Meeker County businesses, public health, hospitals, schools and others are gearing up to battle novel coronavirus (COVID-19) as it spreads throughout Minnesota.

With 60 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Minnesota as of noon Tuesday, South Central Healthcare Coalition, which includes Meeker County Memorial Hospital and others, is preparing to combat COVID-19 in the south-central region. Members of the coalition include healthcare organizations, public health agencies, hospitals, emergency management, long-term care facilities, public safety, educational institutions and others. 

“Meeker County residents need to know that … the group is in constant communication,” Marc Vaillancourt, vice president of Meeker Memorial Hospital, said about the coalition’s effort to confront COVID-19. “And then that coalition is working closely with the Minnesota Department of Health, which in turn is working closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention."

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness known to have originated in Wuhan, China, where it first appeared at a seafood and live animal market, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The World Health Organization declared on Jan. 30 the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern. 

Symptoms of COVID-19 are like the flu, but if people believe they’ve been exposed to COVID-19 and develop signs like fever, cough or difficulty breathing, they should call their medical providers, according to the CDC.

“We’re basically sending out information to the community keeping them informed (about COVID-19), asking them to stay home if they are experiencing fever, cough,” said Theresa Koehler, a registered nurse and infection preventionist for the Meeker Memorial Hospital.

“If they’re thinking that they need to be seen, we're asking that patient to call ahead to the clinic,” Koehler said. “And so, therefore, we're not exposing the clinic staff, the patients that are within the clinic, to a potential person who meets some of these criteria. … A lot of the people, the cases that they're seeing, is that they can be managed at home because it's a virus, you just manage your symptoms.”

On Tuesday, Meeker Memorial announced in a news release that it was canceling all elective surgeries for the next 90 days. The decision, the release said, follows current recommendations from the American College of Surgeons, United States Surgeon General and Minnesota Hospital Association.

"We are dedicated to the continued care of all patients who are experiencing a broad range of urgent/emergent care needs," the release said. "The health and safety of each and every patient continues to be a priority."

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz on Sunday declared a state of emergency, which limits large gatherings like concerts, performances, conferences and sports. And on Monday, he took the additional step of ordering the closure of restaurants and bars to public, beginning 5 p.m. Tuesday through 5 p.m. March 27.

“The safety and well-being of Minnesotans is my top priority, and we are working around the clock to combat the spread of COVID-19,” Walz said on March 13. “I am declaring a peacetime emergency in Minnesota to ensure the state is able to respond more rapidly to issues as they arrive. We’re looking to the future and preparing for the next chapters of this pandemic as it continues to evolve.”

Mitigation strategies that Gov. Walz urged Minnesotans to follow include: 

  • canceling or postponing large events that exceed more than 250 people;
  • ensuring space for the social distancing of six feet per person at smaller events and gatherings;
  • limiting gatherings with participants at higher risk for the severe disease to fewer than 10 people.

Meanwhile, the CDC on Sunday recommended that for the next eight weeks, organizers — groups, individuals, schools, workplaces and community locations — should cancel or postpone in-person events consisting of 50 or more people throughout the United States.

As of Tuesday, 2,336 people in Minnesota had been tested for COVID-19, with 60 testing positive. Those positive tests came in Anoka, Benton, Blue Earth, Carver, Dakota, Hennepin, Olmsted, Ramsey, Renville, Stearns, Waseca, Washington and Wright counties, according to Minnesota Department of Health. Total confirmed cases in the U.S. as of Tuesday were 5,204 with 92 deaths and 17 recoveries, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. 

The growing spread prompted health facilities in the area to increase safety protocols, including limiting access.

“We are no longer allowing visitors at Meeker Memorial Hospital,” Dr. Deb Peterson, chief medical officer for Meeker Memorial Hospital, said about COVID-19 in a news release on March 12. “After careful consideration, we made this difficult choice because our top priority must be the safety of our patients, staff and communities.” 

Visitors impacted by the policy include the patient’s family and friends, students and others, except for patient family members under special circumstances as unstable or critically ill patients, parents of minors and end-of-life patients. In addition, expectant mothers who are admitted to the Childbirth Center are allowed one adult visitor.

Older adults, people with serious chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and lung disease are at a higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19, according to the CDC. As a result, Ecumen of Litchfield took measures to prevent the virus from affecting senior residents in its facilities. 

“It's essential to take these measures because this disease most dramatically impacts older adults — the people we serve,” Sue Lee, a chief communications and marketing officer, said in a news release. “We're enforcing social distancing, restricting interactions with others, and handwashing.” 

Lee added that visitors are allowed only to those who need to visit, in which case visitors would be screened upon entry. 

“We're asking family and friends to stay connected by video chat, phone, text and email,” Lee said. “Simultaneously, we continue our focus on infection control and prevention, following CDC guidelines. We are singularly focused on preparedness for this disease."

Litchfield School District on Sunday canceled classes beginning Monday until March 20. The decision came after Gov. Walz announced a statewide closure of schools beginning Wednesday, March 18, as a precautionary measure in response to COVID-19.

In an email delivered to district parents Sunday afternoon, Superintendent Beckie Simenson said, "Our leadership team met today to discuss the many challenges related to this closure and we are prepared." 

School buildings will be secured, and school will be canceled through Friday, March 20, and there will be no student learning — including no distance learning, eLearning or blizzard bags during that time. The district will also be on spring break from March 23 to 27.

All other school-related functions also will be canceled, including all Community Education activities, according to Simenson's letter. The school building offices will be staffed Monday from 7:45 a.m. to 3:45 p.m., and parents and guardians will be able to pick up necessary medications, supplies from lockers and band instruments.

"This situation is fluid," Simenson wrote, and the district will continue communication through its Campus Messenger smartphone app, the district website and its Facebook

Meanwhile, the district is cleaning everything thoroughly, Simenson said in an interview last week, prior to school closure. 

“We made sure that all the cleaning supplies that we have are the ones (that are recommended),” Simenson said. “And right on there, it says it will take care of the coronavirus. And we're cleaning the high traffic areas, desks, door handles — all of that on a regular basis.”

“If we were to close, my understanding is it would be for a short period of time for us to do deep cleaning of all the buildings, and then get kids back in the schools as soon as possible,” she continued. 

Other entities also were considering the potential threat COVID-19 presented, including churches.

Bishop John LeVoir on Friday released Catholics in the Diocese of New Ulm from the obligation of attending weekend Mass.

"Given the rapid spread of the COVID-19/coronavirus and to minimize the risk of contracting or spreading infection, I am dispensing the faithful from the obligation of attending Mass on Saturday evening or Sunday for the next three weekends," LeVoir said in a statement released Friday morning.

The bishop's decision covered March 14-15, 21-22 and 28-29.

"If the faithful decide to gather for Sunday Mass would constitute a risk for themselves or others, they have the freedom not to attend," LeVoir said.

Masses did happen throughout the diocese, including at Church of St. Philip in Litchfield, St. John's in Darwin and Our Lady in Manannah, this past weekend. However, the sacramental communion traditionally delivered through a common cup was not part of the service.

LeVoir encouraged Catholics to "remember that Sunday is still the Lord's day and should be kept holy," and offered activities such as listening to Mass on the radio or television, pray during the normal service time or pray the rosary for the faithful to participate.

Gov. Walz unveiled a package of legislative proposals to prepare Minnesota’s health care system and provide relief to those affected by the COVID-19. Walz is requesting immediate assistance from the Legislature in creating a COVID-19 emergency fund, removing financial barriers for Minnesotans who need to be tested, expanding the use of paid sick time, and providing long-term care facilities with more resources.

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