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Owatonna High School graduate and University of Nebraska redshirt freshman, Peyton Robb (right), circles the mat against Iowa’s Kaleb Young during the Big ten Championships in Piscataway, N.J. on Saturday, March 7. (Photo courtesy of the University of Nebraska)

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County attorneys, sheriffs and jails take extreme measures in COVID-19 crisis

In a rare balancing act between public safety and public health, the Steele County Court system has released seven low-risk detainees from the county jail in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“At this point, the only people who have been released are people who were allowed to get out during the day anyway to go to work and those with other low level, non-violent offenses,” said Steele County Attorney Dan McIntosh on Wednesday.

As of Monday, five inmates who were serving work-release sentences had their time furloughed until the COVID-19 pandemic begins to subside, as well as one inmate who had a low-level drug charge and an additional inmate who had been sent to treatment and couldn’t be accepted by the facility, also due to COVID-19 restrictions.

“If people are showing up with very low-level warrants such as a traffic violation or misdemeanor theft, we are having judges quash those warrants and giving them a new court date,” McIntosh added. “We really think it’s the movement in and out of the facility that is the most risky right now, so we are trying to limit any entry to jail. It’s the best we have come up with right now, and the plan may have to change in the future.”

The discussion of keeping more people out of jails, which could be a prime breeding ground for the spread of the novel coronavirus, has circulated throughout Minnesota for the last week as the number of COVID-19 cases continue to rise. The state Public Defender’s Office has called for early release of non-violent offenders since the weekend, adding that two jails in southern Minnesota have each had one inmate with a confirmed case of the virus.

The Minnesota Department of Corrections suspended visitors at its facilities last week, while local jails have also been banning face-to-face visits.

“We are basically on total lockdown,” said Mitch Overn, the Le Sueur County Jail administrator. “We have stopped work release and any programs coming into the jail. There is nobody coming in to this facility and we aren’t accepting any inmates from other facilities unless that have been incarcerated for a minimum of 14 days, but we are trying to go up to 21 days for that.”

Overn, who has worked in jails for more than 20 years, said he’s never experienced anything remotely close to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the Le Sueur County Jail, located beneath the Le Sueur County Justice Center that includes courtrooms and court administration, Overn said they are taking full advantage of the eight-cell facility by spreading everyone out and implementing social distancing.

“We are trying to keep our square footage per inmate rather high,” Overn explained, adding that they are fortunate to have a fairly low inmate population at this time. The county has also released two minimum security, non-violent inmates as well and is trying to prevent additional low-level, non-violent inmates from being booked.

“Our lesser offenses, such as driving after suspension, we’re not bringing them to jail and are instead giving them their summons at the scene,” Overn explained. “In the case of a first-time DWI, instead of bringing them in, we are finding a sober person to take them home, which isn’t completely out of the ordinary.”

Overn added that every new arrest that is made and needs to be brought in to the jail follows a screening process, including a two-page questionnaire that is asked by both the arresting officer and the jail staff.

Rice County is going through similar motions in an effort to keep not only its detainees but its jail staff safe and healthy.

“When they come into the jail we check them for symptoms, and based on what we find if they meet the criteria of potential risk or are showing symptoms, we put them in an area away from the general population,” said Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn. “We are looking at our jails I think similar to how the Department of Health is looking at the care facilities. You have people in close proximity and you have staff working with them. You don’t want this to spread throughout your facility or infect your staff.”

In an effort to help keep the staff safe, the jail personnel has access to N95 masks, which effectively protects the wearer from airborne particles and liquid, as well as their other personal protection equipment such as gloves and eyewear that they always have on hand. Staff is also instructed to follow stringent guidelines to help prevent any cross contamination.

“I am very proud of our staff,” Dunn said. “The jail staff have been very patient and understanding with us, as well as our patrol and investigation personnel. We have to continue to provide public safety, but we want to keep ourselves safe, too.”

Rice County has not yet released any low-level, non-violent inmates, but the sheriff’s office is working with the county attorney to see whether anyone can be furloughed or released early, depending on the time already served.

