While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to sweep across Minnesota, with more than 50,000 lab confirmed cases and 5,000 hospitalizations, its impact is being felt unequally across the state.

On Friday, the Minnesota Department of Health reported six additional deaths from COVID, bringing the state’s total to exactly 1,600 since the start of the pandemic. Forty additional deaths are considered “Probable COVID deaths,” but unconfirmed due to lack of a positive test.

In total, 1,223 of those deaths, or 76%, have occurred in long-term care or assisted living facilities, even though the vast majority of those who have contracted COVID live in private residences. Though average age of a COVID patient has decreased markedly from the start of the pandemic, with the 20-29 age bracket now having the most confirmed cases according to MDH, the average age of COVID deaths and hospitalizations has remained stubbornly high.

Recognizing the specific danger of outbreaks in nursing homes and senior care facilities, the Minnesota Department of Health began releasing comprehensive statistics on the number of cases in each facility throughout the state in April. When the data was first released, MDH reported that 47 care facilities had at least one infection. As of Friday, that number had ballooned to some 170, even though MDH earlier this month began allowing facilities with no active cases in the last 28 days to take themselves off the list.

The state’s numbers would seem to suggest that local nursing homes and care facilities have done an admirable job of keeping residents safe. As of Friday, not a single Rice County care facility was listed in the MDH’s tally.

Rice County Public Health Director Deb Purfeerst attributed that success in avoiding COVID spread to aggressive measures implemented by local care facilities, in coordination with local public safety officials.

“We have been very fortunate to have very few lab-confirmed cases in our assisted living facilities, skilled nursing facilities and group homes,” she said. “I attribute that to the measures they took early on to protect residents.”

In Faribault, Fire Chief Dustin Dienst, who’s also the city’s emergency response coordinator, has been in touch with local care facilities since the beginning of the pandemic, helping them to implement workable and effective policies within the MDH’s guidelines.

Compared to before the pandemic, residents have seen major changes in their daily lives. An assiduous regime of testing has been implemented at facilities throughout the state and group activities were initially halted and are just now starting to return with extensive precautions.

Citing the need for increased person to person contact, the Minnesota Department of Health allowed in person visits outdoors last month, but only under a set of strict guidelines. Indoor visits were allowed starting earlier this month.

Dienst said that although each care facility has a slightly different setup, all indoor visits are conducted under a very strict set of guidelines issued by MDH, including at least 6 feet of distance, masks, ample hand sanitizer and no sharing of food or drinks.

At Koda Living Community in Owatonna, Executive Director Lisa Kern said that setting up to allow family members to once again be a part of the residents’ everyday lives was a process, but something she and her staff felt was crucial.

“On [Monday] we started the new program with essential caregivers being a part of the care here,” Kern said. “It took a massive amount of time setting up the process and procedures with different data points in the facility and how we are going to work safely, but it’s something we knew we had to do and get up and running soon so that families can start to be a regular part of their loved ones’ lives here.”

Throughout the region, facilities with cases are generally few and far between. However, local facilities listed included Central Health Care in Le Center, Benedictine Court in St. Peter, Lake Shore Inn Nursing Home in Waseca, and Whispering Creek in Janesville.

Robert Benson, who serves as Director of Nursing at Whispering Creek, said that the one contracted worker tested positive for COVID during regular tests on July 15. He said that no positive tests have come up since.

In order to keep Whispering Creek’s residents safe, Benson said that the facility has taken a wide variety of steps, from increasingly relying on “virtual health care” to providing each staffer with a surgical level mask to increased cleaning.

“There’s so much we’ve done, I could write a book about it,” he said with a laugh.

Benson said he regularly participates in phone calls to learn both the latest requirements and recommendations needed to keep residents and patients safe. He said the facility has gone to particularly great lengths to ensure residents can safely see their loved ones in person.

Last month, the care facility had a “resident parade,” where residents were brought outside. Sitting at least 6 feet apart, in keeping with social distancing guidelines, they were able to see their loved ones drive by the facility.

Benson said that three outdoor stations have also been set up to allow residents to visit with their loved ones at a safe distance. A staff member oversees such conversations, in part to ensure that guidelines are being carefully followed.

Indoor visits are also possible thanks to the ample room provided in the facility’s sunroom. To help ensure that residents can hear their loved ones, grant dollars have been secured to purchase headsets.

“We’ve managed to purchase quite a few headsets for the hard of hearing,” he said. “We’re very glad to have been able to do that.”

A new committee was set up in June to help keep risk levels down among staff and residents called “Germ Busters,” which Kern said has been vital to ensuring that they are staying on top of the cleaning and screening of everyone moving about the facility.

“All the different departments have been active in helping keep everyone in our facility safe,” Kern said. “The number one thing we are doing is we’re listening to [our staff] and valuing their importance — isn’t that how we all wanted to be treated and respected?’

Director of Clinical Services at Koda Bobby Jo Nesseth said that the Germ Busters committee spends a fair amount of time getting to the root of different compliance obstacles by asking one simple question: why?

“It really makes me proud of the committee that we do our research to find what the root cause of the issue is — if you’re not keeping your make on just tell me the truth. Turns out for most of our associates they were hot, so we purchased them fans,” Nesseth said. “We noticed people not wearing their eye goggles and when we asked, they had misplaced them. So now everyone has glasses strings so their goggles can remain around their necks when they aren’t giving direct patient care.”

“We were able to become compliant by asking the simple questions of ‘why?’” Nesseth continued. “Taking that time to ask and dig made all the difference.”

Nesseth and Kern both said that by taking the time to check in with the staff of the facility has also been vital in keeping morale high and stress low in an unprecedented time that presents weekly changes.

“What we’re dealing with every day is a battle — some days are worse than others,” Kern said. “But with team building and showing our appreciation along the way, it goes a long way with how we all deal with this.”

Reach Reporter Andrew Deziel at 507-333-3129 or follow him on Twitter @FDNandrew. © Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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