied an allegation that legal counsel had advised NH+C to downplay the risks to guard against malpractice lawsuits following a November 2019 meeting.

“Out of respect for the legal process, we are limited in what we can say at this time,” said Northfield Hospital & Clinics Director of Communications Betsy Spethmann in a written statement. “We can say that this employment lawsuit has no merit.” She emphasized endoscopy care at the health system “is safe, thorough and professional.”

“We fully support all our endoscopy providers,” she said. “We regularly review care provided and contact patients who require followup care. Endoscopy patients who require followup care, for any reason, are notified and discuss their options.”

NH+C: Termination was budget-related

Eight days after the meeting, Latzke was demoted from a full-time managerial position to half-time manager with floor nurse duties. She said the move was retaliation for her reporting on the allegations, but, according to hospital administrators, her position “was restructured as part of an ongoing budgetary process that began in April of 2019,” and that her February termination was a budget-related measure.

In the lawsuit, Latzke said the hospital system posted for an endoscopy nursing position five days after her ouster and later promoted a clinical nurse to clinical coordinator, taking over some of Latzke’s responsibilities.

Hospital officials state the part-time nursing position for Endoscopy Clinic included a compensation rate “that was significantly less than what (Latzke) had been earning in her role as the manager/floor nurse.”

Spethmann noted NH+C officials had worked for months to close a $3 million gap while planning the 2020 budget. She added they engaged an outside expert to review the organization structure and size compared to other health care institutions and “learned that our structure had the benefit of in-house roles that most organizations our size didn’t have.” She said they realigned mid-level and senior leadership “to align with best practices among health care organizations our size. These changes were based on roles, not on individuals.”

“In response to significant health care market changes, NH+C needed to further reduce expenses, including labor costs,” she said. “Unfortunately, we could not close the budget gap without reducing the size of our staff. This included the elimination of 12 positions, including endoscopy program manager.”

A jury trial in the case has not been scheduled. The discovery process is slated to take nine to 12 months, during which documents considered relevant will be shared with opposing counsel. Depositions, including Latzke’s taken under oath, will then be taken. A motion for summary judgment seeking a conclusion of the case could take place before a trial. However, if the presiding judge rejects the motion, the case would then proceed to a jury trial.

Judge: Minnesota 2nd District election to take place Nov. 3

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A federal judge ruled Friday that the election for Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional District should proceed in November as originally scheduled, despite the recent death of a third-party candidate.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Angie Craig asked the judge to require that the election be held in November instead of being delayed until February — after the Sept. 21 death of Legal Marijuana Now Party candidate Adam Weeks triggered a state law that led to the postponement.

Craig, who is seeking a second term representing the competitive suburban and rural district south of the Twin Cities argued that federal law requires the contest to be held as part of the November election. She warned that the district would go without congressional representation for several weeks if the election were delayed.

“Unfortunately, the process currently in place would deprive Minnesotans of their seat at the table at a time when critical legislation affecting our state will be debated — including bills to rid politics of special interests, ensure quality, affordable health care for every Minnesotan and safeguard our family farmers,” Craig said when she filed her lawsuit.

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, who is also a Democrat, said state law requires that if a major party nominee dies within 79 days of Election Day, a special election must be held for that office on the second Tuesday in February, which would be Feb. 9. Legal Marijuana Now has major party status in Minnesota under a law that lets a small party qualify if one of its candidates for statewide office got at least 5% of the vote in a recent election.

The Legislature changed state election law to avoid a repeat of the hectic 2002 race, when Sen. Paul Wellstone was killed in a plane crash 11 days before the election. Democrats chose former Vice President Walter Mondale to replace Wellstone on the ballot, but he lost the seat to Republican Norm Coleman.

Craig is facing a challenge from Republican Tyler Kistner, a Marine Corps veteran making his first run for office. Kistner argued that the election should be held in February, as state law allows. His attorneys said in court documents that a February election would protect the interest of the candidates, election officials and voters. They also said that the state law is consistent with federal law because, unlike a presidential election, congressional races are determined in the local district, not by national votes.

While Craig argued that a special election would lead to chaos and cause voter confusion and disenfranchisement, Kistner’s attorneys said a special election would instead provide all major parties and voters an equal opportunity to participate. The state law also gives voters who have already cast their vote for Weeks another opportunity to vote for someone else.

Minnesota began early voting on Sept. 18. Craig continued to urged her supporters to mark their ballots for her and other Democrats, even while the date of the 2nd District race was in limbo.

Attorneys for Simon argued in court filings that voters in the 2nd District have already cast ballots under belief that the election would be postponed, so they may not have voted in that race. They also said that switching the race back to November would cause more confusion. Simon’s attorneys also argued that holding the election in November would eliminate the Legal Marijuana Now Party’s opportunity to field a candidate to replace Weeks.

rachel wieber

Northfield senior Rachel Wieber digs the ball during Thursday’s 25-14, 25-8, 25-17 victory against Mankato West at Northfield High School. Wieber combined five kills with five digs. (Michael Hughes/southernminn.com)