From staff members out of work because of illness or in quarantine, staffing is a prominent issue as positive cases of COVID-19 continue to increase in area counties, as community health and education leaders shared in a Lakewood Health System virtual town hall on Nov. 5.

“Staffing’s really getting to be the most difficult piece, even if we’ve got the stuff to provide them with the personal protective equipment and the space to care for these patients, staffing’s really tight,” said vice president of nursing Corrine Neisess. Hospitals were able to plan for surges and gather personal protective equipment and ventilators in the spring when additional safety and health measures were in place to slow the spread.

With the increased prevalence of COVID-19 in the area, the test positivity rate is 15%, according to family medicine provider and chief medical officer Dr. Christine Albrecht. The test positivity rate is the number of positive tests per tests taken. Lakewood has drive-up testing available that will continue with the addition of “COVID castles,” converted ice fishing houses that will keep staff members warm as they wait for patients to come for testing, as Albrecht and Neisess said.

“There’s just a lot of community spread in our area and that has hit us really hard staffing, and right now we have 54 of our staff members out,” Albrecht said. “All areas across the entire health system have been hit by this and then that creates difficulty in how we are able to care for everybody.”

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The number of ICU and medical surgical beds across Minnesota are “tight” and hospitals report three times a day about their available beds along with an available hotline for transferring critical patients to another hospital, as Albrecht and Neisess said. Neisess said all patients have been able to get a bed this way thus far. Local hospitals also consult with regional hospitals on patient evaluations for the best care possible.

Throughout the hospital, there have been shifts in how spaces are used and organized such as traffic flow and eight negative pressure rooms for COVID-19 patients. Negative pressure rooms remove the air from the building instead of it recirculating, which benefits staff members and other patients, according to Neisess. The rooms can have up to 16 patients, and have been used for COVID-19 patients.

Staples-Motley School District

Superintendent Shane Tappe noted the “scalpel approach” that districts use for transitioning learning models, which includes county data, cases in the school, the number of students and staff in quarantine and meetings with public health, Sourcewell, local superintendents, and the Minnesota Department of Health.

“While many of these numbers are high what we are fortunate to see is not a lot of spread amongst younger folks,” Tappe said.

RELATED: Tappe: How districts make decisions on learning model changes

The schools also see changes in sports activities due to COVID-19 situations in the area. And when staffing problems include a change in the learning model or students need to quarantine and have a parent home with them, staff at area businesses are also impacted.

Central Lakes College Staples

With career tech programs at the college, students continue to have in-person classes for learning and certification requirements with changes to the number of students per class, additional sections of classes and remaining with the same lab partner throughout the semester instead of switching. There are 250 students on campus with approximately 38 in quarantine, according to dean of Staples campuses, nursing and grants David Endicott.

The students' exposure to the virus has predominantly been in the community with a few exposures in programs at the college. The college uses county, school and community data and works with the state as well as focuses on programs for changes that need to be made rather than closing the whole campus, as Endicott said.

“We’re, like everybody else, scrambling day by day,” Endicott said. “We’ve got to be pretty thankful we’ve … managed to get this far with all of our programs still being able to operate as they are.”

COVID-19 Cases Updates

As of Nov. 6, Wadena County has 376 positive cumulative cases and 5 deaths, according to MDH. In October alone, there were approximately 250 cases, according to Wadena County Public Health director Cindy Pederson.

The coronavirus exposures are highest in long-term care and community unknown, which indicates people were exposed to the virus in the community. Office spaces and retail settings are also places of high exposure to the virus. The highest number of cases are in the 50-59 years old age range followed by 60-69 and 49-49, according to Pederson.

“What we do as individuals really does make a difference because it makes a difference what happens in our community and it really does affect a lot of the partner organizations,” Pederson said.

RELATED: Lakewood town hall: Community question and answer

As of Nov. 6, Todd County has 1,127 positive cumulative cases and 9 deaths, according to MDH. The spread of the virus is in households across the county, according to Todd County Health and Human Services Director Jackie Och, with 10% of cases no longer needing isolation. Isolation is a sick person separating themselves from other people, including in their own household as much as possible.

From Oct. 18-24 the positivity rate was 19.5%, one of the highest in the state again. The average age of cases in the county is 40-43 years old.

“We’re seeing a very high exposure,” Och said.

The county is also preparing for when a COVID-19 vaccine is ready, including drive-thru or walk-thru opportunities at the Todd County fairgrounds. Several companies are developing vaccines, which are in the trial phases.