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Above, an electron microscopic image of an isolate from the first U.S. case of COVID-19. The spherical viral particles are colorized in blue. (Photo by the CDC Hannah A Bullock; Azaibi Tamin)

As reported case of COVID-19 grow exponentially in Minnesota, healthcare providers are bracing for the coming weeks to overwhelm hospital and clinics with the new coronavirus. As of press time, Minnesota had 742 confirmed cases with 46 cases in Washington County. The virus has caused 18 deaths.

With 31% of cases now said to be from community transmission, most cases are now due to Minnesotans getting the virus from contact with carriers in their own communities.

“The virus is in the community so we really need to take that to heart,” said Lowell Johnson, director of public health for Washington County. “We need to remain diligent with social distancing.”

In a conference call with local leaders, health officials outlined the potentially dire situation in Stillwater around surrounding communities if more isn’t done to limit exposure through limited social interaction.

Ted Wegleitner is the Chief Executive Officer of Lakeview Health System and President of Lakeview Hospital. During the call, he said that there have been 4 positive cases of COVID-19 at Lakeview Hosptial with 3 case requiring critical care. He later tempered the number by stating the due to very low amounts of the lab supplies needed to test for the virus that only healthcare working and public safety personnel are currently being tested. That is a significant concern, Wegleitner said.

“We are not testing everybody, so we don’t know the full extent of the numbers,” Wegleitner said.

Wegleitner said that Lakeview Hospital and other Health Partners clinics in the area are ramping up precautions, including canceling many non-essential surgeries, clinic visits and not allowing visitors. The next step will be to begin taking the temperature of every person that comes into a facility.

“We have had a lot of time to prepare for our surge planning,” Wegleitner said. “Right now it is eerily quiet in our buildings as we currently have about half the number of emergency room visits and a quarter of our regular clinic and hospital visits.”

As more cases of COVID-19 are projected to come into the hospital, Wegleitner said that the first tier of care will be to transfer critical patients to Regions Hospital - a facilities with about 70 ventilators. Lakeview’s critical care rooms will be used as a backup if Regions Hospital has more paitients than 70, but noted Lakeview’s limitations.

“We have 6 ventilators with about 10 more that we can make work,” Weleitner said. “We have had a couple community members step forward to offer to purchase ventilators for us as a donation, but it will take 5 weeks for them to arrive.”

If Lakeview Hosptial is overwhelmed, patients will be transferred to other facilities in Health Partner’s St. Croix Valley group.

Another major concern Wegleitner said is the supply of personal protections equipment (PPE) for workers, such as masks, face shields and other equipment.

As the company has canceled many regular services and are working for purchase more supplies, Wegleitner also said that he is very concerned about the company’s cash situation.

“Right now we are not bring in money,” Wegleitner.

State senator Karin Housley said the house and senate have been working in St. Paul to respond to a grow demand for resources to combat the illness. The latest bill passed include $600 million in state funding.

“It meets today’s needs,” Housley said, noting that lawmakers will return to the legislature in April.

Lowell Johnson, director of public health for Washington County, said the county is working with hospitals and senior care facilities to plan for more case in the county including handling the community’s desire to help.

“People want to contribute,” Johnson said. “They don’t know where to give, and we want to disperse what we can to the most places in need.”

Local residents are worried about their elderly loved ones as the coronavirus outbreak spreads to nursing homes. Rob Lahammer with Presbyterian Homes & Services said that they have moved quickly to set up strict protocols to protect those who are most vulnerable to the virus. Boutwell’s Landing in Oak Park Heights is Presbyterians Homes largest facility.

Lahammer explained that visitors have not been allowed inside their facilities accept for end-of-life care. Residents are also not allowed to visit each other. Workers are interviewed and their temperature is taken before entering the building. These precaution, while neccesary, have not been popular with all residents, Lahammer said.

“I had one woman in her 90s say that she lived through World War II and buried two husbands, and didn’t understand why she could have lunch with her friends,” Lahammer said.

Minnesota’s long-term-care industry is trying to avoid the scenarios such as what happened at a nursing home in Kirkland, Washington, where at least 37 deaths have been linked to the COVID-19 outbreak.

At least 17 people living in nine senior care facilities across the state have become infected with COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, the Star Tribune reported. As of press time, there have been no cases found at Boutwell’s Landing, Lahammer said.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

“People take about the hospitals, but right now the senior care industry is caring for more people with the virus than hospitals are,” Lahammer said. “We are often being overlooked when the conversation about PPE needs.”

Lahammer said that employee safety is a priority, but that they have a shortage of employees in their company to care for seniors in their care.

“We currently have 600 plus job openings,” Lahammer said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article. Contact Alicia Lebens at alicia.lebens@ecm-inc.com

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