“It’s a very limited amount of people we can do that with,” Dunn added. “We want to make sure we are not allowing our dangerous offenders out there who are going to recommit or possibly harm others or themselves. We haven’t released anyone yet, but we are going through the process with the courts to file the proper motions and are working with the attorneys of the detainees.”

Another important measure that could greatly lessen the chance of COVID-19 exposure to the jail is the implementation of ITV in lieu of in-person court appearances. Dunn, president of the Minnesota Sheriff’s Association, said he’s long advocated for the video system as a way to save taxpayer dollars over transporting prisoners jailed in another county. Today, it could make a huge impact on slowing the spread of COVID-19.

“If we continue to see an increase [in COVID-19], I think we might have to look at possibly implementing ITV and work with our IT department to see how we can make this happen,” Dunn said.

The Minnesota Supreme Court recently issued an order that relaxed the requirements for conducting hearing by video, which has allowed Steele County to begin the process of rolling out ITV capabilities, according to McIntosh.

“We have a number of people who need to be seen and that could be done by video,” McIntosh explained, saying that this will help limit COVID-19 exposure for both the jails and the courthouse staff. “We also have a secure area where a defendant can speak with their attorney through glass. If we do have to transfer people to the courthouse, we will do each inmate separately so we aren’t packing multiple people in one vehicle.”

“We’re trying to protect the well-being of the jail staff, the inmates, the courthouse staff, and my staff,” he added. “We’re doing the best we can with the understanding that nothing is 100% right now.”

McIntosh added that unless things were to take a “grave turn for the worse,” he anticipates that the court operations will continue to proceed, though they are currently only hearing the high-priority cases in an effort to limit traffic in and out of the courthouse. The Minnesota Judicial Council released a statement last week stating that courts will remain open, but will exercise a limited court service case priorities list for high and super high priority cases for the time being. Other cases will be suspended for two weeks.

“The constitution clearly states that we must provide access to justice, and we don’t want to deny anyone their constitutional rights,” said Robin Hoesely, court administrator for Steele County. “We have been busy contacting people to let them know the status of their hearings, we have lots of inquiries from parties wondering about their cases, and we always have word to do on cases and documents being filed.”

The Minnesota Judicial Branch released a statement on Tuesday discouraging the public from making any non-essential visits to court facilities. In an effort to limit that, the court system put a temporary stop on late penalties, collections referrals, and drivers’ license suspensions effective March 16 for 30 days.

Dunn announced Wednesday that he will be limiting the Rice County Courthouse, restricting the access just for people that have a court case, to witnesses, and to those testifying in a case to help limit the exposure coming in to the facility.

Also on Wednesday afternoon, the Steele County Board of Commissioners declared a State of Emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Le Sueur County declared a State of Emergency earlier in the day.

Steele County, City of Owatonna declare State of Emergency

OWATONNA — During Tuesday night’s Owatonna City Council meeting, the voting process took a little longer than usual as a roll call vote had to be taken for every action item to accommodate the two council members attending the meeting via video chat.

Council members Kevin Raney and Dave Burbank joined the rest of the council using the Microsoft Teams video conferencing and online meetings software, something new to the City. City Administrator Kris Busse stated that this was an effort to explore options that will help apply the social distancing guidelines set forth to flatten the curve of COVID-19 cases. Neither Raney or Burbank were in a self-quarantine, but simply were helping test the new software.

“Our next meeting might look different,” Busse explained. “We might have more council members using video. We might be in a different location. We will have to see what will be best for us.”

States of emergency

The video conferencing was only one of the necessary measures the city council took Tuesday night in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The council unanimously approved the resolution declaring a State of Emergency, an act that is meant to be a proactive measure to ensure that the city’s resources are prepared, available, and used appropriately during the global pandemic.

The Steele County Board of Commissioners followed suit on Wednesday afternoon during an emergency board meeting.

Mike Johnson, the emergency management director for Steele County and the Owatonna fire chief, stated that he first requested a State of Emergency from both local governments on Monday, citing the impact the pandemic is sure to have on the local services as the primary reasons.

