Pandemic aggravates Minnesota care center staffing shortages

A brick building behind a sign.
St. Therese Senior Services in New Hope reported 47 residents have died from complications of COVID-19, the most at any long-term care facility in Minnesota.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

Staffing has become such a challenge at some Minnesota care facilities due to the coronavirus outbreak that a few aren't sure how they're going to get through the weekend, the head of an industry group said Friday.

Minnesota's congregate care facilities were already struggling to hire enough staff before the pandemic hit, said Patti Cullen, president of Care Providers of Minnesota, which represents about half of the state's senior care communities. But now, when a staffer or resident tests positive, employees who've been exposed to them have to isolate themselves. So, a facility can start the day thinking it's in good shape but suddenly find itself in trouble, she said.

"We are familiar with two or three that are really straining for this weekend, but it could happen to any facility if you have to send staff home,” Cullen said in an interview, but declined to identify them.

It's hard for a lot of long-term care facilities to pay competitive wages, she said. Evening and nighttime shifts are particularly hard to fill, and some employees might stay home because they don’t want to risk infecting family members.

“In some cases we have staff that are working double shifts, multiple days because they can’t find anybody else,” Cullen said. “And that’s not good for anyone.”

The Minnesota Department of Health on Friday reported 28 new coronavirus deaths, equaling a high set Sunday, to raise the state’s death toll to 371. It also reported that a new high of 594 patients had tested positive, a jump of 102 since Thursday, as the state's efforts to dramatically ramp up testing begin to pay off. The department reported that state and private labs completed 4,553 more tests to set another one-day record.

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Residents of long-term care facilities, including nursing homes and senior living communities, make up most of Minnesota's deaths from COVID-19, including 24 of the new deaths reported Friday. St. Therese of New Hope reported this week that 47 of its residents had died from complications of the disease, the most at any Minnesota facility. It also said 130 residents of the 258-bed skilled nursing facility had tested positive, while 65 staffers had shown symptoms or been exposed.

"When we have no caregivers to take care of our loved ones, we have no facilities," said Sen. Karin Housley, a Republican from St. Mary’s Point who chairs the Senate Family Care and Aging Committee. "The whole industry's going to go down if we can't support the staff. They're scared to death right now. They're wearing raincoats to take care of COVID residents.”

Housley's committee got an update Friday from Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm, who said her team at the state's Emergency Operations Center is in daily contact with care facilities to monitor whether any are on the precipice of a staffing crisis, and are helping them find reinforcements quickly.

“There’s probably 15 or so that really have the most significant outbreak challenges right now," due to case numbers and staffing, the commissioner said. But Malcolm told the panel it's also important to note that most Minnesota nursing homes and assisted living facilities have not had cases.

While it's true that 231 long-term-care facilities have cases, she said, and 62 of the 375 nursing homes have cases, only 73 out of 1,500 assisted-living facilities have them. Over half of the 231 affected long-term care facilities have had just one or two cases, 93 have more than two, and 21 have more than 20.