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Owatonna-native Steph Kretlow, pictured here at the 2019 national outdoor meet, was 1,300 miles from home and less than 24 hours shy from competing in the NCAA Division III National Track and Field Indoor Championships when word came down that all athletic competition had been abruptly halted last Friday, March 13. (Photo courtesy of the University of St. Thomas)

THE HELPERS: Communities come together to assist those in need during COVID-19 pandemic (copy)

There is something to be said about the resilience of Minnesotans as they face adversity, including in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even as we stand feet apart, people in southern Minnesota have continued to find way to bring communities close together so that they may come out the out the other end better and stronger.

“There are still people who need the help that they’ve needed all along,” said Kim Schaufenbuel, the president of the United Way of Steele County.

Specifically, Schaufenbuel is referencing access to food and the large demographic of people in southern Minnesota who rely on special services to keep them fed.

Earlier this week, the staff at Community Pathways of Steele County — formerly known as The Steele County Food Shelf and Clothesline — told their volunteer crews not to come in for their shifts. Most all of their volunteers are retired, and the executive directors, Nancy Ness and Maureen Schlobohm, said that they didn’t want them to be at risk during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“We realized pretty early on that we couldn’t do this ourselves,” Schlobohm said, explaining that the Marketplace has begun curbside-only pickup for its clients in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. “We really needed help from able-bodied, young healthy people.”

And in Steele County, wherever help is need the United Way can be found.

“Community Pathways is very much in need of volunteers, so the United Way staff are taking turns working there to provide some help to them,” Schaufenbuel said as she prepared for her afternoon shift of taking orders at the curb and bringing out boxes of food. “We’re all just trying to be as agile and responsive as we can right now.”

Little Free Food Shelf

Outreach to help others who may be on the fringe gain appropriate access to food has been a common theme throughout the area. In Kenyon, a woman dropped groceries off to a friend who hadn’t been out of the house in a while, as well as delivering her mail and materials from church. In Faribault, the local senior center is providing high quality takeout meals for a low price for anyone in need.

Popping up all over the region have been boxes filled with food, taking residency in former Little Free Libraries.

Outside of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Northfield, a local Girl Scout troop installed a Little Free Pantry next to an already existing Little Free Library, complete with non-perishable food items such as cereal, macaroni and cheese, peanut butter, soup, and other items.

One mom in Le Sueur, however, saw information on Little Free Pantries circulating on social media, which led her to a new idea.

“We’ve had our Little Free Library for a few years now, and when I saw this idea circulating on Facebook a few days ago I thought, ‘what a simple, easy way we could help our community during this time,’” said Terra Doyen, a mother of three living in the North Morningside neighborhood. “With the kids being bored and having nothing to do, I told them exactly what my plan was and with great eagerness and excitement they rushed out the door to gather up all the books and make a new sign for [the library] that said ‘Little Free Food Shelf – Take in Need.’”

Doyen said she couldn’t have been more proud as she watching her children — 11-year-old Haydon, 8-year-old Harper, and 5-year-old Hazel — get enthusiastic about an idea that would solely benefit others in need. Growing up, Doyen said her mother always emphasized the importance of helping and giving to those who are in need, and that she was ecstatic to instill the same believes in her own children.

“In one night the food shelf filled up with some great stuff,” Doyen added. “The kids were beyond excited the next morning to go check and see if anyone had donated, and the way they ran inside to tell me how much was in there you would think that it was Christmas morning.”

Social distance, social togetherness

In great times of need, Doyen said it is important that close knit communities like Le Sueur stay together, regardless of the social distancing they must practice. Elated that she and her kids have the opportunity to help others and keep busy during a stressful time, she hopes that others will find similar outlets amongst the chaos.

In Faribault, Becky Ford knows all too well about the importance of keeping children feed and busy, which is why her organization — Faribault Youth Investments — immediately began organizing following the closure of schools earlier this week.

