Dr. Deb Peterson would like nothing more than to see her 87-year-old mother. And her newborn grandson.
But she is going to wait. With coronavirus raging, now is not the time to risk a visit, even with close family members, she said.
And she would like to see everyone make those kinds of tough decisions over the coming weeks.
“We all have to make sacrifices,” said Peterson, chief medical officer at Meeker Memorial Hospital and Clinics. “If we want things to stay open to the degree they’re open, we better start doing these things now, or there will be a complete shutdown, I’m afraid.”
Minnesota Department of Health reported 7,559 new cases on Sunday in the state, one day after seeing a record high 8,689 cases reported on Saturday. That lifted the state’s total confirmed COVID-19 cases since the outbreak began to 201,795. The state has seen 2,861 deaths from confirmed cases. MDH also reported 12,443 hospitalizations, with 3,086 of those ending up in intensive care units.
As of Sunday, Meeker County had 727 confirmed cases. Meanwhile, surrounding counties were seeing even higher numbers, with McLeod County at 1,261, Kandiyohi 2,698, Stearns 9,883 and Wright at 5,025.
Those numbers — in particular, the hospitalizations and ICU numbers — worry Peterson and others at Meeker Memorial Hospital and throughout the state’s health care system.
As numbers and hospitalizations rise, the system is being overwhelmed. COVID-19 cases flooding into hospitals needing respiratory care mean fewer options for other medical emergencies.
“It’s a serious situation, and it’s hard for us as healthcare workers to get a patient in that we know needs a higher level of care and we know we don’t have anywhere to transfer them,” Ann Lien, chief quality officer at Meeker Memorial Hospital, said. “It’s awful for the families and the patient.”
Peterson said Rice Memorial Hospital in Willmar and the St. Cloud Hospital both were near capacity at the end of last week. Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis had about 60 patients in its emergency room department because there were no beds available elsewhere in the facility or other facilities, she said.
“That’s the reality of what this is doing to the healthcare system,” Peterson said. “It’s hard for families, emotional and hard for the staff (to know) there may be a delay in sending a patient to a hospital with a higher degree of care … and that can impact outcome.”
Beyond the number of COVID-19 cases showing up at hospitals is the impact the virus is having on healthcare staff. Meeker Memorial, like other healthcare facilities, has had to move staff around to cover absentees due to staff being quarantined or ill.
“It has affected our staffing levels,” Lien said. “We’ve implemented our surge plans where we are utilizing staff in areas that maybe aren’t their primary area to work. It affects all departments, including our clinics.”
These were the kinds of circumstances that healthcare officials worried and planned for in the early stages of the pandemic. They were the stresses on the healthcare system that had officials imploring the public to “flatten the curve.” And for a long time, it seemed like those measures were helping.
Suddenly, in the last couple of weeks, the numbers have exploded — to the point that Gov. Tim Walz issued new restrictions on large gatherings and on bars and restaurants, as well as encouraging people to consider much smaller, immediate-family-only holiday gatherings.
Also last week, Litchfield Public Schools Superintendent Beckie Simenson sent out a memo announcing that all district students will switch to distance learning beginning Nov. 30 through the end of the calendar year.
“I think that part of it was fatigue on the part of people,” Peterson said of the rising case numbers. “Some of it was school. But the biggest driver has been family gatherings, weddings, funerals. The combination, then getting asymptomatic people who are still out and about. It’s like wildfire.
“It’s sort of like running a marathon and being stuck at mile 22 over and over and over,” Peterson said. “They want things to be back to normal. It’s hard for them to realize that the quickest way back to normal is if we can all do this together. What I’ve tried to tell people is that for me — maybe this will sound corny — but this comes down to doing onto others as you would have them do to you and your family.”
Added Lien: “I totally agree. This is one of those things where you’ve got to make some sacrifices for the greater good.”
And — though she knows it’s not a popular idea — it is why Peterson in encouraging people to rethink their holiday plans.
“We have two huge holidays coming up here that are traditionally very family-oriented — Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Peterson said. “If we all choose wisely, we would find ways to see family virtually or visit in some other fashion.”
The coronavirus pandemic put a bit of a damper on Veterans Day observances last week, but veterans and students still found a way to salute those who have served.
The biggest local program took place in the afternoon Nov. 11 outdoors at the School of St. Philip, where members of the Litchfield Military Honor Guard offered a program that included a 21-gun salute and demonstration with explanation of folding a United States flag. Veterans also recorded a program and shared it virtually earlier in the day from Litchfield High School.
At St. Philip’s students offered the veterans a bookmark with a poem on one side that was signed by all of the school’s students on the other side.
Bars and restaurants, wedding receptions and social gatherings are the targets of new restrictions Gov. Tim Walz announced last week in answer to rising COVID-19 case numbers.
Meeker County Commissioner Beth Oberg sees the numbers, worries about public health and knew the governor was likely to act.
But as the manager of the Nelsan-Horton American Legion restaurant and bar, Oberg struggles with the plan.
“At first I thought, ‘well, it could have been worse,’” Oberg said of the restrictions announced Nov. 10. “But as I sat back and thought about it … it’s not good at all.”
The restrictions, Oberg said, are likely to have a negative effect on the lunch time business at the Legion. Many lunch regulars sit alone at the bar, which already has a socially distanced seating arrangement. The new rules forbid bar seating, so those single customers will likely take up a table themselves, impacting the number of clients who can be served over the noon hour.
“We’re going to have to figure it out,” Oberg said. “My issue with Gov. Walz is I feel it’s unfair that everybody is getting painted with the same brush. I suppose that’s how it has to be done. But these (changing restrictions) make it difficult.”
