The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Meeker County announced this week is bound to bring a heightened sense of awareness and worry for some.

But Meeker Memorial Hospital stands ready to meet the local challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic, according to members of the administration and emergency preparedness team.

In a sense, the staff and administration have been preparing for it for nearly two decades.

“The past 20 years there has been a lot of work being done that has been supported by the federal government to prepare for emergency … be it chemical (or) infectious disease,” said Ann Lien, chief quality officer at Meeker Memorial.

The emergency planning and training has been in place since the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks among many agencies, including the South Central Coalition, of which Meeker County is a member, Lien said.

And the threat of a pandemic has been talked about and planned for in some corners even longer than that.

“Mike Osterholm has been talking about this for 30 years,” Lien said of the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “We were overdue.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, Minnesota had 689 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 17 deaths, with an estimated 21,191 completed tests by either the Minnesota Department of Health or external laboratories, according to the MDH website. The state also had 342 cases in which the patient no longer needed to be isolated. Worldwide the virus had infected nearly 1 million people and killed more than 46,000.

Those numbers can be frightening, even to health care professionals, acknowledged Marc Vaillancourt, vice president of development and operations at Meeker Memorial Hospital.

“Like everyone in the community, our staff are experiencing all of the emotion all of us are having,” Vaillancourt said. “Key staff are getting ready to address this on the front line, while at the same time thinking about preparations they have to make at home. Like everyone else, we’re concerned about how this will affect our families.

“Through all of that, our staff remains committed to the mission of the organization,” he added. “At the end of the day, all of our staff have chosen to be in this profession and are here to care for and serve in our community. We do that to a ‘T.’” Everyone is ready for this.”

The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Meeker County sets in motion additional action steps for the hospital.

“We are in incident command all day long,” Vaillancourt said. “Up to (Monday, it has been planning), when COVID-19 appears in our county, what will happen next? We are going to be ready for the surge. (The confirmed case) clearly allows us to move forward and continue more intentionally to finalize details around the surge plan.”

Meeker Memorial Hospital’s preparation has been based on data from the South Central Healthcare Coalition, which serves Meeker, McLeod, Blue Earth, Brown, Faribault, LeSueur, Martin, Nicollet, Sibley, Waseca and Watonwan counties. The coalition’s members include hospitals and clinics, public health, emergency management, emergency medical services, as well as long-term care facilities, fire, police and non-governmental agencies and business.

The South Central model is based on 20 percent of the population having or being affected by COVID-19, Vaillancourt said. With Meeker County’s population of about 23,000, that would mean 4,000 cases of COVID-19. Most of those cases (3,000-3,200) would be mild, 560 severe, and 200 would be “critical,” requiring some sort of hospitalization, potentially intensive care.

“We planned based on that (scenario),” Vaillancourt said. “The reality is, our facility is a 35-bed hospital … 25-bed critical access.”

Part of the preparation was to look at “all the space in the facility and look at how we could care for the maximum number,” Vaillancourt added. “If the surge hits and all models come to fruition … (it) would require us to leverage the resources we have in the region, in the state in order to care for people in our county.”

Alternate care sites have been investigated, including other hospitals in the region.

In addition to hospital beds, the planning has included attempting to ensure enough personal protective equipment, or PPE, for doctors and nurses.

“As part of daily operations, we are constantly managing PPE,” said Nicole Siegner, MMH chief financial officer. “As part of our mandate, we are required to have certain things in place (and) actually ramped up purchasing on a number of PPE items we consider most critical.”

Still, Vaillancourt said, “We are like every hospital in the state, every hospital in the country. As the surge comes, PPE will become an issue. It is a nationwide issue … not enough PPE, not enough beds, ventilators.”

But hospital staff and administrators feel that businesses, organizations and individuals in the community have their back, Vaillancourt said.

“I will say that our community, countywide, has been exceptionally gracious to us,” he said. “We have had offers to sew cloth masks. We put out a call a week ago for people with scrubs (and) people were willing to donate. And organizations, companies emailing, calling, saying ‘hey, we’ve got 10 N95 masks. That happens on a daily basis.

“It’s the beauty of living in the community we live in. We have generous people who keep us in top of mind.”