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Celebrated from Dec. 17-23, Saturnalia honors the agricultural god, Saturn. One of the most popular of Roman festivals, it derives its traditions from old farming rituals of mid-winter and the winter solstice. Ironically, Jupiter and Saturn merged in the night sky Monday, appearing closer than they have since the 17th century.

Owatonna Hospital staff among 1st to receive COVID-19 vaccine
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Rebecca Penning was excited as she became one of the first Steele County residents to receive the COVID-19 vaccine on Monday.

“I’m thankful we were able to get it on the first day,” said Penning, a registered nurse who works in the emergency room at Owatonna Hospital.

After receiving the first dose of the vaccine Monday afternoon, she said she physically felt the same as she did beforehand.

The first shipment of the vaccine arrived on Sunday for Allina Health staff in Owatonna and Faribault. More than 50 Owatonna Hospital staff received the first dose of the vaccine on Monday afternoon, with more to follow on Tuesday and Wednesday.

David Albrecht, president of Owatonna and District One hospitals, said about half the staff will receive the first dose of the vaccine this week and the remaining half will receive it next week, although it’s not mandatory for staff.

“We’re hoping most will,” he said.

Albrecht said he expects most staff who have face-to-face interactions with patients will receive the first dose by the end of next week. It takes about two to four weeks to build up immunity with the vaccine, he said.

A nurse at the VA Hospital in Minneapolis was the first to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in Minnesota on Dec. 15 and 947 healthcare workers had been vaccinated by Dec. 18. The state anticipated about 46,800 doses from Pfizer to be shipped to Minnesota hospitals and clinics to begin administering this week. Minnesota is also expected to receive a second shipment of more than 33,000 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine this week. Minnesota is expecting nearly 95,000 doses of Moderna’s vaccine to be shipped now that it has been approved. CVS Health announced on Monday that it planned to vaccinate 63,000 long-term care residents and workers in Minnesota next week.

The Mayo Clinic Health System also began vaccinating its staff in southeastern Minnesota Monday. It plans to expand its vaccinations to all staff in the next two to three months and begin patient vaccinations for COVID-19 soon, according to its announcement Monday.

“We are so excited to see the hard work and devotion of our teams paying off and even more excited to see the vaccine coming to our friends, neighbors and colleagues as we hope for an end to this pandemic locally and worldwide,” said Robert Albright Jr., regional vice president for Mayo Clinic’s southeast Minnesota region.

Penning said she has been looking forward to receiving the vaccine. The thought of bringing home COVID-19 to her family has been in the back of her mind throughout the pandemic. She changes clothes before leaving for home to prevent cross-contamination and she’s been watching for symptoms at home while social distancing.

“We’ve been trying our best to keep our family pod really tight knit, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said.

She works overnights in the emergency room where there’s always the potential for her to be working with a patient who has COVID-19 or who is waiting to find out if they tested positive. Even with the vaccine, she’ll continue to wear personal protective equipment. She is required to wear a mask and eye protection at work and personal protective equipment has become “like second nature” to put on now, she said.

Albrecht said they’re hoping to get back to work on non-pandemic issues at the hospitals that have been put on hold.

“I hope this is the beginning of the end of all we’ve been through not only as a hospital, but a state, a country and a world,” he said.

Distance learning provides challenges for family who is deaf
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This year has proven to be a challenge for Priscilla Saunders and her four children who are deaf and attend Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf in Faribault.

While schooling for the siblings has traditionally been very hands-on, learning through a screen is difficult. Students everywhere are learning virtually while taking a break from hands-on education in the classroom during the pandemic, but for students who are deaf and rely on American Sign Language, this year has been extra tricky when it comes to the virtual learning format.

Saunders, who is deaf herself, made the decision to keep all of her children at home to learn in the distance learning model full time, despite the school reopening to select grade levels, or “pods,” at the beginning of the school year.

MSAD began the year in online learning back in August. In September, the school welcomed early childhood education to return in-person and a month later, middle school students were allowed to return. High schoolers were set to return in November, but the uptick in COVID-19 cases stopped those plans, and everyone returned to online learning, according to Saunders.

With four kids in three different pods, Saunders felt it was best to keep them all at home to help provide some consistency. The uncertainty of the virus’ spread and the changing learning models, thus the readjustments to a new style of learning, swayed her from sending her children back to the school building.

