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Jon Weisbrod / By JON WEISBROD jweisbrod@owatonna.com 

Stelter with Gophers (2017)

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Owatonna Library begins curbside pickup Monday

Local readers will be able to get their hands on physical books once again, when the Owatonna Public Library prepares to open for curbside pickup starting Monday.

Library Director Mark Blando said that while the timing lines up with Gov. Tim Walz encouraging more businesses to open for curbside pickup that day, the library staff have been working toward this option since first closing the facility to the public in March.

“It’s been a long time coming and it’s just good to finally be able to do this for our library users,” Blando said. “This is the first step toward an eventual reopen.”

Blando said that even prior to the stay-at-home order, the library staff began going through a deep cleaning process that included cleaning the shelves and going through materials that were extra worn — things he said they don’t normally have time for when they are busy serving its patrons. While they have been able to promote their online and virtual services, including e-books and audiobooks, Blando said it was always the plan to figure out how to get their physical materials available for consumers.

“We wanted to make sure we had the process in place and safety equipment in place before providing that open,” Blando said, saying that having access to personal protective equipment — or PPE — was a top priority. “The safety of our staff as well as the public is the most important thing to me, but now that we have everything in place we’re ready.”

Beginning next week, the library opens for curbside pickup from noon to 4 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Requests can be made online via the library catalog at selco.ent.sirsi.net/client/en_US/owat or by calling 507-444-2460 and speak to a staff member or leave a voicemail. Library staff will contact individuals when their requests are ready and schedule a pickup time in increments of half hours to help limit crowds. People picking up requests are asked to approached the Broadway entrance during their appointed time slot and wait outside for a staff member to open the door, allowing in one person at a time. The library staff are requesting that people wear a face mask during pickup.

“It’s probably going to be a little bit of trial and error at first,” Blando said. “Hopefully soon everything will become a routine, and if the demand is great enough those hours might be expanded.”

With returning materials, Blando said that they are utilizing the open area in the library to quarantine different materials while they wait to be sanitized. While this could mean that certain books or DVDs may have longer wait periods to be checked out again, they are ensuring that precautionary step is taken to protect public health.

“We will be keeping a sharp eye on our hold levels, and if it looks like something is really popular and that we could need more copies that is definitely something we will do,” Blando said. “The Owatonna Library staff is just really excited to be providing more to our patrons. It’s a small step, but it’s a start.”

Blando said that he believes now more than ever people will be drawn to the “escapism” that is reading, adding that he hopes through providing an additional service to the public that they will be able to help the people they serve cope with the current chaotic state of the world.

“You can put away the worries and concerns of the world for however long you bury yourself in a book,” Blando said. “It’s great entertainment in a time where sports and other actives are canceled, but books never go out of style and we will never cancel book season.”

Find more information on the library’s curbside pickup program at the Owatonna Public Library‘s Facebook page and the library website, ci.owatonna.mn.us/190/Library.

The Blooming Prairie Branch Library, a branch of the Owatonna Public Library, will also be opening for curbside pickup next week, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Requests can be made by calling 507-583-7750 and individuals will be called when their materials are ready.

Electrical apprentices finding fewer on-the-job training opportunities

As training director for a regional electrical apprenticeship program, Andy Toft is normally busy taking on new applicants this time of year, as temperatures rise and construction ramps up.

This spring, he’s first trying to find work for 39 laid-off apprentices — over one-fifth of the program’s total enrollment.

“We take applications year-round,” said Toft. “Then every couple months we run a test on algebra and reading, and that leads to an interview. [Applicants] get an interview score, and that places them on our eligibility list. When I have a contractor looking for an apprentice and I have no apprentices laid off, I go to that new hire list.”

A union-affiliated program, apprentices are overseen by the South Central Minnesota Electrical Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee, which consists of representatives from both the local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the National Electrical Contractors Association.

A five-year, 8,000-hour program, apprentices are required to attend 180 hours of classroom training each year and then complete their on-the-job training requirement by working full-time with a contractor. Corresponding wages are calculated on a sliding scale of a journeyman’s going rate.

