COVID-19 hits high-rises, senior homes

Lindsey Metzler with her mother Jacqueline Linton, who died April 23 with COVID-19 at age 61. Submitted photo

Four in 5 Minneapolis residents who have died after contracting COVID-19 lived in senior homes, long-term care facilities or large condo and apartment buildings, according to an analysis of the first 100 deaths recorded in state data. The residents who died were between the ages of 50 and 101.

But seniors ages 55 and older only account for about a third of the positive cases in Minneapolis. The city’s nearly 3,000 positive COVID-19 tests appear to be more prevalent in North Minneapolis and an area described as “south central” Minneapolis, encompassing Cedar-Riverside and the Phillips and Powderhorn neighborhoods, according to the city Health Department.

Minneapolis Health Commissioner Gretchen Musicant said that while cases appear to be prevalent in areas with historic health disparities, testing isn’t providing a complete picture. Some symptomatic people may not be tested at all, and some clinics are offering more testing, she said. Tests only recently became available for people without symptoms.

“There is a lot going on out there that we might not see,” she said. 

Nine days

“Just sitting around being bored so I decided to get CoVid,” Jacqueline Linton, age 61, wrote on Facebook on April 19, adding that she threw in pneumonia to top it off. 

Before that post, she’d been sharing jokes about the proper time to change from day pajamas to night pajamas and how long toilet paper would last if frozen. She had contracted a rare lung disease 18 months prior and relied on medical care at Bywood East Health Care in Northeast Minneapolis, where she lived with two roommates. 

One day at lunch, Linton became alarmed when someone wearing full protective equipment walked in and pulled her lunchmate away, according to her daughter Lindsey Metzler. Linton asked if they were testing for COVID; staff said they couldn’t say, and she never saw her lunchmate again. Days later, she spiked a fever in the middle of the night and later tested positive for the virus. 

 “The sh-t gets real … real fast / Just admitted to ICU with talks about ventilator …Thanks for all your wonderful thoughts and prayers I really do appreciate it… keep them coming!!” Linton wrote April 20.

“She just said she was really scared,” Metzler said.

At one point Linton’s fever reached 106.5 — Metzler didn’t realize it was possible to have a fever that high. As a lung disease survivor, Linton had previously spent 12 days on a ventilator in a dreamlike state, and she knew her chances of surviving another vent were not good. She died on April 23, three weeks shy of her birthday. 

“From the day that she became symptomatic, to the day she passed away, was nine days,” Metzler said.

As one of more than 95,000 U.S. families who have lost a loved one, Metzler wishes more people would take the virus seriously. It’s hard to see people refusing to wear masks or follow health guidelines, she said. 

“If you were only gambling with your own life, your own wellness, then it would be like, ‘More power to you. Don’t wear a mask, [do] what you want,’” she said. “But that’s not the way that this disease works. … I wish I could drive that point home to people without them having to experience this firsthand.”

Minneapolis death records

Minnesota Department of Health records indicate that among the first 101 Minneapolis residents to die with COVID-19 as the cause of death or a contributing factor, nearly 70% lived in senior high-rises, long-term care facilities and other homes for seniors.

There have been multiple deaths at Catholic Eldercare’s northeast campus, Jones-Harrison Residence in Cedar-Isles-Dean, Minnesota Veterans Home, Mount Olivet Careview in Windom, Bywood East Health Care, Walker Methodist Health Center in East Harriet, Benedictine Health Center, Ebenezer Care Center on Portland, and Victory Health + Rehabilitation Center. At least one person has died while living at the Villa at Bryn Mawr, Providence Place, Augustana Care St. Paul’s Home Apartments, Ebenezer Park Apartments, Hiawatha Suites senior living and The Kenwood Retirement Community. 

Others who have died lived at the 3150 West Calhoun Parkway condominiums, Riverside Plaza, Karmel Village and La Rive condominiums. 

At least 12 of the deceased lived in Minneapolis Public Housing Authority buildings, including four people from Horn Towers in the Lyndale neighborhood. Others lived at Parker Skyview, Third Avenue Towers, Hamilton Manor, Holland Hi-Rise, Park Center and Cedar High Apartments.

Single-family resident addresses were scattered throughout the city, including the Fulton neighborhood. 

One of the deceased lived on a Corcoran neighborhood block where renters have litigated against the landlord for many years and recently celebrated the prospect of a future tenant co-op.

National attention

Minneapolis caught the attention of Dr. Deborah Birx, the U.S. coronavirus response coordinator, who said in a May 22 White House briefing that the metro areas with the highest COVID-19 positivity rates are the District of Columbia, followed by Baltimore, Chicago and Minneapolis. Cases are increasing in Minneapolis, she said. The state reports that ICU beds are getting tight, and in the metro as of May 27, 94% of acute care beds and 89% of critical care beds were in use.

That’s a different picture from the rest of the nation, which overall is seeing decreasing amounts of illness, decreasing mortality and a decline in new hospitalizations, according to Birx. 