“It just feels like a big responsibility. If I were to have it, it would give it to everyone or if someone in the school had it, that would pass it onto everyone so I decided to keep all of them at home,” she said via an interpreter.

Instead fourth grader Thor, second grader Jevabelle, kindergartener Thys and preschooler Myvabelle are all working hard to make the best of what is possible given the pandemic.

Despite the stability and consistency of the full-time distance learning model, the format has challenges of its own. She noted that the screen time is especially difficult for her kindergartner. The teacher has to really wave to her and she’s missing a lot of conversation when she is looking down to write. It would be OK if she were in person because she can see everything that’s going on, but she can’t catch everything virtually, she said.

“They’re having a hard time kind of tracking everything that is going on the screen,” Saunders said.

As the children have the same schedule, Saunders is finding herself trying to help all of them with their school work at the same time. Playing both the role of mom and teacher is demanding.

“I feel like my role is a little bit conflicting. I’m a mom obviously, but I’m trying to help support the teacher too and my boundaries are sort of different, like the kids are crying or they don’t want to do something, so I’m trying to be a mom, but also trying to encourage them to focus on school. It’s emotional, it’s very emotional,” she said.

Many parents are feeling a similar pressure between the new roles they have found themselves in. Saunders says many fellow parents at MSAD are experiencing similar trials, especially with younger children. She says she has developed a good support system with the other parents, leaning on each other during this strange and difficult time.

Not only does school provide education, but it also is a space for students to socialize, create bonds and make friendships. This is especially important for children who communicate via sign language. Saunders is concerned her children are missing out on some of the important social aspects of in-person learning.

“Luckily, I’m a deaf parent so my kids aren’t losing the language so I’m very fortunate for that, but the socialization, the play time, the afterschool activities, the sports, I feel like they are missing out, they aren’t getting that, so that’s hard,” she said.

In the meantime, she said her children have been trying to socialize through Zoom, Facetime and other video phone call services. She said communicating completely via screen calls is hard and just simply isn’t the same as communicating and signing in-person.

For now Saunders and her children are looking forward to the day they can return safely to school.

The Minnesota Commission of Deaf, Deafblind and Hard of Hearing Commission has created a resource center to empower students and families to advocate for the unique needs of every learner who is deaf or hard of hearing. The commission has organized a number of videos addressing the various challenges students who are deaf and hard of hearing might face during the pandemic. The videos are intended to provide guidance for educators and for family members and feature several students sharing their experiences.

“MNCDHH advocates for communication access and equal opportunity with the 20% of Minnesotans who are deaf, deafblind & hard of hearing. Parents have the power to have communication access requirements inserted in their child’s Individualized Education Program to ensure that schools provide communication access catered to their child’s unique needs and preferences in distance and on site learning,” wrote Anna Paulson, director of educational advancement and partnerships at MNCDHH.

Paulson went on to praise southeast Minnesota for its strong programs and staff who support students with hearing loss.

“Truly some of the best in the state,” Paulson wrote.

Salons provide makeovers to nurses as recognition for their work
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As frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, nurses throughout the state — and nation — may have few opportunities to do something special for themselves.

Mandy Janzen, of Cleveland, Minnesota, recognized Woodbury nurse Kristin Dahl has worked hard during “these overworked, understaffed months of COVID,” so she nominated her for Fantastic Sams’ Holiday Makeover.

“Recently she suffered the terrible sickness as well and thankfully has recovered,” Janzen wrote in her nomination for Dahl. “She connects with each and every patient, letting them see she truly cares about the work she does. She works so hard to care for her amazing twin 2-year-old old boys at home and thinks of everyone else before herself. This would be such an uplifting surprise to her and she would be truly thankful for this Holiday Makeover … I believe each and every one of these nominees would more than deserve this great giveaway!”

Dedee Little, of Northfield, wanted the same opportunity for Stephanie Teigen, who works in the emergency room of the Northfield Hospital.

“She also is raising four children,” Little wrote in her nomination for Teigen. “She is definitely one of the super heroes!”

