Metro Meals on Wheels quandary: How to deliver meals without spreading coronavirus

The novel coronavirus is putting Metro Meals on Wheels in a tough spot.

If there’s a major COVID-19 outbreak in Minnesota, thousands of older people will need the service more than ever, but the delivery system could inadvertently accelerate the spread.

“If you were trying to design a model to spread a disease, I think this might be the exact one,” said Patrick Rowan, executive director of Metro Meals on Wheels.

Minnesota’s health officials confirmed the state’s first case of COVID-19 on Friday and a second case on Sunday. Health officials have said the state had conducted about 80 tests for the coronavirus. From those tests came the two presumptive positive results.

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The potential for its spread has given Rowan pause and has set him to planning.

Everyday, hundreds of volunteers deliver roughly 4,000 meals across the Twin Cities metro area. The recipients are older and many have a chronic illness like heart disease, diabetes or cancer — all listed as risk factors for coronavirus by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Our volunteers visit 10 to 12 seniors every day,” he said. “That poses of risk of transmitting the disease between vulnerable adults who are usually very isolated.”

He’s been brainstorming solutions, but so far his plans all have downsides.

Normally, Meals on Wheels attempts to deliver hot meals daily. If COVID-19 begins to spread, the service could replace multiple deliveries with one large delivery. Rowan’s kitchen has already ramped up frozen meal production by about 10 percent, and may have to increase it much more, he said.

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Fewer deliveries means less human contact, which should, in theory, mean less transmission of disease.

That sounds great, but a strength of the service is that human contact. Checking in with older, more isolated people would be an incredibly important public service, especially during an outbreak, he said.

“We’re thinking about still delivering, but just knocking on the door and backing away,” he said. “Still checking in with people, just from a distance.”

Volunteers could be affected, when needed most

It’s also likely his volunteer base could shrink. Most are dedicated, he said, but they won’t be delivering meals if they’re sick.

He could scale back operations to compensate, but that’s also a flawed solution — because delivering meals is about to be as important a public service as ever.

As more people begin to self-quarantine to avoid infection, Rowan said he thinks they’ll call Meals on Wheels.

Rowan is worried about passing coronavirus through his volunteers. So, he wanted to get packages of wipes to wash their hands on the go, between food deliveries. It’s not a perfect solution, but he figured it would help. But getting wipes turned out to be much harder than he thought.

“Maybe you can still get them at the store,” he said. “But I need a lot of wipes. The big suppliers are all sold out.”