'Time to dig deep': Concern for long-term care facilities amid increased community spread

Members of the Minnesota National Guard train to be temporary nurse aids to help long-term care facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the release of a COVID-19 vaccine is on the horizon, state leaders are urging Minnesotans to keep safety practices mind, especially to help reduce impact on vulnerable residents in long-term care facilities.

"This is the time to dig deep to do everything we can, as the governor has said so often, to get as many of our fellow Minnesotans as we can over that bridge to that time when vaccines can help us stamp this virus out," said Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm.

Long-term care facilities suffered the brunt the pandemic early on, with residents of long-term care facilities making up 86 percent of the state's deaths in April. That number has since fallen to about 60 percent in recent months.

The current increased community transmission, Malcolm says, is a cause for concern for long-term care facilities as staff could potentially bring in the virus and spread it to residents or other employees. Currently, the state is working with 57 facilities experiencing "some degree of staffing crisis". 

Nate Schema, the vice president of operations for the Good Samaritan Society, described a recent scenario at a facility in Blackduck in northern Minnesota. He said 24 of the 27 residents tested positive for COVID-19 as well as nearly of half the employees. Through state and local coordination, he said the site was able to get the nurse support they needed.

"It truly takes a village to respond to a crazy time like this," said Schema. 

The Minnesota National Guard is among those providing the extra support statewide. Major General Shawn Manke said there are 270 Guardsmen on 11 teams providing support as temporary nurse aids with another 100 Guardsmen receiving training. So far, the Guard has helped 17 long-term care facilities.

"I know I am safe in saying not one of our soldiers or airmen envisioned performing care in a long-term care facility when they voluntarily rose their hand and joined the National Guard and I wholeheartedly wish we did not have to do this mission, but the fact of the matter is, we are," said Major General Manke.

Schema called for Minnesotans to stay vigilant and maintain safety precautions for the upcoming holidays - even if it means finding inspiration from a galaxy far, far away.

"We continue to say, like the Mandalorian in Star Wars, 'This is the way,'" he said. "This is the way out."