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Jon Weisbrod / By JON WEISBROD jweisbrod@owatonna.com 

Blooming Prairie seniors Kaden Thomas, far left, Gabe Hagen, center, and Karson Vigeland joist the MSHSL Section 1-A championship trophy following the Awesome Blossoms’ 59-51 victory over Hayfield on Thursday night in Rochester. (Jon Weisbrod/People’s Press)


External, isolated COVID-19 testing sites set up across southern Minnesota

In an effort to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19, the Mayo Clinic Health System is in the process of setting up drive-through screening sites across southern Minnesota.

If a patient is symptomatic or believes they’ve come in contact with the virus, they’re required to call their clinic ahead of time and work out a plan for if and where they can be tested.

The region’s first drive-through setting was launched Wednesday in Rochester, at the same time that the provider was developing its own test to detect the virus in clinical samples, typically collected via oral and nasal swabs. According to Dr. Jason Wray-Raabolle, chair of primary care for the Mayo Clinic Health System in Owatonna, these specimens are currently being processed internally but may also be sent to the Minnesota Department of Health laboratory in the future.

Owatonna clinic president and CEO Dr. Brian Bunkers said things are in the works to have a drive-through screening site set up in Owatonna in the near future. While he wasn’t able to comment on the specific location, he noted that it would be external and would likely be a tent that patients will be able to drive under to have their specimen collected — similar to what is currently set up in Rochester.

“Our staff will be wearing personal protective equipment and will then come out and obtain the specimen via nasal swab, and then the patient will leave,” said Bunkers, noting that the method of testing may change over time. “We’ll have to get them registered and perform some computer work, but the idea is that the patient won’t come into the building.”

Wray-Raabolle added that the goal is to have test results ready in 24 hours or less and that patients will be able to be notified of next steps either via phone or the clinic’s online portal system. For those with more severe symptoms, Bunkers said the clinic is working with the Owatonna Hospital and Steele County Public Health to manage patients.

In addition to Rochester, sites have been set up in the communities of Fairmont and Mankato, and another is in the works in New Prague for next week according to Amanda Dyslin, senior communications specialist with the Mayo Clinic Health System.

Dyslin noted that, while there are or will soon be drive-through screening sites in these cities, they will not necessarily be on medical campuses. With concern over privacy and the need to call in advance of coming to the drive-through, she said the exact locations will be shared with patients only if and after their primary care provider determines a test is needed.

Wray-Raabolle added that testing also continues to be a possibility outside the context of these new drive-through operations.

“Testing is currently being done on patients that meet the criteria, where we have the capability to ensure safety for patients and for staff,” he explained. “Right now, that could be in an emergency department and our screening and our current processes are getting patients to where that can occur.”

All patients requested to call ahead

Phone screening is required to be able to use the drive-through locations and, as of Friday morning, is also necessary in order to set up most appointments throughout the Mayo Clinic Health System.

“We want all patients to call and have an appointment — whether that is just a laboratory visit, whether it’s for the same-day clinic,” said Bunkers. “That’s a big change, because we have a walk-in function [in Owatonna] now and we have to change that to protect our community.”

Wray-Raabolle added that this new system is especially important for patients with respiratory symptoms, who may be turned away if they show up in person without calling first. Bunkers noted that the decision to have everyone seeking care, for coronavirus-related symptoms or any other reason, call before coming in was made early Friday morning in an attempt to limit the spread of the disease.

In a March 13 news release, Allina Health announced visitation restrictions also aimed at containment. According to the statement, sick people are not allowed to visit patients, children younger than 12 years old are not allowed to visit, all patients are limited to two visitors per day and no visitors are allowed in to see persons under investigation or with confirmed cases of COVID-19. For many of these measures, there are exceptions that can be granted and patients’ children or other family members are not classified as visitors — these individuals can be at the clinic with the patient.

COVID-19 is transmitted primarily via respiratory droplets when an infected person sneezes or coughs, but can also be passed along on infected surfaces according to the CDC. As of March 13, there were 14 cases in the state confirmed by the MDH, out of 555 patients tested.