“As a part of the community school program, we’re really focused on making sure that young people have everything that they need to be successful,” said Ford, who is the executive director of Faribault Youth Investments. “With school basically being canceled we realized that kids and families probably were not prepared in Faribault, in particular because they were coming off a week of spring break. Maybe they have things to do, but maybe not.”

Ford instantly began working with teachers within the Faribault School District and contacting the organizations partner agencies to come up with a plan to continue to care for kids and keep them engaged in their learning as the state anticipates having teachers implement distance learning in April.

“We want to keep them occupied and not just spending all day on their devices,” Ford said.

On Thursday, a large group of volunteers and staff with the Faribault School District came together and began assembling 150 “activity kits” with four to five different activities for specific grade levels that the students can do at home. Materials included donated items from the public library’s summer program and virtue bracelet kits from the Virtues Project.

“We want to recognize that some families may not have a ‘craft stash’ or some of these education activities just ready and available for them,” Ford added. “These will all be handed out as an option along with the food program from the Faribault Public Schools starting Monday.”

The activity kits are organized by kindergarten through second grade, third through fifth grade, and sixth through eighth grade.

Ford said that she plans to continue to connect with families even as distance learning takes off, wanting to let them know that the community is still thinking of them and there for them in this time of need.

“Communities can sometimes get disjointed in all their efforts, and this is a way to pull everyone together,” Ford added. “I think we will continue to pull people together. Faribault is awesome.”

Schaufenbuel agreed that if there is one thing that southern Minnesotans are capable of, it is caring for one another regardless of the adversities we may all be facing.

“I know that a lot of people right now are feeling helpless — and by a lot of people I mean the people usually out there doing things in our community,” Schaufenbuel said. “They want to help, but with social distancing and working from home they aren’t sure how. In the face of the helpless feeling, people are looking for something to do and some way to help and be of service.”

“Continue to look for those opportunities,” she continued. “Together we can figure it out soon.”

For more information on how to help, visit unitedwaysteelecounty.org/covid-19 and ricecountyunitedway.org/news/covid-19-response.

For how long? Newly-released data shows low unemployment in January, as thousands now seek benefits

County-specific unemployment figures for the month of January were published as scheduled by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development on Tuesday, with February’s numbers set to follow close behind at the end of this month.

While percentages for the region show a slight decrease over where unemployment rates were in January of last year, many at both the local and national level predict numbers will change significantly in light of the novel coronavirus. According to a report Tuesday night from CNN, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told Republican senators that without action, COVID-19 could drive unemployment nationwide up to 20% according to a source in the legislative body.

Locally, Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism President Nort Johnson noted that low unemployment going into the pandemic should help cushion an expected blow to the economy. January data from Rice County shows an unemployment rate of 4%, nearly identical to the 4.1% who were jobless in January 2019.

In total for the economic development region including Rice and Steele counties, unemployment was listed at 3.7%. For the neighboring area — including Le Sueur, Nicollet and Waseca counties — it came in at 4.5%, with Le Sueur and Waseca having some of the highest unemployment rates in the area.

As defined by DEED, people who are unemployed are those who don’t currently hold a job but are available and actively looking for work during the previous month. It does not include those who are underemployed, have had their hours cut or are unable to work.

“We’re hearing more specifically about how its impacting business in general,” said Johnson. “We do know that that will also reverberate into the unemployment number, with the population hunkering down and output slowing down. As a country, we just know it’s going to be a time of pause for the economy.”

Sharp increase in unemployment apps

Already, many service workers have felt the economic impact of the virus as Gov. Tim Walz ordered a temporary closure of bars, restaurants and other entertainment venues Monday evening in compliance with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to avoid large gatherings.

Wednesday afternoon, DEED noted via Twitter that unemployment insurance was taking over 2,000 applications per hour. Typically, it handles 40 to 50 new cases in the same timeframe.

