MDH: Health care workers face increased community COVID-19 exposure

Minnesota Department of Health officials say health care workers are experiencing more exposure to COVID-19 outside of work as the state approaches "explosive growth" in COVID-19 cases seen in neighboring states.

"More COVID-19 spreading in our community means more risk to our health care personnel because there are more opportunities for them to be exposed," said Kris Ehresmann, MDH infectious disease director. "While we are all mindful of supply of hospital beds, all the beds in the world are worthless without skilled, experienced health care workers to staff them and provide care."

Epidemiologists from the Minnesota Department of Health studied COVID-19 exposure and infection among health care workers from March to July and submitted their findings to the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. During that period, more than one-third of high-risk exposures for health workers happened outside of patient care.

Ehresmann says more recent data shows the exposure data has "flipped." Now, more than 60 percent of health care worker cases are due to community and household exposure rather than exposure at work.

Over the course of the pandemic, long-term care facilities have adopted procedures to prevent the spread within their walls, but increased community spread statewide is putting more pressure on those safeguards. 

"This past week we've seen alarming numbers including 186 new cases in long-term care on Tuesday alone," said Ehresmann. "This shows even with the good work taking place even with the flood walls we've put up, if the waters rise high enough, we'll still have big problems."

The state has seen high-risk exposure among health care workers increase closer to levels seen earlier in the pandemic. In April there were 1,928 workers with high-risk exposure. That amount dropped to 703 workers in June, but in September 1,039 workers were in the high-risk exposure category.

In the Allina Health hospital system, about five to ten percent of their staff out, but officials are ready to shift employees, increase hiring and use agencies for extra help as needed.

"Have been planning our surge and workforce planning expecting about 20% of our workforce off, but I got to tell you when it starts to happen and your staff members are calling in sick and they’re waiting for their COVID test to come back, it’s difficult," said Helen Strike, the president of Regina Hospital and River Falls Area Hospital with Allina Health.

Officials are urging Minnesotans to follow social distance guidelines, wear masks and other recommendations in order to prevent the spread to a health care worker or vulnerable person.

"Think about the fact that even if you don't think that your activities will impact the health care workers, chances are it's far less than six degrees of separation," said Ehresmann.

Ehresmann says officials are working on an update to Gov. Tim Walz's five-point plan regarding long-term care facilities.