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Ray’s Lake — Crappie

Mike Smith, of Mankato, shows one of many crappies he caught to his sister, Mary Blaubasch, of Waterville, Sunday, April 5 at Rays Lake in Elysian. (Pat Beck/St. Peter Herald)

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St. Peter native takes dispatching work to Antarctica

Apparently Minnesota just isn’t cold enough for Kris Sack.

The St. Peter native recently returned from an expedition to Antarctica, where she worked as a dispatcher for a makeshift town, filled with scientists, documentarians, and more emergency personnel. And while it was actually summer when she was there from September to February, and some days were actually warmer than back in her hometown, she hopes to return as soon as possible — potentially during the Antarctica winter when temperatures are more like negative 30.

Kris Sack loved her first experience in Antarctica, and she hopes to return sooner, rather than later.

“It kind of gets in your blood,” Sack said of her desire to return.

A winding road

Sack is 33 now and lives with her husband James in St. Peter. She was raised in town by parents Ken Gansen and Cheryl Guentzel, both still in town, along with her brother Karl Gansen, who is now in Texas. She stuck around into her 20s, starting at John Ireland Catholic School, then St. Peter High School and then Minnesota State University, Mankato.

But after college, she set out for the world.

“I’ve always enjoyed traveling and seeing what the rest of the world is up to,” she said.

Her first faraway destination was Japan. She taught as a boarding school teacher there. Then she was in Alaska, working as a resort waitress. And then Texas, where she worked in hospice. Everywhere she went was something brand new.

“I loved doing that type of thing,” Sack said. “A new opportunity each place.”

Ultimately, she found a reason to settle down in her husband James. He is from Janesville, and the two decided to make a home in St. Peter in 2011. Sack then moved into her newest career as a 911 dispatcher for the Nicollet County’s Sheriff’s Office in 2012.

“I had always been interested in law enforcement and corrections, so I found this,” she said. “I loved doing it. I love that each day is different, and you get to know that you’re helping. I still got to travel a lot because of our days off. It is high stress, though; you never know what’s going to be on the other end of the phone.”

Eyes looking elsewhere

Sack first thought about heading to Antarctica a decade ago while working in Alaska. The company she worked for had a contract there, and she applied and even got an interview, but didn’t get the spot. She later saw a Facebook post that they were hiring dispatchers there; the person who posted was joking, but Sack thought, “I could do that.”

So when she took up her position in Nicollet County, she was soon applying for positions in the desolate continent.

“I think I applied for 45 jobs total,” she said. “I didn’t care what I was doing, just as long as I could get down there. It just seemed like such a unique opportunity. I love the thought that so few people in the history of mankind have had that experience.”

Kris Sack was part of a 911 emergency dispatch team at Ruffin Island in Antarctica.

As for her husband?

“He came to accept that this is his wife,” she said with a laugh. “He has been very, very supportive, and there is definitely no way I could’ve done this without him.”

To the ice

Sack eventually landed a job as a dispatcher at the town fire house, working for the Antarctic Fire Department – quite a resume item. One might not think that there is a lot to do as a fire team for an ice covered tundra, but one might be surprised.

Even Antarctica needs a local fire department.

“A lot of the fires we had were just little ones from cigarettes in trash cans and stuff like that,” Sack said. “They have had big ones, though.”

She added, “We were also in charge of the different research groups in the field. We had to know where everyone was if they left the station.”

Sack was located on Ruff Island, which is on the foothills of a volcano, so it’s very hilly. It’s covered with snow and volcanic ash. She essentially lived in a small town. It had a hairdresser, a coffee house and two and a half bars.

“It was kind of like a military base or an old mining town,” she said.

The town is actually a research station, so scientists are coming in to work on a variety of projects, whether it be studying penguins and glacier activity or using machines to gauge atmospheric pressure.

“We were really fortunate to be exposed to so many interesting projects,” Sack said.

She might even be a television/streaming star soon. The BBC and National Geographic film crews stopped by, and they filmed the dispatch team for two hours, as part of Frozen Planet 2. One of the episodes will focus on the people who work in extreme conditions, and Sack might be included.

“I’m hoping so,” she said.

Outside of work time, Kris Sack and her colleagues were able to do some Antarctic exploring.

