Rock County flanked by coronavirus 'hotspots'

Numbers climb to over 1,500 to the west in Minnehaha County and rapidly increasing to the east in Nobles

There are five MDH-confirmed cases of coronavirus in Rock County as of noon on Tuesday, but there are believed to be many more, considering recent developments in neighboring communities.

The outbreak in Smithfield Foods, Sioux Falls, is one of the worst “hotspots” in the nation with more than 1,500 cases in Minnehaha and Lincoln counties just over the border in South Dakota.

JBS Pork processing plant in Worthington closed its doors Monday after dozens of workers tested positive for the virus, bringing the Nobles County case number to more than 100.

According to Rock County Emergency Management Director Kyle Oldre, local cases remain minimal, but it’s a matter of time before those numbers start increasing.

“There are 3,700 workers at Smithfield in Sioux Falls and 2,000 at JBS in Worthington,” Oldre said. “We know we have Rock County workers in both plants, but we don’t know how many or where they live.”

He said many of the processing plant workers live together and commute together, increasing the exposure once somebody gets sick. Also, employers are challenged to communicate safety policies with a workforce that uses more than 50 different languages.

Further, some housing arrangements include workers from both plants, and from operations in Pipestone and Chandler.

“It’s about how they move between facilities and how they share housing,” Oldre said. “It’s going to be widespread.”

Meanwhile, his office has been working with the state, with neighboring counties, with health care providers and with other agencies to prepare for a surge of coronavirus cases.

Personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer and other supplies continue to come for distribution and homemade masks are being donated from multiple sources.

For example, Sanford Luverne is making arrangements for extra hospital beds to accommodate more patients as critical cases move to Sioux Falls and less critical overflow patients come to Rock County.

“We don't anticipate needing them or having to go to that measure,” said Sanford Luverne CEO Tammy Loosbrock. “But we do have plans if needed.

At Sanford Luverne more than 125 people have been tested for the virus.


Sanford Luverne tests

over 125 people, shares checklist of preparations

According to Loosbrock, the hospital has made several changes and adjustments to prepare for an influx of patients,

 “We've been busy cross training staff to key areas that we know would potentially be busy with increased cases,” she said.

“We've designated one area within the clinic for testing patients to ensure separation, and we've converted one OB room and the 300 hall rooms to negative air pressure to handle Covid-19 patients.” 

The list also includes:

•Checking employee temperatures daily.

•Making an iPad available for inpatients to remain connected to their family since visitors are not allowed.

•Conducting many clinic visits by video to allow patients to see their providers for care.

“With that said, we are still here for regular and important appointments, such as immunizations and other visits that need to be done in person,” Loosbrock said.

•Partnering with area nursing homes to learn each other’s capabilities and needs.

•Ensuring staff members have the right personal protective equipment and are trained to use it properly.

•Meeting often with Sanford partners to discuss what will happen when patient numbers spike.

“We've had many meetings with the system to discuss the flow of patients with Sioux Falls to ensure the higher level of care and support for patients and the role Luverne will play to support our patients and others from the region,” Loosbrock said.


What if the ones helping victims become victims?

 Despite all the preparation, Oldre said it all comes down to having enough “front line” health care workers to meet expected demand.

“I’m really worried about us maintaining a high enough number of medical professionals to take care of people,” he said.

“They do a great job and they run an efficient operation, but it’s not like they have a reserve of workers to draw from. Nobody overstaffs.”

He said some health care workers are evaluating their risks and deciding to leave as numbers of virus cases increase.

Further, Oldre said, it’s not uncommon for those helping victims to become victims.

“We only have a few pharmacists in town,” he said. “What do we do when one or two get sick?”


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