Oak Terrace Assisted Living

Oak Terrace Assisted Living in North Mankato recently tested all residents and staff, finding a concerning number of asymptomatic COVID-19 cases. Those cases are just one of many challenges long-term care facilities face as they work to protect the state’s most vulnerable residents.

NORTH MANKATO — Expanded testing at North Mankato’s Oak Terrace Assisted Living recently identified COVID-19 in 27 residents and 20 staff members — including the facility’s administrator.

Nicollet County health officials released the facility’s numbers Wednesday. The county has had four COVID-19 deaths since Monday and its seven total are the most in south-central Minnesota since the pandemic began.

Oak Terrace had been grappling with some COVID-19 exposures among staff and residents since April, but the testing in recent weeks revealed a concerning number of asymptomatic cases, said Administrator Drew Hood.

“We have residents and staff who were completely asymptomatic who, if we didn’t do the testing, we never would’ve known,” he said.

Hood was one of the asymptomatic cases who has since recovered.

Nicollet County officials and Eric Weller from the South Central Minnesota Health Care Coalition recently helped coordinate testing for all residents on multiple occasions, which Hood said will help mitigation efforts.

The county and the assisted living facility are working together on ongoing mitigation. Their plans include continued testing of residents and staff, continuing to restrict visitors and isolating residents with symptoms.

Asymptomatic residents and staff also will be isolated, with the recent broad testing being the first real way to identify those more elusive cases. With no national testing strategy from the beginning of the pandemic, states have only recently been able to expand testing enough to offer it to asymptomatic people.

The potential for asymptomatic spread is why health experts are stressing the need for masks and other mitigation efforts for the public, said Cassandra Sassenberg, Nicollet County’s director of health and human services.

“I think people are getting the idea that because they’re feeling well they can interact with vulnerable populations and things will be OK,” she said. “If you’re asymptomatic, you could be spreading it to people who are at really high risk.”

She praised Oak Terrace for working with the county to monitor residents and staff and isolate cases when they arise. Oak Terrace is using a dedicated wing to treat residents with COVID-19, which staff modified to make more room Wednesday.

The facility had a wing ready early in the pandemic, despite smaller numbers of cases identified on-site in April. Hood said he’s thankful the facility prepared.

“It sat empty for five weeks but I’m glad we had it,” he said. “We’ve been able to separate residents and have dedicated staff.”

He commended staff for working long hours to care for residents during the pandemic. The facility isn’t experiencing major worker shortages, despite some staff needing to isolate, although it did have to use staffing agencies to bring in help for the first time.

Oak Terrace includes memory care and independent living along with assisted living. Long-term care facilities have been hit hard by COVID-19 with 81% of Minnesota’s 932 deaths occurring in people who resided in them.

The North Mankato facility was one of the first long-term care facilities in south-central Minnesota with COVID-19 exposures, and it wasn’t the last. Pillars of Mankato in Blue Earth County, St. John Lutheran Home in Brown County, Friendship Court in Faribault County and Temperance Lake Ridge in Martin County are the other facilities with known cases so far — the Minnesota Department of Health only lists facilities with at least 10 residents.

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