Walz’s COVID coordinator: state response to long-term care virus deaths “has not been enough”

At the state’s daily coronavirus briefing, the top official coordinating Minnesota’s response to Covid-19 today acknowledged the strategy that led to the nation’s highest percentage of deaths in long-term care facilities as a share of total state deaths attributed to the virus “has  not been enough.” To date, 407 of the 508 deaths attributed to Covid-19 in Minnesota have been connected to assisted living facilities.

“We have been providing them a lot of support. But it’s not been enough,” said Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm. “This is not so much about fixing something that’s broken or deficient as it is about ramping up our systems to deal with an unprecedented level of need. We want to spread and accelerate the best practices that we know are out there and give the facilities all the support they need to rise to this unprecedented challenge.”

Under mounting pressure to respond to an 80 percent rate of deaths in Minnesota nursing homes and assisted living residences, Gov. Tim Walz announced a plan to respond more comprehensively and quickly to outbreaks at long-term care facilities and better protect Minnesotans living and working there.

“A battle plan about dealing with these long-term care facilities, reducing the death, reducing the infections  and tackling this,” Walz told reporters at the briefing. “This has been going on through all these weeks, but right now, I think we’re prepared to very much go on the offensive.”

Until now, the state health department under Malcolm has responded often on a case-by-case basis, assigning a case manager and testing only for symptomatic patients and contacts upon receiving a report of coronavirus in an assisted living facility.

The new plan calls for strike teams around the state to be available to test all workers and residents in facilities with one or more Covid cases, issuing state-supplied masks and protective equipment to facilities, a requirement for facilities to develop a preparedness plan in advance and state support to assure facilities have adequate levels of staffing.

“One of the things we’re going  to be doing is  more intentionally and proactively engaging the skills of the State Emergency Operations Center to help us scale up  the logistics that heretofore really has been a health department effort kind of on our own,” Malcolm said. “And that’s  changing.”

Officials continue to praise the overall response of long-term care facilities to the pandemic. While some 330 congregate care residences report at least one incidence of coronavirus, the majority have two or fewer cases.

Yet today’s actions make it clear the state health department has fallen behind in the effort to help position nursing homes and long-term care facilities across the state to get ahead of the virus that’s left their residents and workers so vulnerable.

“Our kind of traditional  swoop the experts in and have it be very centered on state health department expertise to do all the investigating all the coaching of infection control just is not adequate to the task of being able to get out there quickly enough and to be thinking far out ahead enough,” Malcolm said.