Marc Halpert

The chief operator of Monarch Healthcare Management recorded the active COVID-19 cases at regional long-term care facilities — one at Waterview Pines in Virginia and 16 at Waterview Woods in Eveleth — and, along with state health experts, concluded there remains a need to practice mask-wearing and social distancing.

Marc Halpert traveled several hundred miles from Mankato to the Iron Range earlier this week to speak with the 176 part-time and full-time staff members including administrators, nurses, CNAs, aides and custodians, among others, in an effort to lift their spirits with “a food truck and some treats,” while reiterating the importance of personal protective equipment to avoid staff shortages and keep the 107 residents safe from the coronavirus.

“COVID is real and we are paddling in and making sure we’re stopping the spread,” he told the Mesabi Tribune on Thursday.

Halpert’s check-ins came as the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) released data on Monday showing the rising numbers of infections and deaths in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities statewide.

In Virginia, at least three people have died this year at Waterview Pines, which recorded 11 cases — six staff and five residents, according to state data. The numbers are exponentially higher in Eveleth, where 11 people have died and 44 individuals have been infected — 15 staff and 29 residents.

As of Friday, MDH named 13 long-term care facilities in St. Louis County that have suffered from coronavirus outbreaks (at least one confirmed case), including the two aforementioned nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, in addition to four other locations on the Iron Range, one in Hermantown and six in Duluth.

Neighboring facilities have a lower number of cases this year. The Edgewood Virginia Senior Living, Northern Pines Care Center of Aurora and Boundary Waters Care Center of Ely recorded a combined total of five cases among staff, according to state data.

Management at the facilities say they are coordinating efforts with MDH and St. Louis County Public Health, and follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. “We continue to follow all infection prevention protocols, including using appropriate personal protective equipment, actively screening and monitoring residents, staff and visitors for COVID-19 symptoms, assuring safe congregate dining and group activities, taking enhanced environmental safety precautions, and restricting visitors as appropriate,” Adam Masloski of Boundary Waters Care Center, wrote in an email last week to the Mesabi Tribune.

Masloski continued, “Many health care facilities are experiencing a rise in cases due to increased test availability and frequency. Regular, ongoing testing enables the identification of asymptomatic, positive cases. Our team is committed to providing every resource available to individuals who test positive.”

Still, in Hibbing, Guardian Angels Health and Rehabilitation Center, which recently received help from the Minnesota National Guard, recorded at least three deaths and 60 cases — 24 staff and 36 residents, according to state data. The data, state officials said, shows lag time since it is updated every two weeks and does not account for Guardian Angels reporting the death of nine residents as of Friday due to the virus.

Last week, the Mesabi Tribune reported that the National Guard deployed nurses and medical technicians to the Hibbing facility to assist with staff shortages. The Star Tribune published an article this week reporting that a National Guard team had also been dispatched to a long-term care facility in Austin, Minn., as the virus continues to infect staff and residents in the state’s 21,000 long-term care facilities. About 70 percent of the state’s 2,208 coronavirus-related deaths happened in nursing homes and assisted-living centers, according to state data.

The presence of the National Guard at Guardian Angels prompted local residents to ask whether nurses and medical technicians would come to other long-term care facilities.

Rumors spread throughout the community concerning the possible presence of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, an agency with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Halpert squashed the rumors on Thursday. FEMA is typically only deployed by the governor declaring a state of emergency and requesting the agency’s presence, which is approved by the president of the United States.

Halpert visited Waterview Pines and Waterview Woods to tell staff to “be diligent with protective gear” and “don’t go to places where you don’t need to go,” he said, as county health officials continually blame community transmission as a main reason for an uptick in regional cases and deaths.

Halpert was not immediately available to comment on follow-up questions as of press time on Saturday.

State officials are more urgently sounding the alarm about the rise in cases across Minnesota and increasingly in long-term care facilities. MDH and St. Louis County health officials both reported record infection totals Friday — 2,297 and 97, respectively.

