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In this 1963 photo of the Owatonna Jaycee Midget hockey team, Noel Jenke can be seen in the back row, fifth from the left with the rest of his state champion teammates. Jenke also played baseball, basketball and football for Owatonna High School and eventually lettered seven times in three sports for the Minnesota Gophers. (Submitted photo)

Area nursing homes continually challenged by COVID risk, regulations

While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to sweep across Minnesota, with more than 50,000 lab confirmed cases and 5,000 hospitalizations, its impact is being felt unequally across the state.

On Friday, the Minnesota Department of Health reported six additional deaths from COVID, bringing the state’s total to exactly 1,600 since the start of the pandemic. Forty additional deaths are considered “Probable COVID deaths,” but unconfirmed due to lack of a positive test.

In total, 1,223 of those deaths, or 76%, have occurred in long-term care or assisted living facilities, even though the vast majority of those who have contracted COVID live in private residences. Though average age of a COVID patient has decreased markedly from the start of the pandemic, with the 20-29 age bracket now having the most confirmed cases according to MDH, the average age of COVID deaths and hospitalizations has remained stubbornly high.

Recognizing the specific danger of outbreaks in nursing homes and senior care facilities, the Minnesota Department of Health began releasing comprehensive statistics on the number of cases in each facility throughout the state in April. When the data was first released, MDH reported that 47 care facilities had at least one infection. As of Friday, that number had ballooned to some 170, even though MDH earlier this month began allowing facilities with no active cases in the last 28 days to take themselves off the list.

The state’s numbers would seem to suggest that local nursing homes and care facilities have done an admirable job of keeping residents safe. As of Friday, not a single Rice County care facility was listed in the MDH’s tally.

Rice County Public Health Director Deb Purfeerst attributed that success in avoiding COVID spread to aggressive measures implemented by local care facilities, in coordination with local public safety officials.

“We have been very fortunate to have very few lab-confirmed cases in our assisted living facilities, skilled nursing facilities and group homes,” she said. “I attribute that to the measures they took early on to protect residents.”

In Faribault, Fire Chief Dustin Dienst, who’s also the city’s emergency response coordinator, has been in touch with local care facilities since the beginning of the pandemic, helping them to implement workable and effective policies within the MDH’s guidelines.

Compared to before the pandemic, residents have seen major changes in their daily lives. An assiduous regime of testing has been implemented at facilities throughout the state and group activities were initially halted and are just now starting to return with extensive precautions.

Citing the need for increased person to person contact, the Minnesota Department of Health allowed in person visits outdoors last month, but only under a set of strict guidelines. Indoor visits were allowed starting earlier this month.

Dienst said that although each care facility has a slightly different setup, all indoor visits are conducted under a very strict set of guidelines issued by MDH, including at least 6 feet of distance, masks, ample hand sanitizer and no sharing of food or drinks.

At Koda Living Community in Owatonna, Executive Director Lisa Kern said that setting up to allow family members to once again be a part of the residents’ everyday lives was a process, but something she and her staff felt was crucial.

“On [Monday] we started the new program with essential caregivers being a part of the care here,” Kern said. “It took a massive amount of time setting up the process and procedures with different data points in the facility and how we are going to work safely, but it’s something we knew we had to do and get up and running soon so that families can start to be a regular part of their loved ones’ lives here.”

Throughout the region, facilities with cases are generally few and far between. However, local facilities listed included Central Health Care in Le Center, Benedictine Court in St. Peter, Lake Shore Inn Nursing Home in Waseca, and Whispering Creek in Janesville.

Robert Benson, who serves as Director of Nursing at Whispering Creek, said that the one contracted worker tested positive for COVID during regular tests on July 15. He said that no positive tests have come up since.

In order to keep Whispering Creek’s residents safe, Benson said that the facility has taken a wide variety of steps, from increasingly relying on “virtual health care” to providing each staffer with a surgical level mask to increased cleaning.

“There’s so much we’ve done, I could write a book about it,” he said with a laugh.

Benson said he regularly participates in phone calls to learn both the latest requirements and recommendations needed to keep residents and patients safe. He said the facility has gone to particularly great lengths to ensure residents can safely see their loved ones in person.

Last month, the care facility had a “resident parade,” where residents were brought outside. Sitting at least 6 feet apart, in keeping with social distancing guidelines, they were able to see their loved ones drive by the facility.

