ST. CLOUD (St. Cloud Times)— The leader of Central Minnesota’s largest health care provider is offering a grim perspective on how the country is responding to the novel coronavirus.
“I’m afraid we’re planning around this (nationally) based on the way previous crises were,” Dr. Ken Holmen, president and chief executive officer of CentraCare, said during a Wednesday call with Sen. Amy Klobuchar. “I think the COVID crisis is very different.”
Holmen, who was joined by St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis and other area officials in a phone conversation with Klobuchar, said public health responses are largely based on natural emergencies like tornadoes and fires or events like the Interstate 35W bridge collapse.
But those events are contained to geographic areas or relatively short periods of time.
“Our federal and state responses to emergencies have been built … upon principles that I think are going to fail us,” Holmen said, “because the coronavirus is going to hit the entire country pretty hard, pretty quick.”
Klobuchar spoke with Central Minnesota leaders and media to answer questions about the $2 trillion stimulus package signed into law on March 27 by President Donald Trump, as well as hear how the pandemic is affecting the St. Cloud area.
“We passed this big bill recently on a bipartisan basis…,” Klobuchar said. “People just knew it wasn’t perfect but knew we had to get the help out there, first and foremost to our hospitals and our health care workers.”
Holmen said the bill’s loosening of telehealth regulations will make a difference in health care response during the pandemic, as well as propel the industry toward “a new normal related to health care delivery.”
St. Cloud Hospital — a 420-unit ICU center?
CentraCare, like other health care providers, faces challenges making sure there will be enough beds for patients. Holmen said CentraCare leaders are working on plans to “convert St. Cloud Hospital, for example, into a 420-unit ICU unit. That’s a significant undertaking but we’re making great progress.”
Another concern is having enough personal protective equipment for staff.
“We will be short the protective equipment, no matter how you slice it,” Holmen said. “We want to take good care of our folks.”
Kleis said he is concerned about the lack of general testing for the virus, which could impede the city’s ability to provide essential services like police, fire and water management when city employees are infected by the virus.
Because of limited testing supplies, Minnesota Department of Health guidelines recommend prioritizing tests for health care workers, hospitalized patients and residents of congregate settings, such as nursing homes.
‘The data is scary’
When Klobuchar asked the leaders if they thought Central Minnesotans were following social distancing guidelines, Holmen said he thinks people are serious about it. But without widespread testing, leaders need to assume the community spread of the virus is significant, he said.
“I suspect the social distancing that we’re doing now is not enough,” he said. “There are … different models of the impact of the virus in Minnesota. (Our) health systems are working with a firm in Silicon Valley on more operational modeling rather than public health modeling and the data is scary.
“And I don’t want to scare anybody, but we need to figure out how to manage this crisis after it’s done and come up with a process and a plan to get our communities back to normal as quickly as possible — recognizing that we will not get back to the way it was.”
Holmen said he understands leaders want to project an “air of confidence” but urged them to be pragmatic.
“My fear is that we’re spending a lot of time talking about the way things will be: We will get more testing, we will get more ventilators,” he said. “The problem is we will have a fundamental huge ventilator shortage in America and Minnesota. We have done 18,000 tests in Minnesota. The Mayo has been great; they’ve ramped up to 4,000 to 5,000 (tests) a day. We should be testing 2.5 million people in the next three months.
“And so it’s not that we don’t want to be positive and optimistic,” Holmen continued. “I think our challenge is this is such an unusual thing in our country, that our planning is based on the way things were in the past, and our conversation points and planning for the future is based on what it will look like in three to four to five months. And so … what happens next 90 days are really crucial.”
Holmen also suggested leaders refrain from misleading messages about the country being open by Easter — with businesses reopened and social distancing guidelines lifted.
Klobuchar agreed, stating, “I think you’ve seen a different message from the administration just in the last few days because that was a problem.”
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She said that messaging made people comfortable going out and avoiding social distancing guidelines. In the past few days, messaging from the White House changed to support extended containment measures.
“I’m glad they’ve changed their tune because it’s much more realistic,” Klobuchar said. “It’s bad. It’s not good news. But you’re going to protect people if they’re told the truth.”
Economic, public impacts
Kleis also said during the call he is also concerned about the city’s ability to move forward on road and sewer infrastructure projects with the state of the bond market.
“We’re not able to go into deficit spending, as is the state, and the challenging piece for us (is) we’ve got a lot of really critical infrastructure projects,” Kleis said, noting one of the projects is replacing aging sewer lines. “We’ve got to do because it’ll fail.”
Kleis said the city staff is not going to move forward unless it knows the city has the ability to take care of the debt service.
“Right now, with no bond market, it’s not even an option,” he said.