For families on the Iron Range, one of the more heart-wrenching effects of the coronavirus comes from the powerlessness of not being able to sit and talk with relatives at assisted-living facilities and nursing homes.
Visitors are not allowed to see their relatives in person since older adults are at high risk of being infected with the coronavirus.
Since mid-March, the Minnesota Department of Health has reported dozens of outbreaks in such congregate facilities across the state, including three in Duluth and one in Grand Rapids. As of Tuesday, at least 732 Minnesotans died in long-term care or assisted-living facilities, about 81 percent of total deaths from the virus.
“I think we have all realized as time has gone on that no matter where you live whether it is on the Range, whether it is in the Twin Cities or whether it is in New York City that the hardest hit with this disease even in places that have really low numbers are seniors and nursing homes,” Klobuchar said during a 20-minute appearance outside of the Guardian Angels Health and Rehabilitation Center in Hibbing. “Eight of 10 people who have died in America are senior citizens and one-third that have died are in nursing homes. This just puts enormous pressure of course on the people who go to work everyday and try to help seniors, of the people who run the nursing homes and the communities like Hibbing and Aurora that host these homes and especially difficult for areas in the country like the Range that have a higher than average population of senior citizens.”
Driving north to Hibbing from a similar media stop in Duluth, Klobuchar said she was on a White House phone conference as part of the economic task force Tuesday morning to discuss the options of test distribution with a focus on senior centers nursing homes. “I personally want to see more funding from the federal government not just on testing but also to cities, and let me make clear not just big cities but cities like Hibbing and Aurora in our state,” she said, adding that the conversation will continue in the Senate next week. She added, “We know that if it gets into a nursing home it seems to have spread all over the country very, very quickly.”
The ACCESS Act
A light rain fell outside of the Guardian Angels building as Klobuchar joined Hibbing Mayor Rick J. Cannata and Aurora Mayor Doug Gregor in discussing the legislation and her efforts to support the local communities in the northern part of the state. All three of them sported masks and stayed six-feet apart while standing in a semicircle, an informal meeting of sorts. All would on occasion turn around to wave at the staff and residents inside the facility.
Klobuchar noted that her father, Jim Klobuchar, 92, has dementia and lives in an assisted living and memory care community. She can call the general number for the facility and residents can access FaceTime with their own phones. She commended the efforts, but said that ideally each facility would have the ability to provide tablets or other forms of technology to allow residents to speak with their families.
If passed, the ACCESS Act authorizes $50 million for the Department of Health and Human Services’ Telehealth Resource Center to help expand services at assistant nursing facilities that receive funding through Medicare or Medicaid. The Act also requires the HHS Secretary to recommend ways to improve telehealth services and establishes a grant program to facilities to help residents to participate in “virtual visits.”
Klobuchar fields comments from mayors on CARES Act, mining, tourism
After about seven minutes, Klobuchar redirected her conversation and touched on the struggles of business on the Iron Range, saying that “even if the Covid numbers are low in a region, you still have economic issues.” Klobuchar noted that she has been in conversation with the mining industry, including recent talks with the United Steelworkers union for MinnTac, KeeTac and HibTac, representing three of the 6 mines on the Iron Range which have idled and laid off more than 1,800 workers since mid-March due to the economic toll of the coronavirus.
Standing 6-feet apart, Cannata told the senator that he “agreed with you about getting the CARES funding for small cities” like Hibbing and Aurora on the Iron Range, because “we’re all in this together.”
“It just seems when the money comes down from the federal government to the state and then it just sort of stays in the metro areas or the bigger cities…,” Cannata told the senator. “So, whatever you could do to help us up here for smaller communities to help us with businesses and nursing homes and the virtual visits I appreciate it.”
Klobuchar acknowledged when the CARES Act was first distributed to the states, there was “so much focus on New York and now we’re seeing more and more realization that the economic harm is everywhere.” In that vein, she wants her ACCESS Act to offer enough funding for local communities as well.
Cannata circled back to make his point, saying “it seems we get lost in the shuffle when it comes to starting to spread out the money coming from the federal government.” He would add, “No offense, everybody’s in this together, but by the time it gets to us on the Range and smaller communities, there’s not going to be much less for our towns up here when you look at how much has already been set aside....And that’s what we’re worried about in northern Minnesota is what’s going to be left when it comes to our towns.”
Gregor chimed in on the topic of the CARES Act being distributed to local cities. “We’re facing a lot of cash flow issues at the local municipality level,” he said. “We need to somehow kick that into gear.” He noted that the governor could do it unilaterally unless legislators want their input.
Klobuchar said that she would talk to the governor on the matter.
Gregor also mentioned the relationship between “the senior issue and the broadband issue” in a region that has long struggled with obtaining reliable internet access which has only exacerbated in a time when many people have been using such resources when staying at home.
On the tourism front, Klobuchar asked the mayor whether the resorts had plans to open up in the surrounding area. Cannata replied that “everything is day-by-day” and all has “been so up in the air” given the changes in state and federal guidelines on social distancing.
“If you want to look at the bright side, I think the ups and downs of the Range economically has cultured a group of seniors who are so resilient,” Gregor added. “They go with these punches knowing that there will be a better day because they survived everything else.” Klobchuar continued, “And it shows the importance of Social Security and having a safety net. The unemployment system is not foreign to a lot of the workers up here, because they’ve been through it before when some people never thought in their whole life they’d be laid off and then suddenly they are and they don’t know what to do.”
When the Hibbing Daily Tribune asked about how the federal government can support local hospitals which could potentially treat a large number of older adults per capita, Klobuchar responded that she has been on weekly calls with hospitals in the state to talk about “how we can get them more protective equipment for the workers and testing in the supply chain.”
“We have seen some improvement in Minnesota. And the hospitals are going to have to protect each other in the end, because they’re going to have to help each other. And the federal government should be the one giving the strategy out, which has been a major delay in my mind that should not have happened and also giving help financially. This is not just a statewide problem. It’s not just a national problem. It’s an international problem.”
She added, “So, you cannot expect St. Louis County to be able to suddenly have all the equipment and the testing that it needs. That should come from the state, but ultimately it should come from the federal government.”
Klobuchar had four-point additional points, noting that $25 billion of coronavirus relief package includes $25 billion which has been aimed at improving testing for states; there remained a need to keep funding vaccine research; acquiring better treatments; and triaging in terms of taking careful measures where there are congregations of seniors. That is why, for example, she has been working on the “voting-by-mail” to avoid citizens getting sick at the polls as some did after the primary vote in Wisconsin.