“This authorizes me to go through and implement our emergency operations plan and start working with others to address the issues of this pandemic,” Johnson explained. “We’re working within our city and county departments to identify our essential functions, what we have to do, what services we have to provide, and who the essential personnel are.”

The local government boards had to take action to declare and official State of Emergency within 72 hours of the verbal agreement on Monday.

Elective care suspended

Johnson was joined by local medical professionals at the city council meeting, including Dr. Brian Bunkers from the Mayo Clinic and Amy Caron, director of Public Health for both Steele and Dodge counties. Caron also attended the emergency commissioners meeting on Wednesday to go through a briefing with the board surrounding the State of Emergency.

“We are preparing for a very large influx in COVID-19 testings in the next week or two,” Bunkers explained. “As of [Tuesday], we have suspended all elective care at the clinic.”

As a part of the response to the COVID-19 crisis, the entire Mayo Clinic Health System and all Mayo Clinic Nationwide have decided to defer elective surgeries, procedures, and office visits. Semi-urgent, urgent, and emergency care will continue in clinic and hospital settings.

The decision was made to ensure the safest possible environment for patients and staff, as well as a way to free up resources to assist in Mayo Clinic’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Dr. Amy Williams, Dean of the Practice for Mayo Clinic.

Slow the spread

Caron explained to both the city council and the board of commissioners that it is crucial that efforts be made to slow the spread of the virus so as not to overwhelm the health care providers. She stated that it is most concerning that there are now confirmed cases of COVID-19 being community spread in the state, versus spread through contract with those who traveled.

“We are surrounded right now,” Caron said, addressing the six confirmed cases in southeast Minnesota. “Right now we are not trying to contain the virus. We are trying to slow the spread.”

Caron added that though President Trump is suggesting that groups be limited to no more than 10 people, she is suggesting that there be no group meetings in Steele or Dodge counties for the time being.

“We really don’t want people congregating right now,” Caron added. “We really don’t know enough about this novel virus yet, things are really complicated and not black and white, so it’s important that you stay home.”

Caron also explained the process of what would happen if there was a confirmed case of COVID-19 in Steele County. She said that once Public Health receives confirmation from the Minnesota Department of Health that the individual would be put in a legal household quarantine for two weeks — meaning they would not be allowed to leave their house for any reason. Caron added that they would ensure that the person have access to groceries and any necessary medications they may require.

People who the infected person may have been in contact with would be placed in a soft or self-quarantine, also for two weeks, though those persons would be allowed to leave the house to run errands — such as grocery shop — though only during times were the stores would be less busy.

When Raney asked about the cities that are currently shutting down on both the east and west coast, and if it was just a matter of time before cities in Minnesota would have to do the same, Caron responded that all the different measures being put in place are an effort to avoid such a scenario.

“That is why now is the time to slow the spread through social distancing and staying at home,” Caron explained. “We have a fighting chance right now.”

During the Steele County Board of Commissioners meeting, the board also adopted a policy that would allow county employees to utilize paid leave during a public health emergency. This includes a person who may have a confirmed case of COVID-19 being allowed to accrue a negative balance of the equivalent of up to 10 days of paid sick leave or PTO for an absence from work due to infection or to care for a family member of their immediate family who is infected.

The policy also allowed an employee to use any form of paid leave to care for their children in the case that schools are shut down due to a public health emergency. Prior to the policy, employees only had the option of using their vacation or PTO time.

Steele County also announced that they would be closing certain county facilities off to the public in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. The facilities include the administration center, the annex building, community corrections, the public works facility, the landfill office, and the Four Seasons Centre. These buildings will be closed off to the public beginning at 7:30 a.m. on Thursday, March 19, until Friday, April 17, at 5 p.m.

The landfill will still be open and the Steele County Courthouse will continue to provide services on a scheduled basis.

Commissioner Jim Abbe was not in attendance at the emergency meeting.