Benson said that three outdoor stations have also been set up to allow residents to visit with their loved ones at a safe distance. A staff member oversees such conversations, in part to ensure that guidelines are being carefully followed.

Indoor visits are also possible thanks to the ample room provided in the facility’s sunroom. To help ensure that residents can hear their loved ones, grant dollars have been secured to purchase headsets.

“We’ve managed to purchase quite a few headsets for the hard of hearing,” he said. “We’re very glad to have been able to do that.”

A new committee was set up in June to help keep risk levels down among staff and residents called “Germ Busters,” which Kern said has been vital to ensuring that they are staying on top of the cleaning and screening of everyone moving about the facility.

“All the different departments have been active in helping keep everyone in our facility safe,” Kern said. “The number one thing we are doing is we’re listening to [our staff] and valuing their importance — isn’t that how we all wanted to be treated and respected?’

Director of Clinical Services at Koda Bobby Jo Nesseth said that the Germ Busters committee spends a fair amount of time getting to the root of different compliance obstacles by asking one simple question: why?

“It really makes me proud of the committee that we do our research to find what the root cause of the issue is — if you’re not keeping your make on just tell me the truth. Turns out for most of our associates they were hot, so we purchased them fans,” Nesseth said. “We noticed people not wearing their eye goggles and when we asked, they had misplaced them. So now everyone has glasses strings so their goggles can remain around their necks when they aren’t giving direct patient care.”

“We were able to become compliant by asking the simple questions of ‘why?’” Nesseth continued. “Taking that time to ask and dig made all the difference.”

Nesseth and Kern both said that by taking the time to check in with the staff of the facility has also been vital in keeping morale high and stress low in an unprecedented time that presents weekly changes.

“What we’re dealing with every day is a battle — some days are worse than others,” Kern said. “But with team building and showing our appreciation along the way, it goes a long way with how we all deal with this.”

Park clean up program kicks off next week

With many typical summertime activities remain canceled or limited due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Owatonna Parks and Recreation Department continues to report greater use of the city’s parks and trails.

With more people, however, comes more litter.

“People do a pretty decent job cleaning up after themselves, but sometimes things can just kind of get away,” said Mary Jo Knudson, the recreation supervisor for the city. “A lot of our larger, heavily used parks bring in people not from Owatonna, and they tend to have less investment in the community and might leave some stuff behind.”

For a number of years, the Parks and Rec staff have considered different ideas on how to stay ahead of the trash in the parks and trails system, hoping to keep the public amenities beautiful. Starting Wednesday, Parks and Rec will provide park clean-up kits for those who register. It’s a new program Knudson hopes will be just as popular as the parks themselves.

“I don’t see why it wouldn’t be, a lot of people are really passionate about our parks,” Knudson said.

Knudson explained that the program will work by people registering for one of the four kits every Wednesday through October. The kits will include a garbage picker, garbage bags, and a pail, and will be left outside the Park Shop with the name of the family who reserved the kit attached to each. Knudson said when the individuals are done picking up trash, they just leave the filled garbage bags by a trash can and return the rest of the kit to the office.

“This will be easy enough where people can do it on their own time at whatever parks or trails they wish,” Knudson said. “Being able to choose their time as opposed to trying to get a group to meet in a specific spot on a specific day will hopefully make it easier.”

Knudson said that there will be no deposit required to take part in the cleanup, but people will be billed for the equipment if it is not returned to the office.

“We may be able to expand how many days we run it if it becomes popular,” Knudson said. “In general, we want everyone to appreciate our parks and how nice the parks we have are.”


One dead after second fatal crash in a week

One person is dead following a fatal crash in rural Steele County on Thursday, according to the Steele County Sheriff’s Office.

At 2:20 p.m., deputies were dispatched to the 3600 block of 52nd Avenue Northwest in Deerfield Township for a two-vehicle crash involving a motorcycle and a commercial truck. Upon arriving to the scene, emergency responders found the operator of the motorcycle unresponsive. He was pronounced dead as a result of the injuries he sustained in the crash.

The other driver was not physically injured.

Also responding to the scene were the Minnesota State Patrol, Mayo Ambulance, Mayo Air Care, and the Owatonna Fire Department.

The crash remains under investigation by the Steele County Sheriff’s Office and the Minnesota State Patrol. No other information has been released at this time.