Peacetime emergency

In a press conference Friday afternoon, Gov. Tim Walz declared a peacetime emergency in the state, which he likened to opening the toolbox without taking anything out. The recommendations made by Walz and MDH Commissioner Jan Malcolm were to cancel or postpone large events of over 250 people, and limit gatherings of those at high-risk for a severe iteration of COVID-19 to less than 10 people. This at-risk group includes seniors and people with pre-existing medical conditions such as diabetes, heart and lung disease.

State officials did not make the recommendation to close schools, although the executive order will allow Walz more power to make similar decisions as the situation evolves.

“This executive order has the force of law for five days. At that time, the executive council will have to meet and, if they vote to continue it, it will continue for 30 days,” he told reporters. After that point, the state Legislature would need to come together to end the peacetime emergency.

As Minnesota continues to see more instances of the disease statewide, providers are reiterating that anyone experiencing the primary symptoms of COVID-19 — fever, coughing and shortness of breath — should call their primary care provider to explain their situation and decide if and how they should get tested.

“What we’re really encouraging patients to do is to be screened over the phone, call local clinics or call the emergency department after hours,” added Betsy Spethmann, director of community relations for the Northfield Hospital and Clinics.

She added that facilities in her system have signage advising people who have upper respiratory conditions, symptoms or fever to go back to their car and call from there to decide on next steps for care.

For those in the Mayo Clinic Health System, Wray-Raabolle explained that patients should call their normal clinic and will be directed on appropriate measures from there, which may ultimately include drive-through screening if recommended by a provider. He added that additional resources have been allocated to the phone lines, in an attempt to reduce wait times.

The CDC advises those with emergency warning signs of COVID-19 — including difficulty breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion or inability to arouse, and bluish lips or face — to take immediate action in getting medical attention.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.


Public health officials advise older residents to limit gatherings, visitors

While for many, cases of the new coronavirus COVID-19 may include only mild respiratory symptoms, age and underlying health conditions put certain demographics at risk for more severe reactions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Basing their conclusions on information that has come out of China, where the virus was first identified earlier this winter, older adults and those with chronic medical conditions like diabetes and heart and lung disease may be more susceptible to falling seriously ill after contracting COVID-19.

As of Friday, the agency was recommending that people in this demographic stock up on supplies — including both prescriptions and over-the-counter medications, notably those that can help treat fever. The CDC also recommends having enough groceries on hand to be able to stay home for a period of time.

In a press conference Friday afternoon, Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm didn’t recommend that people refrain from going to the grocery store or running errands, but advised limiting gatherings of individuals at a higher risk of severe symptoms to 10 people or less.

The announcement came as part of Gov. Tim Walz’s peacetime emergency declaration, which will last for five days and then at least another month, if approved to continue by an executive council.

In addition to limiting large gatherings and exposure to crowds, Amy Caron, director of Steele County Public Health, advised at-risk residents living at home to limit visitors. “Maybe ask people ahead of time if they’ve had a fever, shortness of breath or persistent coughing in the last 48 hours and, if so, really consider delaying the visit.”

For individuals no longer living alone, many area senior and assisted living communities have taken steps to restrict visitation to the facility in an effort to combat the disease’s spread.

“We’ve limited social visitation by family members unless there’s a medical reason, and we’re also screening all those that do come into the building for any signs, symptoms or travel to high-risk areas,” said Teresa Hildebrandt, executive director of the Benedictine Living Community of St. Peter. “We’re doing that campus-wide.”

The southern Minnesota facility has skilled nursing, assisted and independent living areas, and is operated through the Benedictine Health System, which also runs the Koda Living Community in Owatonna and is currently constructing a facility in Northfield.

Hildebrandt added that family members didn’t seem surprised by the new requirements when she first reached out, attributing this to the prevalence of information on the arrival of COVID-19 in Minnesota. As of Friday afternoon, there have been 14 cases confirmed by the MDH, with the majority in the Twin Cities metro and one reported Wednesday in the Rochester area.

Hildebrandt said her facility started enacting restrictions Thursday, following a call with the MDH earlier this week.