While unemployment often continues for apprentices late into the winter — a time that many use to complete necessary classroom hours — Toft said it’s unusual to not be taking on new apprentices come spring, another side-effect of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“There are less projects, there are several projects that have been pushed back,” he added. “[Customers] don’t want different people coming and going, and that’s cut back on the number of locations where my apprentices can work.”

Serving as president of the Southeastern Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council, Nate O’Reilly is in constant contact with 16 different affiliate craft unions — each with their own apprenticeship or training program. While he said the pandemic has impacted all members in some way, it has varied by trade.

“Some have got a massive amount of work with some contractors, and they’re bringing new apprenticeships on yet. Other affiliates, depending on how diverse they are within different sectors in the industry, have seen a slowdown or a downturn because of things hitting the pause button,” said O’Reilly.

Like Toft, he added that many construction jobs have been put on hold, the ripple effect being fewer positions open for new apprentices.

Variations by trade

As with the electrical apprenticeship program, O’Reilly added that many trades tend to do more classroom training in the winter when construction isn’t as heavy — meaning that many journeymen who need to renew certifications annually may not need to worry about adjusting plans during the pandemic.

“With our training center, we’re the busiest in late November through March or April,” said Sheldon Steele, business manager for the local affiliate of the Laborers’ International Union of North America. “I would assume that the majority of our members have had the chance to get those classes in, if they needed them.”

In addition, Steele said the training program is working on getting online classes up and running within the next couple of weeks. Compared to other trades’ apprenticeship programs, he added the process for admitting new laborers is a little different.

“We don’t set a limit,” he said. “Typically, a contractor will hire an individual off the street and then we ask them to join the laborers union once a contractor decides that they’re going to keep him around.”

While Steele added that a number of private projects have been on hold, and that he also has full-fledged journeymen waiting for work, laborers who are doing highway and other road construction should fare slightly better this summer.

“On the roads and bridges, they’re able to keep their distancing and that part of the construction world for us is just getting started,” he said.

Focus on classroom component

Lacking any clear solution except time, Toft said his apprenticeship program is just trying to get participants through the classroom component and keep them up-to-date on industry standards. Even if apprentices are able to finish all their necessary hours this spring, he added that the state licensing test is on hold. For those that are currently laid off, Toft added that they — like many — can get on unemployment insurance, which pays roughly 50% of wages.

“They don’t get any more benefits going into their retirement or their health plan, but we are able to bank hours for our health plan,” he added.

While O’Reilly said that there are several grants and funding channels available for training programs, many are designed for pre-apprenticeship or apprenticeship readiness initiatives. In early April, the U.S. Department of Labor announced the availability of $42.5 million in Youth Apprenticeship Readiness grants to support enrollment of young adults ages 16 through 24 in new or existing registered programs.

Meanwhile, Toft and Steele both say their union-affiliated training programs tend to attract slightly older workers.

“We took in 49 apprentices, and my average age this year was 27,” said Toft. “There’s a fair amount of second- and third-career people out there looking for a profession where they can get a skill, get a license and make a decent living.”

While he added that many enrollees are currently in a holding pattern, waiting for more jobs to open up, he’s hopeful that the electrical apprentices will be able to get back on the job site in the near future.

“The industry has always gone up and down. Our hope is that it will come back. It will, by the sound of things — it just might take a while,” said Toft. “Unless building stops … electricity isn’t going anywhere.”

With a number of construction jobs on hold due to COVID-19, many apprentices are facing a lack of on-the-job training options to round out their required program hours. In this photo taken in July 2018, Nikki Pettitt, left, and Julie Mauer, both of Austin, Minn., stack boards while dismantling their wood framing project during apprentice training at the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters Rochester Training Center. (AP)

Local hospital officials: Expect fewer face-to-face appointments after COVID-19

Local hospital officials believe the health care changes brought by COVID-19 will forever alter health care delivery.

The comments came during a health care roundtable hosted Thursday by 2nd Congressional District Rep. Angie Craig, DFL-Minnesota. The briefing was intended to provide updates on the implementation of federal relief packages and protecting front-line workers. Discussion came the same day Gov. Tim Walz extended Minnesota’s stay-at-home order until May 18.