Census counts for colleges, young children challenged by coronavirus

While another global pandemic, H1N1, was winding down ahead of the last U.S. Census, novel coronavirus COVID-19 is on the rise and continuing to spread as the 2020 count gets underway — posing outreach challenges for local organizers, while also potentially leading more residents to take advantage of this year’s online form.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the Minnesota Department of Health had confirmed 77 cases of the disease statewide, and Census liaisons across southern Minnesota have canceled remaining kick-off and in-person informational events in compliance with public health officials’ advice to forego large gatherings.

A respiratory illness that can cause everything from mild symptoms to death, COVID-19 is spread primarily through close person-to-person contact when respiratory droplets are emitted via coughs or sneezes.

With cases in Blue Earth, Nicollet, Olmsted and Waseca counties, local government employees say they’re trying to balance their roles as Census liaisons with all of the added preparations necessary to try and halt the spread of the disease — including in some cases closing municipal offices to the public, adapting to working remotely and providing regular updates to residents.

“We’re still putting the word out, but it’s kind of getting put in the background with everything that’s been going on,” said Mark Blando, Census liaison and director of the Owatonna Public Library. “Our library was a place where people could come to get help filling out the online Census and of course, with us and many other libraries being closed, that’s a vital link in the chain that’s been put on hold.”

With delays to how easily people are going to be able to access the Census and concern over spreading the virus through face-to-face interactions, the U.S. Census Bureau has also announced that it will be adjusting its own timeline somewhat.

According to a statement Wednesday from U.S. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham, field operations will be suspended for two weeks until April 1.

“The Census Bureau is taking this step to help protect the health and safety of the American public, Census Bureau employees, and everyone going through the hiring process for temporary census taker positions,” said Dillingham, adding that his agency will continue to monitor the situation during suspension and communicate any additional adjustments, as needed.

According to the bureau’s website, invitations to respond should be received via mail between March 12 and 20. These will contain additional information on how to complete the Census either online, over the phone or by mail. Responses help determine electoral districts, congressional representation and the allocation of federal funding to communities across the country based on population.

With the additional challenges now posed by COVID-19, organizers in southern Minnesota are attempting to find other ways to continue their outreach. While households are asked to provide data valid on April 1, the Census can be completed after the fact and field workers are currently planning to follow up in person for those who haven’t submitted a form from May through July.

Adjusting information campaigns

One of the main challenges for local Census liaisons in light of COVID-19 has been how to continue to spread the word about the decennial count when in-person gatherings are discouraged by public health officials and many public institutions are closed due to the disease’s spread.

“We were planning to have a kick-off event for the Census. We had planned for it to be an indoors event, and now that has been shelved and we’re kicking some other ideas around,” said Gary Sandholm, Census liaison and economic development coordinator for the City of Waseca. “We may have some kind of a drive-by event where people can pick up relative information, but it’s going to be tougher to deal with staying within the protocol of the city’s personnel policy and people’s comfort level.”

Sandholm added that the kick-off is typically an opportunity for the city to provide more information on what the Census is and especially how the data is used, a fear for many individuals in filling out the questionnaire. The form will ask about the number of people living in each household and solicit biographical information for each to try and establish statistics about race, ethnicity and family make-up.

According to the bureau’s website, the agency can only use responses to produce statistics — which then are used to determine things like federal funding and the number of seats each state has in the U.S. Congress. The website notes that it is not able to publicly release responses in a way that identifies an individual or household and adds that all web data submissions are encrypted and all paper responses destroyed after processing.

“Personal information is not given out to anyone or any other government agencies, so people don’t have to worry about personal information being used in a way that would be detrimental to them,” said Sandholm.

The Faribault Daily News reported on March 10 that Minnesota is currently on pace to lose one of its eight Congressional seats based on 2019 Census estimates, according to analysis by political consulting firm Election Data Services. The article goes on to say that the state likely won’t lose the district by much, and a slightly higher than anticipated count this year could save it.

Young children, extra tenants often missed

Still, providing household data can make many wary — or confused about how to count each person staying with them — leading to demographics that are historically under-counted around the region. Julie Anderson, executive director of Transitional Housing of Steele County, said one of these underrepresented groups tends to be people “doubling up” in rental properties where they are not on the lease.