On Sunday, Fantastic Sams’ Kevin Steele randomly drew the names of Dahl and Teigen for the “Nominate a Nurse Holiday Makeover” at their respective salon. Over the course of a couple weeks, six Fantastic Sams locations in Minnesota accepted around 90 nominations online for this first-time drawing. Those who were selected will receive a free haircut, style, color, hair treatment and waxing at their local salon just in time for Christmas or New Year’s.

Being so moved by the number of nominations submitted, and the stories included, Steele decided to offer free haircuts and discounted colors, treatments and waxings to every nominated nurse.

“The thing that’s blowing me away, by reading each of the nominations, you want to do it for everybody,” Steele said even before the winners were selected. “ … I’m thinking about doing this more often. COVID isn’t going to leave us for quite some time, so maybe we’ll do a couple of these.”

Bri Gerads, manager of the Northfield Fantastic Sams, pitched the idea for the holiday makeover at the company’s December meeting, along with General Manager Laura Paulson. With a hospital in each of the salon locations, they decided their free makeover would focus specifically on nurses.

As the nominations came in, Gerads said, “It was awesome. I was nervous at first because there really wasn’t any and then they all just came in. It was heartwarming, too, to read all the nominations.”

Gerads herself nominated her sister, Dakota Searcy, and her aunt, Kathy Gerdes, for the makeover. She said knowing how hard they have worked during the pandemic also inspired her to offer a makeover for nurses.

“My sister works at a nursing home, and one day on the phone she was telling me that seven of her residents passed away in one day,” Gerads said. “Their families can’t be with them, so I can’t imagine what that’s like.”

Nominators in general described how the pandemic has impacted their wives, sisters, mothers and friends who already dedicate hours of their time to their patients without a pandemic going on. Many nominated nurses are raising children, picking up extra hours; some are even take online classes on top of their work.

Dustin Hale, of Faribault, nominated his wife, Heather, a licensed practical nurse at Mayo Clinic Owatonna and another recovery center, for a boatload of reasons.

“She works an eight hour day and then comes home, changes, and heads to her other job for another four to five hours,” Dustin wrote in his nomination. “On top of working two jobs, she is a mother to a 2- and 6-year-old, and is doing online school to be an RN (registered nurse). So [between] working two jobs, full time school, and taking care of two kids, she doesn’t get much time to herself. She puts her patients and family first before herself.”

Heather also nominated a nurse for the makeover, Cheryl Tilseth, of Faribault.

“Cheryl always picks up extra shifts to help wherever and whenever she is needed, whether it be to work a swabbing clinic or help a coworker out,” Heather wrote. “She never asks what she will get in return, or expects anything as she is the most selfless person that I’ve ever known. She is truly an angel sent from above to help take care of every patient she comes in contact with.”

Those who missed out on nominating the nurses in their lives for the makeover will likely have a second chance. After the holidays, Gerads said she and Steele have talked about doing Nominate a Nurse again, most likely around Valentine’s Day.

Steele also shared the idea with other Fantastic Sams owners around the country and heard that locations in Texas plan to offer the same drawing.

“This won’t be the only time,” Gerads said. “It might be something we keep continuing to do. Giving back to people is just something that I like to do as a way of saying ‘thank you.’”

Private info of South Central staff, students and alum may have been hacked
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Private information of more than 13,200 South Central College staff, students and alumni — Social Security number, date of birth, address, telephone number, email address and school ID numbers — may have been hacked, according to the school.

A similar notice was posted on the Minnesota State University, Mankato website.

A notice on the colleges’ websites says they learned of a ransomware attack of the donor management software vendor, Blackbaud. The company, used by South Central College Campus foundations for customer relationship management services ,may have allowed access by an unauthorized individual to not public data on students, alumni and employees.

In July, Blackbaud, notified SCC that it had been the target of a ransomware attack, Shelly Megaw, SCC director of marketing and communications wrote in a Saturday email.

Since then, Megaw said, the college “has worked to determine what data was compromised in order to be sure we understood the extent of the breach and our notification requirements.”

Blackbaud has told SCC that the attacker did not access credit card information; any bank account information or Social Security numbers were encrypted and not accessible to the attacker. In addition, outside of scholarship application information, South Central College said it has not provided any personal information to the foundations since 2017.

Many factors were involved in the time required for notification including the complexity of determining the data that may have been compromised, and the substantial demands on resources brought about by the pandemic, said Megaw.