This is the second fatal accident to occur in rural Steele County in a one week’s time. On July 23, 35-year-old Danial Severson, of Owatonna, was killed in a two-vehicle crash on rural Lemond Road in what is believed to have been a head-on collision.

The other driver in Thursday’s crash was transported to the Owatonna Hospital by ambulance where he was treated and released.

Fresh off one traffic safety campaign, law enforcement embarks on another

One year after Minnesota joined 18 other states and the District of Columbia in enacting a “hands free” law, law enforcement agencies are gearing up for extra enforcement against distracted driving.

According to a release from the Owatonna Police Department, the enforcement and awareness campaign is designed to remind drivers of the importance of driving hands free. It’s coordinated by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Office of Traffic Safety.

More than 19,000 citations have been handed out by law enforcement across the state. While Minnesota previously had a law against texting while driving, the “hands free” law is much easier to enforce since motorists can be ticketed for just holding a cellphone while driving.

Under the law, Motorists are only allowed to use their cellphones while driving if they do so in voice activated or hands-free mode, regardless of whether they are using the phone for work or personal use. Smart watches are considered equivalent to a cellphone under the new law.

Motorists can still use their GPS devices while driving, but only in one-touch or voice activated mode — scrolling and typing in an address are both prohibited.

Motorists under the age of 18 are still not allowed to use their cellphone in either hand-held or hands-free mode. Only if a motorist needs to obtain emergency assistance in the face of an imminent threat to their life and safety will they be allowed to place a call in hand-held mode.

Distracted driving continues to be a major problem on roadways across Minnesota. According to the Department of Public Safety, it’s one of four dangerous behaviors that contribute to at least 80% of all crashes, along with impaired driving, speeding and failure to wear a seat belt.

Each day, an average of 215 crashes occur in Minnesota causing 81 injuries, one death and nearly $5 million in damages. Drivers who use a cellphone are four to five times more likely to be in an injury crash, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The number of motorists ticketed for violating Minnesota’s hands free law seemed to be declining - that is, until recently. In June, some 1,656 people were ticketed, an increase of nearly 500 from May and the highest total since February.

According to the press release, some motorists told law enforcement they have had a hard time breaking the habit. In a a prepared statement, Owatonna Police Sgt. Jason Petterson said that doing so isn’t just a good idea — it could save your life.

“Slipping back into old habits is easy,” Petterson said. “While going back to some old habits might make you gain weight or go into debt, slipping back into manipulating your phone while driving could cost you your life.”

Kathy Cooper of the Rice County Safe Roads Coalition urged motorists to go a step beyond the law’s “hands free” requirement by ditching their phones altogether while driving, thereby minimizing the risk of distraction.

“Hands free is not distraction free,” Cooper said. “Just because you've got your phone mounted on your dashboard doesn’t mean it’s distraction free.”

The Hands Free enforcement campaign comes on the heels of a statewide extra enforcement campaign that ended less than two weeks ago. The campaign lasted from June 22 to July 19, and during it law enforcement agencies reported 16,122 citations for illegal speed.

That total was just slightly below the previous five year average of 16,461 citations, but it’s well below the 2019 total of 21,439 citations. However, the number of speed related fatalities over the period more than doubled, from 7 last year to 15 this year.

According to DPS, speed was a factor in 75 motor vehicle deaths in 2019 and a contributing factor in 26% of single vehicle crashes. Speeding is particularly dangerous as it reduces vehicle control and increases react time and crash severity.

During the campaign, 40 agencies reported speeds of 100 mph or more, including the Rice County Sheriff’s Department, which clocked one motorist at 106 mph. The fastest motorist in the state, caught by the Blaine Police Department, was traveling 141 mph.

Faribault Police Chief Andy Bohlen said that speeding has become a major concern as of late. He said that many drivers incorrectly assume that they can get away with speeding due to law enforcement’s alleged hesitance to pull drivers over during the pandemic.

“It’s become a major problem across the state,” he said.

Cooper praised local law enforcement agencies for diligently watching out for speeders, even though she said they did not receive the extra funding reserved for the departments with the highest number of citations.

Still, Cooper said she is deeply concerned by the high number of speeding citations handed out throughout Rice County. She said that she fears many people don’t realize how dangerous speeding can be, even if it’s not coupled with other impairing factors.

“Speed limits are there for a reason,” she said. “TZD is putting out a lot of effort to try to change the opinions of drivers, so they understand how dangerous speeding is.”