Outside of working hours, Sack got to explore. She saw plenty of penguins and seals and a number of animals you aren’t likely to see in your typical southern Minnesota backyard.

“It really was awesome,” she said.

There were a few downsides – like lack of access to high quality food and cooking options – and Sack missed her husband and dogs back home, but overall, the experience was “fantastic,” she said. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic may complicate her efforts to return, but if all goes to plan, Sack will be returning as soon as possible.

“I can’t wait to go back,” she said.

Regional hospitals begin furloughs; River's Edge maintains full staff

The announcement of pending furloughs at two of the state’s largest hospital systems is the latest sign that Minnesota hospitals are suffering financially in the wake of COVID-19.

Mayo Clinic on Friday announced pay cuts and furloughs for some staff beginning later this month, while Allina Health employees in non-patient care and indirect patient care roles are being required to take least one mandatory furlough in one-week increments beginning Sunday. Employees can use PTO or vacation time to cover the time off. Allina employees in direct patient care roles will be asked to participate in a phased approach to training and redeployment.

And on April 8, Northfield Hospital and Clinics said its senior staff and directors are taking a 10% pay cut and that some staff will be placed on temporary leaves of absence. The cuts are to manage losses of $1 million a week brought on by COVID-19, NH+C said in a statement. While the changes are expected to be re-evaluated at the end of May, the announcement came before Gov. Tim Walz extended the stay-at-home order through May 4.

River’s Edge in St. Peter, though, is maintaining its staff levels for now. Chief Experience Officer Stephanie Holden said the hospital is doing whatever it can to maintain full staff. Right now, leadership is cross training the team to keep the workload up and to get more staff prepared to care for various patients.

When we look at our financials, what will be losing (financially) is pretty minimal, we think, compared to not having staff here when we need them,” Holden said.

For Northfield Hospital, which, similar to River’s Edge, is operated independently but owned by the city, the cut to elective surgeries has been a major source of hurt. River’s Edge is also impacted by that cut, but Holden noted the hospital also doesn’t have the expenses that come with surgeries, and the hospital is able to maintain for now.

“At this point, we haven’t done any layoffs or furloughs. It is really our intent to keep staff here, because we know we’ll need them,” Holden said.

Regional difficulties

Mayo Clinic, a world-renown facility based in Rochester, operates several southern Minnesota hospitals, including those in Mankato, New Prague and Waseca. It also operates a system of clinics throughout south central Minnesota and a standalone radiation treatment facility in Northfield. Allina Health’s system includes Abbott Northwestern in Minneapolis as well as Faribault’s District One and Owatonna hospitals and a clinic in Northfield.

In their statements, both Mayo Clinic and Allina Health noted the unprecedented challenges and significant financial pressures brought on by the pandemic, but added that the cost cutting is needed to ensure their overall and long-term sustainability.

“The decision to proactively postpone elective patient care was the right one, but it eliminated the majority of our revenue at the same time we are making critical investments to develop and expand testing, conduct research to stop the pandemic and realign our facilities and care teams to treat COVID-19 patients,” read a statement from Mayo Clinic.

In the statement, Mayo leaders say employees will receive full pay and benefits through April 28, and that temporary furloughs of some staff and salary reductions will be required after that.

Clinic officials have declined to comment further.

Virus impact

As of Friday morning, 57 Minnesotans have died from the virus, the total number of cases statewide stood at 1,336. The death toll nationwide has topped 16,000.

In a Wednesday conference call, Minnesota Hospital Association President and CEO Rahul Koranne said hospitals around the state are in a “dire financial crisis.” Earlier this week, the Minnesota Hospital Association announced hospitals in that state are losing about $31 million per day after eliminating elective surgeries and focusing capacity and supplies on COVID-19 response.

The revenue loss represents a 55% reduction of patient revenue, on average. Smaller hospitals are reporting closer to 70% revenue reductions. The loss is expected to remain consistent over the next 90 days for a $2.8 billion impact.

MHA member hospitals are spending an estimated $13.3 million per day to purchase equipment and supplies and to make physical and technological upgrades that will allow them to handle a surge of coronavirus patients. Over 90 days, those additional expenses are expected to total $1.2 billion.

