For months, public health officials have struggled to slow the spread of coronavirus through nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.

In St. Louis County, at least 15 facilities have outbreaks, meaning at least one COVID-19 case among staff members and residents. Eight of those facilities exist on the Iron Range. As of Friday, the countywide congregate living facilities account for 17 percent of exposures leading to 2,121 cases and 53 deaths.

In Hibbing, the Guardian Angels Health and Rehabilitation Center reported more than 30 cases since mid-September among staff members, according to data from the Minnesota Health Department. News releases on the facility’s website shows that two residents died on Sept. 27, after being infected with the virus. On Oct. 2, the facility reported that “two additional residents who had tested positive for COVID-19 passed away.”

(The Mesabi Tribune reached out to the facility’s administrator several times but did not comment. A spokesperson in Minnesota responded and sent an email with a link to the website but did not immediately respond to follow-up questions. The state Health Department sent a data sheet showing the number of cases and deaths in the facility as of Sept. 28. An updated version is expected on Monday.)

Due to the loss of staff to quarantine and isolation, the Minnesota Department of Health requested the National Guard provide a nurse and four medical technicians to the facility from Oct. 3-12, Guardian Angels announced last week in a press release on its website. Meantime, facility spokespersons said staff continued to follow the recommended guidelines from the state Health Department, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The Minnesota National Guard confirmed coordinating with the facility and the state Health Department and that “the State Emergency Operations Center [SEOC] has deployed a small team of health care providers to support a facility in the Hibbing area that was experiencing staffing issues due to COVID-19 related concerns,” Colonel Scott Rohweder, director of Operations, said Wednesday in an emailed statement to the Mesabi Tribune upon request.

Amber Schindeldecker, public information officer at the National Guard, wrote in email that Guardian Angels reported the shortage to the SEOC’s so-called long term facility work group, which “checked with local health care coalitions and used a software system that matches a facility’s needs with locally trained personnel who could possibly fill the staffing shortage.” She continued, “When it was clear that no personnel were available, the work group requested assistance from the Minnesota National Guard through the SEOC.”

“This support is intended to be short term in nature,” Rohweder added.

On Thursday, Scott Smith, a public information officer at the Minnesota Health Department, wrote in email that “the situation has since stabilized.”

Despite the assurances, the National Guard’s presence at the local facility took residents and families by surprise, with some in high spirits about reinforcements while others deem their being here as a sign that local facilities have lost the ability to protect staff members and residents.

“It was good that the National Guard came because we know they have more help,” said Deb Manney, of Hibbing, whose mother is a resident at Guardian Angels. “They just don’t have enough help. They need more aides.”

“Oh my God, who’s taking care of my mother?” said Manney’s sister, Kathy Bubar, of Eden Prairie. “Who’s taking care of these people?”

The sisters told the Mesabi Tribune that her mother Myrna Offre had endured two hip replacements, the passing of her husband Rudi, who owned the local pizzeria with his namesake, and living on her own for a year, before moving into the facility in November 2017. Offre is now 89 years old and living among others whose rooms face the facility’s courtyard. She spends her days calling her children on the phone and watching news on TV. She cannot visit with her family in-person in light of the recent spike in COVID-19 cases at the facility.

Both Manney and Bubar expressed frustration when describing how their mother — who is bound to a wheelchair and hard of hearing yet still has a sharp mind - had been moved from her original room and wing when the coronavirus crept into the facility. They claim it took three weeks for the busied staff to move her furniture and personal belongings into her new room. They worry whether their mother will become infected with the virus and staff would bring their mother to Fairview Range hospital in Hibbing for proper medical care.

“She was in the wing where it started, but has been testing negative every time,” Manney said. “I don’t know how she’s escaped it. We’re more worried if she gets it, would she be able to go to the hospital. We don’t want her to be there if she gets this virus.” Bubar said she would “demand” that their mother be transported to a hospital if she becomes infected with the virus.

The sisters have not seen their mother in months. Bubar, who last spent time with her face-to-face last December, said “we want to see our mother, but we don’t want to be the ones to bring in COVID.” She realizes that staff members are “in a rock and a hard place,” as they too have families and are battling against a virus that has infiltrated the entire region.

Manney, who was able to visit her mother earlier this year, said since there are visitor restrictions in place she talks to her over the phone three times a day. “She asks what I’m doing. She actually seems pretty good through all of this. She has her gripes, but she’s not crying. She’s not that type of person. I’ll tell her how many residents have been infected. Maybe in a way she’s a little worried about it but she doesn’t show it too much. She watches the news and knows what’s going on.”

Has she thought about moving her mother from the facility? “My mom won’t move,” she said. “She’s familiar with this place and the people. We’ve talked about it, but she’d have to go kicking and screaming. So, can we put her somewhere else? No. She doesn’t think she’ll be here much longer. We think she will. She’s very healthy. She can be here 10 more years.”

Manney paused. Then continued, “How is this still spreading if everyone is wearing their protective stuff?”

The situation is an example of how much long-term care facilities have become a hotzone of the coronavirus pandemic in northern St. Louis County. Health experts suggest staff members and visitors may have been infected with the virus due to a rise in community transmission, which makes up 46 percent of exposures leading to cases.

“If people in the county are not social distancing and not wearing masks and staff get exposed to COVID-19, it can really cause an outbreak in the facilities,” said Cheryl Bisping, a public health educator at St. Louis County, based on the Iron Range. “What people in the county do will affect the residents and staff members in our nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. We’re not seeing a high death rate in the county yet, but one member of your family dying is one too many.”

Schindeldecker, the public information officer, wrote in email Friday that “the staffing shortage at the Hibbing long-term care facility was a result of community spread and a recent increase in positive COVID cases in the region.” She continued, “Staffing shortages in long-term care facilities may persist if community spread of COVID continues. By following guidelines to reduce the spread of COVID, communities are ensuring the resiliency of their public health and safety.”

The announcement of the National Guard made Manney and her sister consider whether they would send additional nurses and medical technicians to facilities elsewhere in the region. County officials say they do not know, since it remains nearly impossible to predict who will become infected with the virus and what facility may suffer an outbreak since staff members have been following state and federal guidelines when around residents.

Rohweder, the director of operations, wrote in email Friday that the National Guard “has a cadre of Army and Air National Guard trained and nationally certified doctors, physician assistants, nurses and emergency medical technicians that make up the pool of professionals that fill the teams depending on the roles that are needed to be filled at any given site."

When asked whether the National Guard had deployed medical teams to other facilities on the Iron Range or in St. Louis County, he replied that the teams are “the option of last resort to fill these roles, and are only called upon when other trained avenues have been exhausted.” He continued, “The site in Hibbing is one of a handful of sites throughout the state that the Minnesota National Guard has assisted in this capacity, the first in the Iron Range Area."

The state Health Department on Friday reported five more facilities considered to have outbreaks of the coronavirus from previous weeks to include a total of six in Duluth, one in Hermantown, and eight on the Iron Range: Guardian Angels, Hibbing; Heritage Manor, Chisholm; The Waterview Pines, Virginia; Edgewood Virginia; The Waterview Woods, Eveleth; Northern Pines Care Facility, Aurora; Carefree Living Ely; Boundary Waters Care Center, Ely.

Manney said that the coronavirus “took a long time for it to get here surprisingly” from elsewhere in the country. But now it is here, in the facility housing her mother, among others across the region. “We are safer because we don’t have the population,” she said. “But you do what you’re supposed to do. You wear a mask when you go to Walmart. Otherwise, stay home. This is all really difficult for everyone to live through, because it’s a very strange world right now.”

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