Minnesota care facilities see 131 virus deaths in a week. What's the plan?

Minnesota health officials outlined a series of steps they're taking at long-term care facilities, where coronavirus-related deaths and cases are accelerating.

As Gov. Tim Walz extended the stay-home order across the state until May 18, care facilities have become a glaring, immediate concern. Eighty percent of the state's 371 deaths have happened in these facilities, where age, underlying health conditions and tight quarters contribute to a fast spread.

A facility in Wayzata closed in late April, and an industry group said several smaller buildings also face closure because staffers are scared, leaving their jobs, or quarantined at home.

"We are quite literally standing at the verge of a major crisis in Minnesota if we do not act immediately," said state Sen. Karin Housley, who chairs the Senate Family Care and Aging committee, at a hearing Friday.

The pace of deaths has quickened. In a one-week period since April 24, 131 residents of long-term care facilities have died.

Kris Ehresmann, the state Health Department's infectious disease director, said 21 facilities have at least 20 confirmed cases. But most affected facilities have only one or two cases, she said.

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm pushed back on lawmakers who worried the situation was out of control.

"There’s a growing public narrative that this is just rampant all across long-term care in our state," Malcolm said. "We’d like to do a better job of painting a more accurate picture."

It's “very unlikely” that the virus is behaving differently here than in other states where the share of long-term care deaths is lower, Ehresmann said. She said states are tracking long-term care deaths differently, so it's hard to compare.

Every facility that has a confirmed test gets a case manager from the state. Health officials have positioned protective equipment at satellite offices around the state and are working with facilities to transfer sick residents to other sites, they said.

Potential staffing crisis looms

Patti Cullen, chief executive of Care Providers of Minnesota, said some staffers are scared and leave when their facility gets a positive test.

Several smaller buildings are "on the brink" of closure because of a staffing shortage, she said.

Meridian Manor in Wayzata closed in late April after 21 residents and 13 staffers tested positive for the coronavirus. The facility relocated residents to other care centers.

State health officials could not immediately say how many facilities are running this risk, but it's serious enough that they have released guidance on how facilities should seek additional staff. The first suggestion is to recall quarantined staff who are asymptomatic. 

As a last resort, the Minnesota National Guard could be activated, the guidance said.

Housley said she is preparing legislation to address the staffing shortages. Some ideas she's considering: providing scholarships to students in health care fields to work at long-term care facilities, awarding premium pay  to staffers who work with virus victims, and bringing in furloughed hospital nurses to work in these facilities. 

Elective surgeries could restart soon

Gov. Tim Walz said on WCCO Radio Friday morning that an announcement would happen by Monday to restart elective surgeries soon.

Hospitals asked to halt these surgeries in March amid fears of personal protective equipment shortages. Now, some lawmakers are raising concerns that restarting elective surgeries would drain resources away from long-term care facilities.

"I know there’s not enough PPE for everybody and we want to return to elective surgeries, but we have these workers and we have to protect them," said state Sen. Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato. 

State officials are seeking feedback on a draft plan to restart elective surgeries. It will be a "difficult but important balance to strike," Malcolm told lawmakers.

Walz was not available to reporters Friday afternoon to answer questions about the state's response at long-term care facilities.