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‘It’s been difficult’

Morningside Heights reports first COVID-19 death, 29 care center residents have tested positive for virus

MARSHALL — Numbers of positive COVID-19 cases really started rising in southwest Minnesota this fall — and that’s about when Avera Morningside Heights Care Center also started to see more cases among its residents, Avera Marshall spokespeople said Friday.

While Morningside Heights currently has 11 residents being cared for in a separate COVID-19 unit, Vice President of Clinical Operations Dodie Derynck said the facility has had a total of 29 residents test positive since the start of the pandemic.

Morningside Heights recently had one death of a resident from COVID-19, Derynck said. It’s the first COVID-19 death reported at the facility.

“It has been difficult for the staff,” Derynck said of the loss. “These residents are family members to them.”

Avera Marshall interim co-leader Mark Vortherms said staff at Avera Marshall have continued to give their best care to patients, although community spread has posed challenges for staffing.

“The health of our patients, residents and staff continues to be our top priority,” Vortherms said. He urged community members to help keep caregivers and resident safe by following health guidelines to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Vortherms and Derynck spoke with the Independent on Friday, to give an update on how COVID-19 is affecting the Morningside Heights Care Center.

Since the start of the pandemic, Morningside Heights has had a total of 29 residents test positive for the virus, and one death, Derynck said. However, some residents have recovered, while others who tested positive were asymptomatic, she said. There have been a total of four residents who had to be transferred to the hospital, but all four are now doing well and have returned to the nursing home, Derynck said.

Currently, there are 11 Morningside Heights residents who are in a dedicated COVID-19 unit separate from other residents, Derynck said.

Morningside Heights has not had any more residents show COVID-19 symptoms for about the past five days, Derynck said. However, more testing was done at the facility on Thursday, and it could take a few days to learn the results, she said.

Avera Marshall has not been able to trace the COVID-19 cases at Morningside Heights to a specific source, Derynck said. The Minnesota Department of Health says it works together with long-term care facilities to help them do contact tracing. While facilities are required to report COVID-19 cases to the MDH, the MDH also learns about positive cases as test results are processed.

Morningside Heights went 238 days without a positive COVID-19 test result toward the beginning of the pandemic, Derynck said. Case numbers started to pick up around October, she estimated.

At Morningside Heights, staff have been following protocols from the MDH, which include using safety measures like using personal protective equipment and doing regular COVID-19 testing for both residents and staff, Avera Marshall spokespeople said.

Statewide, Minnesota long-term care facilities were doing at least 40,000 tests a week by October, the MDH reported.

Since the start of the pandemic, there have been staff at Morningside Heights who have needed to stay home either because of symptoms or exposure to a person who had COVID-19, Derynck said. The most staff members that have been gone at one time was 15, she said.

“The entire medical center has come together,” to help make sure key staffing areas are covered, Derynck said.

The challenge of providing needed medical care through the pandemic is not unique to Avera Marshall, Vortherms said.

“Our employees are really being vigilant,” and taking possible COVID-19 symptoms seriously, even if they do not test positive,” he said.

For health care workers, more than a third of higher-risk exposures to people with COVID-19 happen at home and in the community, the MDH said in a November update on long-term care response. As community spread of COVID-19 increases, it puts health care workers at higher risk.

Morningside Heights has not been the only area long-term care facility that has had residents test positive for COVID-19. According to data collected by the Minnesota Department of Health, as of Nov. 9, there were a cumulative total of three confirmed COVID-19 cases among residents of Boulder Creek Assisted Living, two cases at Boulder Estates, and one at Heritage Pointe Senior Living. All three of those centers are located in Marshall. Minneota Manor and Prairie View Senior Living in Tracy had also had some confirmed COVID-19 cases among staff members since the start of the pandemic.

Congregate care facilities in Lyon County have had comparatively few deaths from COVID-19 so far, MDH data said. As of Nov. 9, some facilities in Pipestone and Redwood Counties had larger case and death totals. The Good Samaritan Society of Pipestone had a cumulative total of 33 confirmed COVID-19 cases among residents and 10 deaths. The Edgebrook Care Center in Edgerton had 15 positive residents and five deaths.

In Redwood County, River Valley Health and Rehabilitation Center in Redwood Falls had a cumulative total of 42 positive residents and 14 deaths, the state data said.

In Yellow Medicine County, two facilities in Canby had resident deaths due to COVID-19. As of Nov. 9, Sanford Canby Sylvan Court had a cumulative total of 20 positive residents and four deaths. Sanford Canby Sylvan Place had a total of four positive residents and one death, MDH data said.

Statewide, the average number of staff and resident cases peaked in late May, at 165 cases per day, the MDH said. While COVID-19 case numbers fell over the summer, the average was back up over 100 cases a day by early October.

Knowledge about COVID-19 and recommended treatment and response is something that continues to evolve, Derynck said.

“It’s been a change every day,” Derynck said. In the meantime, she said staff are continuing to keep up with the latest guidance, and to communicate with residents’ families by email and letter.

The pandemic hasn’t been easy for residents and families, Derynck said.

“Visitor restrictions are very difficult,” she said. Staff members are trying to find socially-distant ways for families to connect. For example, Derynck said, they’re working on some fun for Thanksgiving calls with residents and their families.

Vortherms and Derynck said it has been good to be part of the Avera health system during the pandemic. It means that Avera Marshall staff can work together with and have the support of Avera Tyler and Avera Granite Falls.

“I can’t stress enough, we couldn’t have a better group of caring people,” Vortherms said. “I can’t thank staff enough for their generosity” in caring for residents, he said.

The way to help keep front-line caregivers safe and healthy is to stop the spread of COVID-19, he said. “The pathway to doing that is through good hand hygiene, social distancing and wearing masks,” Vortherms said. It’s crucial that people follow health guidance from trusted sources like the MDH and the CDC.

‘It’s been difficult’

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