“The analysis also accounted for offsetting revenues as COVID-19 cases increase,” according to MHA. “With an estimated shortfall from reimbursements, hospitals and health systems will experience over $120 million in uncovered patient-related costs. In total, this will result in approximately a $2.9 billion cash flow loss over the next 90 days.”

As Koranne did earlier in the week, Mayo Clinic lauded the work of health care providers.

“Mayo Clinic staff are doing extraordinary work leading in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We are proud of and committed to our staff and our communities as they come together to fight this global health crisis.”

But even that hasn’t been enough to stave off the financial effects of the global pandemic.

“We will work with our teams in the coming weeks to ensure that our staff are supported, that the duration of this disruption is as limited as possible, and that we are ready to ramp up quickly and resume full operations when it is safe to do so.”

4.16 Gustavus Peru 5

Gracie Willaert is a lifelong St. Peter resident.

Health officials confirm first death due to COVID-19 in Nicollet County

The Minnesota Department of Health reported April 9 the first confirmed death of a Nicollet County resident due to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The death occurred April 9 in a Nicollet County resident in their 90s.

“Our hearts go out to the family of the patient who died,” said Cassandra Sassenberg, Nicollet County Health and Human Services director. “As COVID-19 continues to spread in Minnesota, we must all do what we can to keep each other safe, especially those who are most vulnerable.”

According to the MDH, there has been one congregate care facility in Nicollet County impacted by the virus: Oak Terrace Assisted Living in North Mankato. Drew Hood at Oak Terrace confirmed to the St. Peter Herald that the death in Nicollet County was associated with Oak Terrace.

He added, “All long-term care communities should be concerned for ongoing cases of COVID-19. This is not something that can be easily contained due to individuals being asymptomatic and the latency of onset of symptoms. Anyone who thinks that they have the situation under control’ would be making a mistake. If the MDH models are correct, the peak may not come until July. We will remain vigilant and are prepare for the marathon. We have been following MDH and CDC guidelines from the beginning and even implemented visiting restrictions several days prior. We are proud of the response we had dating back to March 12. I am thankful to work with a staff that has stepped up to the occasion and continues to do a great job. I am thankful for the support from the residents and families that we serve.”

Minnesota officials on Wednesday reported 87 deaths tied to COVID-19, up eight from Tuesday, as the number of people in intensive care jumped to 93, up from 75. Nearly 200 people are hospitalized.The total count of cases since the pandemic began hit 1,809, with just over half recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.

The case in Nicollet County was the first confirmed COVID-19 death of a resident in the immediate area. In reporting the death, the Nicollet County Public Health team also shared some steps that everyone can take to slow the spread of the virus, including:

• Limiting your movement in the community beyond essential needs.

• Wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies). These help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others. It does not protect you from others who may spread the virus.

• Practicing personal protective measures (e.g., keep social distance when in public and wash hands frequently, especially when in public spaces).

Gov. Tim Walz has put in place a stay-at-home order in effect until May 4. This order directs Minnesotans to limit movements outside of their homes beyond essential needs, like buying groceries. By limiting social interactions, we decrease the chance of transmission of COVID-19 and help our health care sector prepare for increased demands.

“As we know, there are some important holidays and nicer weather approaching,” said Nicollet County’s Health Promotion and Prevention Supervisor, Bree Allen. “This is a time many of us travel to see family and friends and socialize outside. This situation unfortunately serves as a reminder of the importance of limiting those interactions. It isn’t just about protecting ourselves. It’s about helping and protecting other people.”

If you need assistance finding food, paying housing bills or other essential services, dial 2-1-1, 651-291-0211 or 1-800-543-7709 or Text ‘MNCOVID’ to 898211 and a Certified Community Resource Specialist from the United Way will help to locate available resources in your area. If you are living alone or isolated and wish to make telephone contact with a Nicollet County staff member, please call 507-934-8550.

More information about the coronavirus situation in Minnesota can be found on MDH’s Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) webpage. A state hotline for the public is open seven days a week, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The hotline number is 651-201-3920.

Reach Editor Philip Weyhe at 507-931-8567 or follow him on Twitter @EditorPhilipWeyhe. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.