Regional health care providers prepare for the coronavirus

For most Minnesotans, the risk of getting coronavirus is relatively low

Essentia Health-St. Joseph’s Brainerd Clinic is one of several regional health care providers taking precautions against the coronavirus. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

No cases of the coronavirus have been reported in Crow Wing County or its surrounding areas, but regional health care providers are taking precautions against the potentially fatal disease.

Minnesota officials confirmed Tuesday, March 10, a third case of COVID-19, which is the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus that first emerged in China in late 2019.

"For most Minnesotans, the risk of getting coronavirus is still relatively low," said Doug Schultz, a Minnesota Department of Health spokesperson.

Essential Health, Cuyuna Regional Medical Center, St. Gabriel’s Hospital, Riverwood Healthcare Center and Lakewood Health System, however, are not taking any chances.

“Just nobody seems to know exactly how this is going to present in Minnesota,” Dr. David Taylor said of the ever-increasing number of reported cases of coronavirus nationwide.


Italy's coronavirus death toll jumped Monday from 366 to 463 fatalities, according to that country’s officials. The European country is the worst-hit country after China.


Taylor is the chief medical officer who works in the emergency room at the Aitkin-based Riverwood Healthcare Center. Taylor and Jeanine LeBlanc, director of nursing, are leading an emergency preparedness team at Riverwood that meets weekly.

They communicate with Aitkin County Public Health and Human Services, the Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Hospital Association to share the latest information. “We are working with the Minnesota Hospital Association, as well as following Minnesota Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control protocols and guidelines,” Taylor said.

Signs are posted at Riverwood entrances to the hospital and clinics about travel outside of the state and having COVID-19 or flu-like symptoms such as fever, cough or shortness of breath.

Disposable masks to cover the nose and mouth are available for those with symptoms near the check-in area at Riverwood clinics in Aitkin, Garrison and McGregor. Wearing a face mask is not recommended for those who are healthy with no symptoms.

“There are many unknowns at this point, but rest assured we are doing our very best to stay on top of this and stay connected with the state’s overall response to this rapidly evolving health crisis,” Taylor said.


In the United States, there have been 27 deaths and 849 confirmed cases as of Tuesday afternoon, with the communal transmission in Washington State, California and New York State.

“When you talk about the media, then the social media and everything else driving this, you’re looking at a lot that is supporting the fear and the anxiety that goes with it,” said Chuck Hartsfield, director of emergency services at CHI St. Gabriel’s Health in Little Falls.

Minnesota cases

The third case of the coronavirus is an Anoka County resident in his or her 30s who was likely exposed through contact with international travelers, according to the state health department. The first two cases in the state involved persons in Ramsey and Carver counties.

“We're still in a phase that we call, you know, containment, where we're trying to detect every case and follow up on every case and make sure that their contacts are quarantined … so that we can try to contain the disease,” said Schultz of the state health department. “But, as you know, people like to travel a lot. They move around. Someone could come into the state who has the disease and, you know, they might not even think that they actually have it, or they decide not to stay home when they're ill. And they infect other people.”

Signage has been placed at entrances to all Lakewood Health System facilities indicating those with specific symptoms who have traveled to known coronavirus locations, or have been in contact with someone who has traveled to those areas, to immediately use a facemask and talk to the nearest admitting staff member.

“If a patient walks up today and answers ‘yes’ to the screening questions and they have a fever and a cough, we know exactly what we're going to do with them. We practiced it already,” Hartsfield of St. Gabriel’s Health said of that health care provider. “They're going to be taken care of, they're going to be provided that high-quality medical care while protecting our staff.”

St. Otto’s Care Center in Little Falls is hoping to protect its elderly residents by alerting the public about visitor restrictions that took effect Tuesday, according to Brian Bernander, administrator/owner of St. Otto’s Care Center.

“Our priority at St. Otto’s Care Center is to keep our residents free from the virus ... restricting visitors to immediate family or friends who need to visit for critical or sensitive reasons. Every visitor to St. Otto’s will be required for screening prior to visiting any resident,” Bernander said.


Infectious diseases

Lakewood Health System conducted infectious disease training exercises with staff in recent months as part of preparedness work to respond to infectious diseases, according to Amber Houselog, communications coordinator for the Staples-based health care provider.

“There's still quite a bit of influenza circulating, so your risk of getting influenza in Minnesota is quite a bit greater than for getting COVID-19 now. That said, it's still important to take this disease very seriously,” said Schultz of the state health department.

Lakewood is in regular contact with its regional emergency preparedness partners and the Minnesota Hospital Association to ensure adequate supplies, information and support as needed, according to Houselog.

“Because it does have the potential to affect, impact a lot of people if it becomes widespread, you know, so we're working very hard to make sure that doesn't happen,” Schultz said of the coronavirus.

The virus that causes COVID-19 is spread primarily by respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. It can also spread when people touch surfaces that have been contaminated by an infected person and then touch their eyes, nose or mouth.

“A lot of our staff had been down to Anniston, Alabama, and prepared for this … disasters of any type, including infectious diseases,” Hartsfield said.

Hartsfield said past preparations at St. Gabriel’s for the ebola and the H1N1 viruses, and other infectious diseases — and annual or biannual exercises by the health care provider to deal with such contagions — have the staff ready to deal with the coronavirus should it appear regionally.

“It’s not something that we’re preparing for today more than we have any other day because we have been preparing for it all along, it really is,” Hartsfield said. “This is something that, if you think about it, if you prepare for it all of a sudden at the end, it is not going to get us any good results.”


Dr. Peter Henry is the chief medical officer at Essentia Health, with facilities in the Brainerd lakes area, who specializes in emergency medicine.

“Unless they need to come in, we don't really want them to come for coronavirus or concerns about coronavirus without contacting our health care system first, so that we can appropriately triage them to the areas where they would best be screened,” Henry said. “One of the key things we're doing is we're trying to utilize and augment our ability to do e-visits or electronic visits, so that would save them on travel, reduce their risk of exposing someone should they be positive and then appropriately triage them.”

Putting in context

Dr. Robert Westin serves as the chief medical officer at Cuyuna Regional Medical Center and also said signage has been placed at entrances at Cuyuna’s facilities, and regular meetings are ongoing regarding the coronavirus, but he wants people to put COVID-19 into context.

“Worldwide, it's 110,000 people who have had it, and we've had 3,500, 4,000 deaths, so that means 99% of the people are not affected in a critical illness way with this. It's the people that are elderly and have multiple other medical issues that are the problem,” Westin said.

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are common in people, and many different species of animals, including camels, cattle, cats and bats, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and animal coronaviruses rarely can infect people.

“I mean people do not panic about influenza even though we have influenza every year, and this was a fairly significant influenza season,” Westin said. “And we haven't seen any numbers on influenza this year, even though if it hadn't been for this new outbreak, there potentially would have been, you know, influenza stories every week.”

Coronavirus precautions

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.

  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.

  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.

  • Stay home when you are sick except to get medical care.

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. (Sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice as a guide.) Scrub the back of the hand and between fingers.

  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces in your home.

Source: Riverwood Healthcare Center

More information

The Minnesota Department of Health has set up a COVID-19 hotline that is open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. The hotline number is 651-201-3920. More information about the coronavirus can be found online at .


FRANK LEE, county and features reporter, may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at . Follow him on Twitter at .

A stand with hand sanitizer and facial tissue greets patients at an Essentia Health facility in Brainerd in the wake of coronavirus. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

I cover the community of Wadena, Minn., and write mostly features stories for the Wadena Pioneer Journal. The newspaper is owned by Forum Communications Co.
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