“People don’t want to disclose the fact that they’re housed there for fear of getting kicked out,” said Anderson. “They’re hiding from the landlord and they’re probably working, but aren’t making enough to have their own place.”

Another challenge for many of her clients, Anderson added, is that families who share custody are sometimes unsure which guardian should count a child. According to the bureau’s website, people should be counted where they live and sleep the majority of the time — and residents of all ages should be included.

Related confusion has led children ages 0 to 5 to be one of the most under-counted groups, according to Charlotte Carlson, co-chair of Northfield’s Complete Count Committee. Like similar volunteer groups in communities across the United States, Carlson’s team has been working to raise awareness about the Census, particularly by setting up face-to-face informational sessions and meetings with harder-to-reach demographics.

“We’ve been meeting with basic education classes, English as a second language classes, a parent group for Head Start, staff at HealthFinders Collaborative. We’ve suspended all of that activity now,” she explained.

Before schools entered a temporary closure period from March 18 to 27, she noted that her committee was able to deliver stickers saying “Count Me” for teachers to distribute to younger students as a way to remind families to provide information on this oft-omitted group.

“We had planned to do that all along, we just had to move it up a couple days,” said Carlson.

Counting colleges during closures

On the other end of the academic spectrum, many local colleges moving classes online for at least a good part of the remaining term has led to another outreach challenge for the Census. Because they spend the majority of their year at school, university students should be counted in their college’s town at either their on- or off-campus residence.

Barbara Luker, executive secretary with the City of St. Peter, said local Census organizers are working with administrators at Gustavus Adolphus College to make sure students know that they should be counted in town, even though many will be back home this spring as the institution conducts the remainder of the semester via online learning.

“At Gustavus, the majority of students live on campus … that’s why we’re going straight through the college,” said Luker. “Now that students have gone home, the school is reaching out to them and saying, ‘For Census purposes, you’re being included here as your home.’”

The U.S. Census Bureau announced over the weekend that it would be postponing early nonresponse follow-up operations, which target households near colleges and universities in order to find students before they leave for the summer, from April 9 until April 23. Regular follow-up operations, where field workers go door-to-door reminding individuals who have not yet responded to do so, are currently set to take place from May through July.

Assisted living encouraged to go online

Like college dormitories, nursing homes are termed “group quarters” by the Census, and data is frequently collected and shared by administrators as opposed to each individual resident.

“We were contacted a couple months ago about the Census and we made plans right away that we would be submitting all that data online by April 1,” said Lisa Kern, executive director of the Koda Living Community in Owatonna.

While group quarters have multiple options for completing the Census, Dillingham said in a March 15 statement that the bureau is working on contacting all administrators who have requested an in-person visit, asking them to consider responding online or by having forms dropped off and picked up instead.

With the arrival of COVID-19 in southern Minnesota and the heightened vulnerability of their clients, some assisted living facilities are also having trouble finding the time to complete the Census while also responding to and preparing for the virus. Furthermore, many have heavily restricted the number of external visitors allowed to come into the facility.

“Dealing with this crisis has been at the forefront of every day, from the time I get here to the time I go home,” noted Daniel Jacobsen, director of Oak Terrace Assisted Living in Le Sueur. “We’re more than happy to assist in whatever way we can, but right now we’re just trying to make sure they’re healthy and taken care of.”

While the Census asks about household make-up as of April 1, residents across the state will also be able to respond later this spring before field workers come for in-person reminders from May to July to homes that haven’t yet submitted an answer. For more information, or to complete the questionnaire online, visit www.census.gov or contact local city officials with additional questions.

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.

OPPastewart / By ASHLEY STEWART astewart@owatonna.com 

On Tuesday, Allina Health, which operates the Owatonna Hospital, pictured here, and Mayo Clinic Health Systems announced significant restrictions at its facilities in hopes of curbing the spread of coronavirus. (People’s Press file photo)