In a recent media briefing, Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said she’s spoken to Birx and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about Minneapolis’ positive cases, and explained that the state is intentionally testing known high-risk areas, such as long-term care and congregate settings. And because of the state’s stay-at-home order, the local peak in cases is delayed behind the rest of the country, Musicant said. 

Mobile testing 

As testing capacity grows, Minneapolis officials said they are looking at mobile testing sites tied to public housing high-rises and the homeless population. A testing site in the Cedar Riverside area should be up and running by the end of the week, staff said. 

Birx is encouraging governors to test 100% of nursing home residents and staff, because many of the outbreaks seen over the last two months have started in nursing homes. 

Jones-Harrison Residence is testing all residents and staff the week of May 25. 

The Minneapolis Public Housing Authority says its highest current priority is advocating for mobile testing, as they’re seeing larger clusters in larger properties. 

“We are of course concerned about the fact that we serve many seniors and people with underlying health conditions in our high-rises. Those people live in close quarters,” said Jeff Horwich, director of MPHA policy and external affairs. “We would like to make testing available to everybody in the high-rises who wants it.” 

Nasser, Shariff and Sheikha deliver food from Afro Deli to senior residents at a high-rise in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood. Photo courtesy of Minneapolis Public Housing Authority

Horwich said MPHA is tracking about 100 suspected cases in public housing properties. MPHA posts notification if they are aware of COVID-19 in a building, but as a landlord, he said, their information comes from residents voluntarily reporting a case, and the state’s health information is still protected and private. 

Community cases

City officials have documented at least 97 positive cases in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. In an East African community briefing last week, participants on the call said they’ve heard the local malls are packed. City staff said the malls should be operating under 50% capacity, and the Health Department is reaching out to operators. 

Another area of focus is convenience stores and corner stores throughout the city, where people congregate to shop and may have difficulty staying 6 feet apart in the tight space. Business owners can feel pressure from customers and find it hard to enforce social distancing, Musicant said, and some have expressed gratitude for the mayor’s order to wear masks in public indoor spaces.

Some outbreaks are linked to workplaces, according to Musicant, although she did not have details to share about those locations. And some cases arise in households with large numbers of people. 

The City Council expects to publicly discuss on June 4 more detailed information about the populations most affected by COVID-19 and the status of testing, contact tracing and quarantine housing. 

State data indicate that 81% of Minneapolitans who have died have been white, 8% African American, 5% Somali, 4% Hispanic, 3% Asian American and 2% American Indian.

In terms of total positive cases, Minneapolis data show 35% are black, 25% Hispanic and 23% white, though the data consider Hispanic to be an ethnicity, not a race, counting those cases separately. A significant percentage of the demographic data is not yet fully known. The city is about 64% white, 19% black and 10% Hispanic, according to census data.

Contact tracing

At a recent City Council meeting, Musicant said city and state contact tracers reach out when a person is found positive. They explore who the person might have infected up to two days before the onset of symptoms, because those people should also isolate themselves. Contact tracers also help them receive essential services and think about how to isolate where they live, if possible using separate bathroom and living spaces. The county has limited hotel space available for people living in shelters, outside or in tents.*

The goal of proactive testing is to find asymptomatic cases, Birx said. The CDC now believes that 35% of infections, perhaps more, are asymptomatic people who have the virus and spread it unknowingly.

Asymptomatic testing is critical, she said, because while a person sick with a fever might only spread the virus for two days before they are bedridden, an asymptomatic person might shed the virus for a week.

“But it’s also why we continue to recommend to the public, very clearly, that you can’t tell who’s infected,” Birx said. “And so that’s why you have to continue to social distance — that’s why you need to continue to maintain 6 feet apart. I remember in the early days of HIV, people told me all the time that they knew who was infected. And I would say, ‘You don’t know who’s infected.’ …  There’s a lot of healthy people out there with COVID that look healthy.”

‘Just advocate’

“He was healthy until the very end. Faded away, is the way I’d put it,” said Brenda Canedy, a Jones-Harrison resident, describing her husband, Norman, who recently died at age 93. “It was a very interesting life I had with that man.”

Norman was an art historian, and Brenda recalled traveling Europe together, reassembling a 16th century Italian artist’s sketchbook for publication and discovering favorite art dealers while wandering London in the early 1960s. Some of the drawings and paintings they purchased are part of the Minneapolis Institute of Art and Weisman Art collections, she said.

Brenda said she’s been healthy nearly all her life, and she is well today.

“I’m having a quiet time right now,” she said, adding that she looks forward to the end of “hibernation.” “There’s a very handsome courtyard here at Jones-Harrison, so I’m looking at going down there and just enjoying being outside. When everybody’s got bugs, you can’t be outside.”

For other families grappling with COVID-19, Metzler suggests focusing on small goal lines each day: the oxygen level or the blood pressure. The Hennepin County Medical Center staff were some of the best she’s encountered in multiple states. 

Submitted photo

“My biggest advice is to be your own and your family’s advocate,” Metzler said. “I understand that this is something that we’re all learning simultaneously. But just advocate. … Just ask for answers. Keep asking questions.” 

*Clarification: Hennepin County has a limited supply of hotel rooms available for people without housing, according to city staff.