Waterview Pines Nursing Home

Greg Merkel and Kathy Merkel pose with their mother June in a visitors garden outside of the Waterview Pines Nursing Home in Virginia.

VIRGINIA — The Waterview Woods, an assisted-living facility in Eveleth, was added Friday to the state’s list of congregate care settings with at least 10 confirmed cases of the coronavirus within the last 28 days.

It marks the third Iron Range facility with a COVID-19 outbreak, joining Carefree Living in Ely and its sister location, The Waterview Pines in Virginia.

In August, the Minnesota Department of Health rolled out new guidance for visitors at long-term care centers that created policies to allow visitors in a broader capacity, effective Aug. 29, after opening them in July to designated essential caregivers.

But with COVID-19 cases spreading, the three Iron Range facilities have had to scale back visitation to spring levels, meaning caregivers and visitors were forced back outside to see residents from through their windows.

For Kathy Merkel of Virginia, it was a devastating setback.

Four months after The Waterview Pines was first closed to visitors, she was able to see her mother, June Begich Merkel, in person as an essential caregiver. Her brother, Greg Merkel, was also a designated caregiver.

The brother and sister visited June everyday since she was admitted to the facility in 2010 until the coronavirus pandemic hit. Now, they have to wait at least 28 days from the onset of the outbreak.

“Life changes in an instant,” Kathy said Thursday, when she joined the Health Department’s media briefing to share the family’s story. “I was so excited to finally get inside the facility. Now, this virus has reared its ugly head.”

The transitions and changes in visitation haven’t been easy.

Kathy described crying for an hour after the state and Monarch Healthcare Management, the company who owns both Waterview facilities, enacted measures to close visitation this spring.

June suffers from sundowners and is easily confused when the daylight fades. The COVID-19 closures caused unintended consequences for the family, Kathy said, and June would often call Kathy or Greg during the early morning hours and ask them to come get her.

“That never happened prior to COVID,” Kathy said on the call.

On July 24, the brother and sister were admitted into the facility as essential caregivers, their first in-person meeting — not speaking through a window — in four months. They were trained on protocols, wore masks and goggles, had daily temperature checks, used hand sanitizer and filled out health questionnaires daily as part of the new guidance.

Less than a month later, though, The Waterview Pines had them looking through the glass again.

“Connections matter,” Kathy said. “Our mother needs us. Her well-being and quality of life are critical.”

Minnesota Health Department officials reported an additional 484 coronavirus cases and 13 new deaths on Friday, bringing the pandemic-long totals to 82,716 caes and 1,897 deaths.

St. Louis County reported 13 new cases (1,090 in total) with the majority still residing in Duluth (709), but Iron Range cities are seeing increases.

As of Friday, Hibbing has had 46 reported cases followed by: Virginia (36), Ely (21), Eveleth (19), Orr (15), Tower (13) and Mountain Iron (10).

Democratic Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz on Friday extended his peacetime emergency powers to Oct. 12, despite the Republican-led Senate voting to end his authority.

In an interview with MPR News earlier Friday, the governor said he would feel more comfortable ending the peacetime emergency if experts at the Mayo Clinic told him the public health threat was over.

Of GOP efforts to strip those powers, Walz added, “I don't want to fight the Republicans. I want us to fight COVID-19.”


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