And yet, as one of the County Board’s representatives on the Meeker Memorial Hospital Board of Directors, Oberg knows the seriousness of the recent rise in COVID cases.
“From the hospital board side, I understand it, I do,” Oberg said. “It’s about the staffing, it’s community spread. It’s a tough call.”
Minnesota has seen about 190,000 cases and 2,729 deaths since the coronavirus outbreak began. State health officials announced 4,906 new cases on Nov. 10, and 6,000 new cases Sunday. Recent death counts have regularly been in the double digits, according to state data.
“We are in the midst of a significant surge,” Walz said, citing rising COVID-19 case numbers, especially among the 18- to 35-year-old age group.
Walz said the new restrictions were intended to be targeted at reducing the spread among younger people, many of whom do not show symptoms but are contagious. Those individuals are at high risk of passing COVID-19 to vulnerable groups and are the most frequent visitors to bars and restaurants.
Walz said that during previous national spikes, Minnesota was able to maintain lower infection rates than other states due to safety measures taken by residents. But during the most recent outbreak, data shows Minnesota is trending in a manner similar to other hot spots.
“That type of spread will continue unless we take mitigation measures,” Walz said.
Taking measures now, he argued, will make sure there are sufficient hospital beds to deal with COVID and other illnesses, such as during the upcoming flu season, and keep the state ahead of staffing concerns as health workers become infected.
The venues targeted in the determination are meant to curb the spread of COVID-19 where it is most often transmitted. Since June, 71 percent of spreading cases have been at private social gatherings, weddings, funerals, restaurants and bars. Risk factors identified include gatherings of friends and family who are comfortable with each other, but live in different households, eating and drinking without face coverings for an extended period of time, and gatherings where people talk loudly, laugh or sing, especially with alcohol.
BARS AND RESTAURANTS
Starting 10 p.m. Friday, bars and restaurants were not to exceed 50 percent capacity, and all indoor capacity is capped at 150 people. Dine-in service is prohibited between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. Bar counter service is not permitted unless that is the only place for service.
Walz acknowledged bars and restaurants have already sacrificed much due to COVID-19, and encouraged Minnesotans to support those businesses.
“This is going to be painful for them,” he said.
He is proposing $10 million in small business relief.
Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development Steve Grove said the precautions are necessary for the economy in the long term.
“We can’t begin economic recovery in a real sense until we get this pandemic under control,” he said.
A 50-person limit will be placed on wedding and funeral receptions, and similar events, starting Nov. 27. The limit will shift to 25 people on Dec. 11.
“The data shows a bunch of our outbreaks are coming from these types of activities,” Walz said.
He said there will be no change to weddings and funerals, as the data shows those events have not caused significant problems.
A 10-person limit will be placed on indoor and outdoor private gatherings as of 10 p.m. Friday, Nov. 13. All social gatherings will be limited to members of three households or fewer.
In a news release, Minnesota Medical Association President Marilyn Peitso said, “The governor’s action will help slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and protect the health and lives of all Minnesotans. We are seeing, firsthand, the rapid spike in COVID-19 cases. These are not just statistics, but rather these are our patients, health care professionals, our teachers, our family members, our fellow Minnesotans.”
Minnesota House of Representatives Minority Leader Kurt Daudt was less pleased with the announcement.
“These restrictions are another hit to Minnesota bars and restaurants,” he said in a statement, “many of whom have been doing everything the right way to protect the health and safety of their guests and employees. We’re very concerned for the impact this will have on these businesses owners and their hardworking employees.”
Oberg agreed with Daudt’s concern, saying that she will have to review staffing at the Legion. She was less concerned with the 10 p.m. bar curfew, because the Legion doesn’t have a lot of late-night activity, except on weekends, though she questioned how effective it might be.
“I also don’t believe … just between me and you, that the 25-year-old is going to go home and go to bed just because the bar closes,” Oberg said.
The bigger issue, she said, was the employees of the Legion, and whether or not they all will be needed as restrictions affect business.
“We have tried to stay open seven days (a week) because of the regulars that come in,” Oberg said. “I employ 20-some people, but will I need to keep 20-some people?”
Rising COVID-19 rates will force Litchfield Public Schools to transition to a distance learning model.
Superintendent Beckie Simenson announced the change in a message to district parents Friday, saying the transition would begin this week, with distance learning actually beginning the Monday after Thanksgiving.
“A growing number of our school employees are being impacted by COVID-19 isolation and quarantine, making it challenging for our school district to support school both with In Person Learning and Hybrid Learning Model,” Simenson’s message said.
The district had 38 staff members out on Nov. 11, 35 out Nov. 12 and 40 out Friday, according to Simenson. Litchfield’s total staff number is 232, giving it an average absenteeism of 8 percent.
In addition Meeker County’s COVID-19 case rate rose to 50.26 for the Oct. 18-31 reporting — a significant jump from the 35.96 rate from the previous 14-day reporting period.
“With the number of community and staff COVID-19 cases and a projected increase over the next several weeks, the district is taking planning actions to transition all in-person and hybrid students to online distance learning,” Simenson’s memo said, adding that the distance learning model will remain in effect through the end of the calendar year.
The transition to distance learning will begin this week with Ripley Elementary students and Cohort A students at the middle and high school doing in-person learning Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday and Thursday, Ripley students and Cohort B of the middle and high school will be in-person learning.
There will be no instruction on Friday, Nov. 20, or Monday and Tuesday, Nov. 23-24, to allow teachers and administration planning for online distance learning. Nov. 25-27 were scheduled as Thanksgiving holiday break days.
Online learning then will begin for all kindergarten through 12th grade students on Monday, Nov. 30.