Care facilities already stretched thin by COVID-19 say staffing shortages biggest threat to industry

A group home in North Branch, Minnesota got some attention this week when a copy of its COVID-19 preparedness policy was posted on social media. 

In a “worst case scenario,” staff at Karcher Foster Services who test positive for the virus but have little or no symptoms will be required to work. It’s a directive that’s actually approved by the Department of Health and included in many operator’s crisis plan.

Crisis level staffing, says MDH guidance, could include "allowing asymptomatic staff with confirmed COVID-19 to return to work in roles that provide direct care for residents with confirmed cases."

It’s a policy that reflects the grim reality of staffing shortages in the long-term care and group home industries.

“With COVID-19, that's just where we're at right now," said Kevin Zabel, Communications Director with the Association of Residential Resources in Minnesota (ARRM).

At Meridian Manor in Wayzata, an outbreak among staff forced the assisted living community to close permanently back in April - and the state doesn't want to see that happen again.

“Before we even start talking about ‘are you in crisis,’ we're stepping back and talking how do we currently help you now to mitigate you getting in crisis," said Angie Koch with the state emergency operations center.

The state has established a model where they can assist facilities dealing with staffing shortages, in some cases, they can even help line up temporary workers. But, many operators say it’s not helpful.

“We don’t count on it,” said John Estrem, CEO of Hammer Residences. “The thought that the state is going to find people that we can't find is a bit unrealistic.” 

Estrem says their group homes have been COVID-19 free for five weeks now, but they have various crisis plans ready if they were to get hit hard. 

State officials say if a community experiences a large outbreak, and all other resources have been exhausted, they can deploy the National Guard as temporary healthcare staff.

“If we start seeing large scale outbreaks where we're talking about dozens and dozens of group homes, DHS can't accommodate that," Zabel said.

They just hope it never gets to that point.

“We can't just lock our doors. That's not an option for us. We have to figure this out," Estrem said.