In a press conference discussing the decision to close bars and restaurants Monday night, Commissioner Steve Grove added that there have been changes made to the state’s unemployment program in order to accommodate the influx of applicants and the unprecedented circumstances many find themselves in because of the virus.

“In particular, it suspends the waiting-week for unemployment insurance, and will allow workers to take advantage of benefits right away,” said Grove. “It also makes unemployment insurance available to anyone whose health or the health of their loved ones is effected by this crisis and it clarifies that you can access unemployment benefits if you are quarantined or self-isolated as a result of COVID-19.”

Still, unemployment pays recipients roughly half of what they would be making at their job and for many there continue to be significant delays before they can start collecting the benefit.

Blooming Prairie resident Heather Olson said she was told by officials that it would likely be another few weeks before they can approve her application, because they need to verify a workers’ compensation payment she’s been receiving following a shoulder injury from her job at a local hotel.

While she’s currently unable to perform her necessary job functions at the hotel, she said was able to work a second job at the Hubbell House in Mantorville. When that restaurant closed for in-service dining following Walz’s decision earlier this week, Olson said she — like many others — applied for unemployment.

“I did the application online, and then I called them because it said that I had issues that I had to fix,” she explained. “I think I was on hold with them for an hour and a half before I got a live person and they said it would probably be three weeks until they would even approve it. I have car payments that are coming up, car insurance that’s coming up and no way to pay it.”

Recovering from her injury and eventually returning to work at the hotel has also been delayed by the virus, with many health care facilities postponing all non-essential procedures.

Chambers look for solutions

As thousands of workers statewide now face lay-offs or cutbacks due to temporary closures aimed at halting the spread of the virus, many anticipate that this spring’s unemployment numbers will look vastly different from the recently-released January statistics.

“We’re considering options and what we can do in the mid-term, after the bubble passes in the infection rates to help promote business to business commerce within our community,” said Johnson.

One of these strategies, he noted, has been to set up a resource page on the chamber website where businesses who are still seeking workers and individuals who are recently out of a job can connect. On its Facebook page, the chamber has been keeping a list of businesses with altered operations or hours, as well as area companies that are currently hiring.

The Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism has a similar list of business’ altered hours and operations on its website and in an update posted Thursday, President and CEO Brad Meier also offered advice to local business owners now finding themselves potentially having to scale back operations or lay off employees.

“Unemployment insurance has a shared work program, so if you’re concerned or looking at [doing] staff reductions, this is a way to keep employees while reducing their hours,” Meier noted. “Then they can also supplement through the unemployment insurance pool with the State of Minnesota.”

While chambers continue to work on new resources and ways of helping their members and other local businesses, COVID-19 has also posed new challenges for the member organizations, themselves. Julie Boyland, executive director of the Le Sueur Chamber of Commerce, noted that her office had to cancel a retail business expo scheduled for March 16, which also acts as a fundraiser for the chamber.

“Even for the town celebrations that are coming up, you have to start thinking about those,” she added. “Businesses are closing or cutting back on their employees, and we look to them as being sponsors. It trickles down and effects everyone.”

COVID-19 and its spread has caused fear and uncertainty across the globe. To ensure our community has the latest information on this public health threat, APG Media of Southern Minnesota is providing stories and information on this issue in front of its paywall.

Toilet paper isn’t the only thing being scooped up by grocery store patrons. Grocery stores are finding everything from soup to nuts being sold in huge quantities as customers stock up for possible quarantines. (Suzanne Rook/Faribault Daily News)

Health care providers conserving supplies for those who need it most

Personal protective equipment (PPE) has become especially valuable to Minnesota and national health care facilities during the COVID-19 outbreak.

At Northfield Hospital and Clinics, CEO Steve Underdahl said health care providers are working hard to maintain the supply chain for what’s needed for a potential stream of patients.

“We have the same issues as other healthcare organizations with concerns about personal protective equipment (PPE) and other supplies, but we are in OK shape for now,” said Underdahl.

