Hennepin and Ramsey counties approved $4.8 million in emergency funding Tuesday to establish COVID-19 quarantine sites for the Twin Cities region’s most vulnerable residents.
As Minnesota’s epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak — home to 24 of the state’s 60 cases as of Tuesday — Hennepin County is preparing to spend $3 million to negotiate leases with existing buildings, perhaps apartments or hotels, to set up isolation rooms for some residents who show signs of COVID-19. Ramsey County has set aside $1.8 million to set up similar temporary quarantine units for homeless residents.
“There are apartments; there are opportunities with motels with what we’re seeking to do,” county administrator David Hough said. “We have leads and we’re in the process of getting those documents finalized.”
With the measures, the counties are looking to create spaces for people who are homeless or vulnerable in other ways and show signs of COVID-19 but do not need hospitalization. On any given night, between 100 and 150 people over the age of 65 seek shelter at a county-sponsored emergency homeless shelter in Hennepin County, alone.
“Our highest priority is moving seniors and other people who would be at highest risk out of harm’s way,” said David Hewitt, the county’s director of the Office to End Homelessness.
In addition to homeless and elderly residents, the quarantine sites in Hennepin County may also serve travelers who are returning to Minnesota, or people who are being discharged from the hospital with no place to go and must isolate themselves under directions from the state Department of Health.
Mild to moderate symptoms of COVID-19 can take anywhere between a few days to several weeks to recover from.
Hough said the leases could last through the end of the year, and the county is purposefully not buying buildings because they want the isolation rooms to be temporary. Each patient in isolation will have their own bathroom and ventilation systems.
It’s unclear whether Ramsey County would buy property or manage leases for its sites, under the $1.8 million measure.
No further details on what — or where — the sites will be were immediately available Tuesday afternoon.
Hennepin County commissioners said they are watching how local governments nationwide are scrambling to establish similar isolation sites, including Seattle’s King County, where officials reported the first U.S. COVID-19 cases in late January. King County is currently spending more than $19 million on emergency quarantine facilities.
“This is the first effort specific to COVID and homelessness … that we’re proposing,” Hough said. “Hopefully the state and federal government respond.”
Hennepin County began making plans for how it would shift around county dollars and restructure operations to prevent the spread of COVID-19 weeks ago, according to Hough. But the plans launched in earnest Monday evening, with a prepared statement from Board President Marion Greene that declared a local state of emergency and announced the temporary closures of some county services.
So far, Hennepin County has closed its 41 libraries, human service centers and licensing services centers to the public until April 6, though some employees at those facilities are still reporting to work. The county has also cancelled or postponed all events, stopped allowing visitors at correctional facilities and authorized county employees who can telecommute to do so.
Board approves leave policies for county workers
The quarantine funding measure was part of a three-prong policy package totaling $5.5 million to revamp services and establish new rules for paid time off for county employees, all of which the board approved at a special emergency meeting Tuesday.
One measure, for example, grants all county employees who test positive for COVID-19 or have been exposed to the virus to take two paid weeks off from work. County workers who live with, or are related to, someone who may have the virus will also receive two weeks of payment, under the protection. The employees must submit medical proof of the virus to use the benefit.
The policy does not provide paid-time off for other circumstances; for example, county workers who must stay home to care for their children during statewide school closures beginning Wednesday.
Also under the policies, county employees who have not accumulated enough paid time off (whether sick leave or vacation time) to cover their absences during the pandemic will accrue negative hours. That means whenever they return from work, they will start accruing paid time off that they won’t be able to use but will cover their negative balance. Tuesday’s measure, which passed unanimously on a voice vote, upped the maximum amount of negative hours employees can accrue from 20 to 30 days.
The county has promised to forgive one week of “negative” hours for employees who are in “good standing” on the one-year anniversary of the end of the local state of emergency and another 40 hours the following year.
Different guidelines apply for Hennepin County staff working directly on the response to the coronavirus or whose jobs do not allow them to work offsite. Emergency workers in clinical services, epidemiology and emergency preparedness departments — whose expertise is critical to the county’s fight against the spread of the virus — have an additional two weeks of paid time off should they, or someone they live with, get sick with COVID-19. That benefit also applies to Hennepin County sheriff’s deputies, corrections officers and field social workers who must physically be at their jobs.
Employees upset over rules
Some county workers are upset by leaders’ approach to absences, saying they’re not being flexible enough during a time of crisis.
Minneapolis resident Jim Ahrens, a principal planner for the county and leader for AFSME Local 2864, the union that represents librarians, planners, counselors, and medical examiners in Hennepin County, told commissioners that while he appreciates commissioners’ steps to reform the rules, 80 hours of paid time off does not seem like enough.
Shane Clune, who works at East Lake Library in Minneapolis, echoed those concerns.“It does not serve our communities to work until we get sick enough to get a test,” he said. “We’re disappointed, but we’re not surprised.”
Hennepin County leaders have authorized county employees who can telecommute to do so, though some employees say their direct supervisors are not working in accordance with those guidelines or providing enough leeway so the workers can take care of children or loved ones.
“After a pandemic ends, negative PTO balance will encourage workers to come in even when they’re sick since they’ll have no way of having time off,” said DJ Hooker, who works at North Regional Library. “Y’all are playing with people’s lives and ask people to leave their families when schools are closed.”
While commissioners said they support the changes overall, some agreed that the measure leaves room for improvements. “This is an important beginning — a fast one,” Commissioner Irene Fernando said at the board meeting. “When we are telling people to stay home — maybe not ‘we’ the seven of us — but people are hearing the message to stay home and then it has to be linked to medical confirmation … I hope that … there’s additional compassion that is taking place among leaders and workers.”
Commissioner Jan Callison said she’s read a lot of emails from upset employees over the past few days, yet she believes the changes are the best approach to governing absences — for now — given the circumstances. “I know that the employees are not happy with it,” she said. “This is the right answer today. I think staff has taken the right steps with employees to recognize the hardships.”
Commissioners Jeff Johnson and Mike Opat agreed more work needs to be done at the county level to help workers, including those who don’t work for the county and could lose their jobs altogether as a result of COVID-19. “As much as we may take a bump here … those folks largely workers of color are going to be looking for a job,” Opat said.