“We’ve been on a lot of various calls with our corporate offices and the MDH,” she added. “I think all long-term care providers have followed suit and we’re all doing pretty much the same thing.”

Having worked in the field for more than 30 years, Hildebrandt said these limitations differ from what’s been done in the past during intense bouts of influenza in that there’s no set end date. She added that the facility has shifted activities to take place in small groups and one-on-one bases in order to avoid larger gatherings.

“If we’re not allowing visitors to come in, we want to make sure that [residents] have other events and things going on to maintain that socialization,” she noted, “because it’s hard on them not to see family and friends.”

Leslie Lovett, MDH emerging infections unit supervisor, noted that in addition to avoiding large gatherings and crowds, those at higher risk should also refrain from non-essential air travel and going on a cruise.

COVID-19 is transmitted primarily via respiratory droplets when an infected person sneezes or coughs, but can also be passed along on infected surfaces, according to the CDC.

After taking the necessary precautions — including frequent handwashing, disinfecting commonly-touched surfaces and maintaining a six-foot distance in prolonged interactions — she noted that individuals will also want to make a plan for if they do contract COVID-19.

In addition to talking with their primary care provider to stock up on necessary medications, she added this also means making a plan with a family member, friend or neighbor in the event of an emergency. Lovett advised identifying backup caregivers as well, in the event that others fall ill.

“The first and best thing people can do if they have older family members or loved ones that they’re providing care for is to avoid visiting when they’re sick,” said Lovett. “They definitely need to identify someone else that can provide that care when they’re sick and until their symptoms are resolved.”

For more information on COVID-19 symptoms, spread and treatment, visit the CDC’s website at www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov.

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.


Jeffrey Jackson / By JEFFREY JACKSON jjackson@owatonna.com 

Gov. Tim Walz speaks during a press conference on Friday, March 13, 2020, announcing “community mitigation strategies” intended to slow the spread of the COVID-19. He’s joined by Attorney General Keith Ellison (left). (Evan Frost/MPR News)


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Minimizer announces Tony Henningson as new Chief Financial Officer

BLOOMING PRAIRIE — Following its acquisition of a successful Oregon-based heavy-duty truck manufacturing company, Minimizer is adding to its senior team by hiring a new chief financial officer. T

he Blooming Prairie-based company, which is in the process of relocating to Owatonna, announced on Tuesday that Minnesota native Tony Henningson will be joining its executive team.

“Tony brings nearly 30 years of finance and management experience and will play a crucial role in facilitating and implementing our growth strategy,” said Christopher “CT” Thorpe, the president and CEO of Minimizer.

Previously, Henningson served as vice president of finance for KTM North America in Murrieta, California. He has also held leadership roles at Pillsbury, Polaris, Genmar, and PBH Marine Group.

“This is an amazing opportunity with an exceptionally strong manufacturing company possessing industry-leading products and a solid growth strategy,” Henningson said. “I couldn’t be more pleased about joining the Minimizer team.”

Henningson added that he believes his experience, capabilities, and aspirations are what qualify him to provide the financial leadership required as Minimizer enters its next phase following the purchase of Premier Manufacturing and through the transition of relocating to Owatonna’s industrial park. He also stated that the acquisition of Minimizer by Capital Partners in 2018 led him to pursuing the CFO position.

“I’m impressed by the Minimizer team and strategic alignment displayed throughout the organization, from Capital Partners to individual employees,” Henningson said. “Employees are passionate about the products and proud to be a part of this amazing company.”

“They are genuinely willing, able, and excited to contribute to Minimizer’s future success,” he continued. “I absolutely share this excitement.”

The announcement comes as the third big piece of news from the truck fender and heavy-duty trucking parts manufacturer in the recent seven months. In August, Minimizer announced that they will be relocating to Owatonna to enhance the company’s long-term growth plan, which includes officially closing the doors to their facilities in Blooming Prairie, where the company was founded more than 30 years ago. In January, Minimizer acquired Premier Manufacturing, that latter of which will continue to operate in their current home of Tualatin, Oregon, about 20 miles outside of Portland.

Minimizer currently employs 83 people with a total payroll of approximately $4 million per year.