12 dead from COVID-19 at Southwest Minneapolis senior homes

Jones-Harrison Residence, a senior community in Cedar-Isles-Dean, is working with state officials to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Photo by Zac Farber

Deadly clusters of COVID-19 have unsettled three Southwest Minneapolis senior homes, accounting for more than 1 in 5 known deaths from the respiratory disease across the city.

As of April 28, six residents of Jones-Harrison’s nursing home on Cedar Lake have died from the new coronavirus, including five who died between April 20 and April 27. A total of four staff members and 11 residents at the 157-bed nursing home have tested positive for the virus. One resident and one staff member of Jones-Harrison’s attached 44-bed assisted living facility have also tested positive. 

At Walker Methodist Health Center in East Harriet, four of the nursing home’s 220 residents have died from the virus and a total of nine residents and two staff members have tested positive. Eight of the nine positive tests were confirmed the week of April 20. There are no cases in the adjacent Walker Place retirement community; the door linking the facilities has been locked for over a month.

Two residents have died of the virus in Mount Olivet’s 155-bed nursing home in Windom, with a total of six residents testing positive.

All three homes have been working closely with the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) to contain the virus. 

Of the 53 known deaths from the coronavirus in Minneapolis as of April 28, 44 are linked to senior care facilities. About a third of the city’s 401 cases have been associated with senior homes. Other Southwest Minneapolis homes with confirmed exposures include The Villa at Bryn Mawr and The Waters on 50th in Fulton. At least 13 patients have died from COVID-19 at the Catholic Eldercare nursing home in Northeast, according to the Star Tribune.

Preventing spread in senior homes is a priority for MDH, since the virus poses elevated risk for the elderly and those with certain pre-existing conditions and because COVID-19 can spread quickly in places where people live in close quarters. As in many senior homes, some Jones-Harrison residents are doubled up in shared rooms, with beds separated by curtains.

Kris Ehresmann, MDH’s infectious disease director, said that while most cases are assumed to be caused by community transmission, people can transmit COVID-19 about 48 hours before showing symptoms, so the public shouldn’t assume health workers were on the job while “blatantly ill.”

“Staff and health care workers need to be present to serve the residents,” she said. “That becomes the challenge. We cannot absolutely lock them down from interaction with the community.”

Jones-Harrison is isolating residents who test positive in a closed-off wing on the building’s third floor, and three members of its nursing staff are sleeping in spare rooms at the home to decrease the likelihood of spreading the virus. Mount Olivet residents who test positive are also being isolated.

While Jones-Harrison has had residents living in multiple units test positive, all of Walker Methodist’s positive cases have come from a single unit. “The positive here is that this is all contained to one [hallway],” Walker Methodist spokesperson Sarah Benbow said.

That hallway, shared with an undisclosed number of healthy residents, has become Walker Methodist’s de facto COVID-19 ward. “Everyone has a private room,” Benbow said. “Moving someone through hallways and elevators can’t be a better option than keeping them confined to their room.” She said Walker Methodist will create a designated COVID wing should the virus spread beyond the hallway.

Both Benbow and Jones-Harrison president Annette Greely said a difficulty in containing the virus is the inability to test asymptomatic staff. They said it’s also been harder to get testing for staff showing symptoms than it has for sick residents. Greely said one staff member with a cough was twice denied a test by their primary care physician before they were able to get tested (in this case, the result was negative) by Hennepin County Medical Center.

“We really, really need more testing,” Benbow said. “If anything is coming in from outside our community, the only way to find it is testing.”

Jones-Harrison has been seeking to limit the spread of the virus by requiring all staff who interact with residents to wear masks, goggles and gowns; Walker Methodist staff interacting with healthy residents must wear surgical or cloth masks. 

On April 23, Mayor Jacob Frey ordered long-term care facilities to limit entry, suspend communal dining and screen staff and patients daily for symptoms — all measures that Greely and Benbow said their homes had been taking for weeks.

Jones-Harrison residents are asked to stay in their rooms as much as possible. If they leave, they’re told to wear cloth masks, though Greely said “they’re not too happy about it.” The mayor’s order asks that residents “who can tolerate it” wear masks outside their rooms.

Staff at Jones-Harrison share a message of gratitude for those in their community who had sent words of support or had donated hand-sewn masks or makeshift gowns. Submitted photo

Greely and Benbow said it’s been difficult to obtain some personal protective equipment (PPE), particularly gowns. Greely will get emails from suppliers offering to sell 100,000 medical gowns but she can’t find them in more reasonable quantities.

To conserve PPE supplies for its front-line workers, Jones-Harrison has solicited donations of cloth masks and makeshift long-sleeved gowns — “XXL men’s shirts, old housecoats or even old robes.” “It’s been very heartwarming to see the support,” Greely said. 

Greely said the most painful part of the pandemic has been how families can’t be with their loved ones physically, particularly in the last days of their life. She said it’s been difficult for staff to serve as residents’ only point of in-person contact. “COVID is a very hard virus, especially for this age group,” she said.

On April 13, Anita Robinson, 94, became the first Jones-Harrison resident to die from COVID-19.

“Special thanks to her extraordinarily compassionate and caring nurses, aides and therapists at Jones-Harrison Residence, who literally treated her like family throughout her stay,” Robinson’s family wrote in her obituary.

Staff reporter Andrew Hazzard and MinnPost reporters Walker Orenstein and Greta Kaul contributed to this story.

If you or your loved one have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and you would be willing to speak about your experience, please email [email protected]