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.