Northfield Hospital and Clinics President and CEO Steve Underdahl told Craig doesn’t expect virtual health care to significantly diminish once the pandemic passes. Instead, he believes providers will question the necessity of face-to-face appointments.

Underdahl said a limiting factor in virtual visits could be the divide between broadband access in exurban Northfield compared to the surrounding rural area.

Underdahl added that NH+C has made progress on testing but has been experiencing blowback from the community for not doing enough tests. In response to that, he said NH+C is following Minnesota Department of Health testing guidelines

The health system is forgoing elective surgeries to focus on responding to COVID-19 and preventing transmission of the disease. Underdahl said although this is necessary, it is financially unsustainable over the long term. To combat that dramatic drop off in revenue, the health care system has successfully requested federal funding.

In addition, Underdahl has noticed an increase in 911 calls as people who were wary of being seen for non-respiratory illnesses are starting to become more comfortable in doing so.

Emergency medicine doctor Deepi Goyal, chief medical officer for the Mayo Clinic Health System in southeast Minnesota, credited the governor’s relatively early implementation of a stay-at-home order as to why the state has seen a slower spread of COVID-19 than other states.

He spoke highly of the testing work the Mayo Clinic has done. The hospital system struck a deal with the University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic to test as many as 20,000 people per day.

Mayo has seen a 40% decrease in volume when factoring in virtual care. In the wake of this extensive revenue loss, Goyal believes that hospital payments will be critical, especially as care systems have rapidly pivoted to treat coronavirus.

That focus has been deemed necessary but is pausing research into non-COVID 19 health matters. To combat that change, Goyal suggested health organizations continue receiving National Institutes of Health funding and approve cost breaks for others who haven’t received funding. He also called for ensuring widespread broadband is available so patients can connect to telemedicine.

According to those on the call, coronavirus has had an impact on other aspects of their jobs. Burnsville Fire Chief BJ Jungmann said medical emergency calls have decreased, partially due to limited clinic visits and a decrease in vehicle crashes. However, the department is seeing a rise in mental health calls and assaults.

Red Wing C.A.R.E. Clinic Director Julie Malyon said her health care organization is responding to people seeking dental care who are unaffiliated with a dental office, including some in life-threatening situations.

Cottage Grove Fairview Clinic Family Medicine Physician Jennifer Kaiser said video visits are being reimbursed at a higher rate than telephone appointments, andthat health systems can charge the same amount for such appointments as they do for in-person visits. To her, there needs to be a reimbursement shift so health systems can stay alive as they combat the loss in elective surgeries.

Craig, who spent more than 20 years working for a health care manufacturing company, agreed that the pandemic will permanently change the nation’s health care system. To her, the pandemic has exposed the weakness of the fragmented U.S. health care structure.

Also this week, Republican 1st District Congressman Jim Hagedorn led a bipartisan coalition of House members in a letter to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar advocating that the Trump administration utilize the Provider Relief Fund, established by the CARES Act, to provide appropriate support to rural health care providers as hospitals cope with dwindling revenue.

The letter has received support from the Minnesota Hospital Association, Gunderson Health, Avera Health and the Mayo Clinic.

“Initially, $30 billion was expeditiously disbursed from the fund based upon traditional fee-for-service Medicare payments; however, this formula fails to accurately reflect the funding streams for many rural providers,” the lawmakers wrote. “By excluding Medicare Advantage and Medicaid payments, many rural providers did not receive adequate funding to help cover losses. With this in mind, we appreciate the work you and your team are performing to address these issues for future distributions, and we urge you to establish an updated guidance as quickly as possible.”

aharman / By ANNIE GRANLUND agranlund@owatonna.com 

Early Friday afternoon, the Owatonna Fire Department responded to a fire at Colonial Manor on Wilson Avenue. Responders on the scene stated that the fire appeared to have started outside of a residence and was quickly extinguished. An officer stated that there were no injuries. A neighbor reported that the occupant of the home escaped with his dog and son through a bedroom window. This is an ongoing report and more information will be updated as it becomes available. The Owatonna Police Department and Mayo Clinic Ambulance also responded to the scene. (Annie Granlund/People’s Press)