On Saturday, the state reported 1,704 confirmed cases and 5 deaths, with 39 cases and one new death in the county.

MDH Infectious Disease Director Kris Ehresmann said Friday that she’s seen a shift in long-term care outbreaks from May, when mostly residents contracted the virus. Now, outbreaks are more commonly found in facility staff.

Ehresmann said acute care staff have tested positive about 1.8 percent of the time, long-term care staff 7.8 percent of the time and 4 percent if exposed to coworkers, but that number leaps to 12 percent for staff exposed through social or household contacts.

Jennifer DeCubellis, the CEO of Hennepin Healthcare, told reporters at a Friday conference call that “most, if not all” facilities have had to pull beds offline because of staff shortages.

“We cannot open a bed unless we have safe levels of staffing,” she said. “End to end across the health system, any of the staff being involved in direct care has an impact.”

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In the small city of McKinley, Rita Indihar uses FaceTime to talk with her father, Luther Lageson, a World War II veteran and retired miner who lives at Waterview Pines 10 miles west in Virginia.

“I’m worried that he will be infected with the COVID, of course, but more than that I hate that he’s confined to his room,” she told the Mesabi Tribune last week, adding that she also has three family members who work in the facility, a niece and their two daughters. “My dad is fortunate that he has family there, and they’re able to pop in. But now I’m concerned that those three will get the COVID.”

Her tone shifted. “It’s right there. My family could get it. I didn’t take it too seriously at first. So many opinions about it. I don’t know what to believe. Now that I know it’s real, it’s more scary. I wear a mask when I go out. I’m a little more cautious than I used to be. But I’m not going to stay home because of it.”

Indihar and her siblings would visit their father in-person at least two times a week earlier this year then switched to window visitations during the summer, as the state revised its health protocol amid an increase in cases. She saw him in-person in August, as staff “allowed essential care givers to see residents to ward off depression,” she said. “We got to go and visit with him and play cards. I got to go the following week, too, and then the next day they had COVID in there. COVID hit and we went back to FaceTime and window visits and the telephone.” Last month, she visited her father for his 96th birthday. Family members brought signs and hats to the facility, where they spoke to Lageson through the window.

Indihar considers her father’s health as he remains in a so-called power chair and finds himself surrounded by nurses and staff. “You couldn’t ask for better people,” she said. “They go above and beyond. They’re kind and caring and I can see how they love the residents.” Her desire to see her father has been intensified since going through the experience of not being able to see her 81-year-old mother-in-law who died on April 1 at Waterview Pines. She had diabetes and pneumonia. “When COVID hit, all we did was window visits and nieces would take pics with her,” she said. “She passed away there. She was not able to have any family with her. She died alone in that room because we couldn’t be with her. That was pretty hard.”

Now she is waiting on Waterview Pines to reopen the nursing home to visitors once again since the state recently announced that facilities can reopen to social interaction once they go 14 days without a COVID-19 exposure, cutting the previous guidelines in half.

Halpert noted that he “hopes to open doors at the end of the month, but probably in mid-November.” He added, “We want to make sure that everyone’s staying careful.” He reminds staff to wear protective gear at bars, restaurants, Walmart and other outings, since they are in a position to bring the virus into the facilities.

Like many daughters and sons, Indihar considers the complications of living in a region experiencing a rise in cases and whether she may be yet another person to bring the virus into a nursing home populated with vulnerable residents such as her father.

“It’s such a tough spot,” she said. “How is it getting in there? But on the other hand, I think, give me a hazmat suit. I want to see my dad. Who knows how much longer he has. Give me a sterile hazmat suit, glasses, goggles, whatever, so I’m not bringing it there.”

She paused. Then continued, “I don’t have any answers. Nobody seems to. Everybody is doing their best to keep the residents safe, keep their residents safe, yet the staff is going home to their families. I don’t know how it gets spread.”

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