Dr. Monti Johnson, vice president of medical affairs at St. Francis Regional Medical Center and a member of the Allina Health Central Command for COVID-19, said Allina Health providers are using many products they normally use, but much more often. They’re also monitoring supplies closely, following Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) guidelines as to which supplies to use with which patients, and investigating other avenues of obtaining supplies in addition to ordering more.

Since hospitals and other health care facilities acquire PPE through different supply chains than the general public, Johnson said the number of supplies people buy at grocery stores doesn’t impact medical care facilities. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t sacrifices the public can make to reduce the number of supplies. He urges social distancing, which can slow the spread of coronavirus and not only keep others safe and healthy but ensure vital PPE is maintained.

Senior living facilities also experience concerns in obtaining and maintaing PPE. Chelsea Kalal, administrator and director of Development at Kenyon Senior Living, said face masks are particularly hard to acquire at her facility.

“There are situations in which these PPE are used on a daily basis to provide care for our residents,” said Kalal. “For example, one resident may require 12 visits a day, thus staff are utilizing 12 face masks, 12 gowns, 12 sets of gloves and 12 sets of booties. While not all residents require these precautions, there are some that may.”

Kalal said Kenyon Senior Living staff has reached out to its usual vendors as well as new vendors to place orders. Although six or seven orders have been placed, Kalal said no confirmation of a delivery date had been established as of Thursday. In the meantime, community organizations and companies have donated supplies to the senior living facility, and Kalal said she’s grateful for these contributions.

An elective order

Emily Lowther, communications director for the Minnesota Hospital Association (MHA), said the state and nation as a whole faces critical shortages of PPE as well as supplies for acute care. This causes concern for Minnesota hospitals and health systems as healthcare workers anticipate a possible rush of coronavirus patients in the near future. To provide the needed care for these patients, it’s essential the front-line care team members stay healthy and safe as well.

“We are working with our care teams to respond to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) about how to conserve these needed supplies while at the same time protecting our health care workers,” said Lowther. “We are also coordinating daily with MDH and our state and federal leaders to escalate supply chain concerns and reiterate the need for Minnesota to have access to the national strategic stockpile for PPE.”

To conserve PPE for critical care patients, and to protect health care providers and patients, hospitals and health systems announced Thursday morning a postponement of any non-emergency surgeries and procedures. On Tuesday, MHA sent a letter to Gov. Tim Walz and Commissioner of Health Jan Malcon to make the declaration statewide. Walz issued the executive order Wednesday. The decision complies with guidelines set forth by the CDC and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).

Allina Health already postponed elective surgeries earlier in the week, primarily as a move to protect patients, but Johnson said the decision will also help conserve PPE.

According to a news release issued by MHA, essential surgeries that will continue include those that could save a patient’s life, prevent permanent disability (including teeth or jaw surgeries), stop the spreading of metastasis or delay cancer staging. Settings include hospitals, health systems and ambulatory surgery centers. Health care providers will work directly with patients whose nonessential surgeries are postponed as a result of the executive order.

Lowther said in response to a shortage of testing supplies, hospitals and health systems announced Tuesday that health care providers will prioritize COVID-19 for patients needing acute care in the hospital, health care workers, first responders and certain residents of skilled nursing facilities. These priorities align with MDH guidelines.

“We are concerned that national messaging from the White House task force regarding test availability in all states, accessible drive-up testing and supply and equipment purchasing does not accurately reflect these critical shortages in Minnesota,” said Lowther. “Minnesota’s hospitals and health systems are working together to problem-solve and do all we can to mitigate this situation, but we need more support and supply resources from the federal government and private industry.”

Lowther also urges Minneosta’s general public to participate in the conservation of PPE for those who need it most. That involves stopping the spread, and her advice for doing so to simply stay home.

“If all Minnesotans act together now, we may be able to reduce the surge that our health system will see,” said Dr. Rahul Koranne, president and CEO of MHA. “Our hospitals, health systems and care teams need your immediate help and proactive actions.”