New Ulm Journal: Feehan town hall focuses on virus

NEW ULM — Dan Feehan, a DFL candidate for Minnesota’s first congressional seat, held a third virtual town hall with the goal of sharing information and resources with southern Minnesotans during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The panelist included State Rep. Jeanne Poppe (27B) and Tina Liebling (26A), Pommella Weggman, President of Southeast Minnesota Labor Council, and Dr. Priya Sampathkumar, an infectious disease specialist in Rochester.

Feehan said there were several reasons for these virtual town hall panels. The first was to provide information on the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In a time when you can feel most helpless, information is what you can do to combat what is in front of you,” Feehan said.

Another reason for the panel is to help people realize they are not alone. He said this was a collective problem.

He began by asking the panel about common questions or concerns they hear regarding COVID-19.

Liebling said she has heard a lot from the disability community. The crisis hit some harder than others. There are also senior citizens who used to gather in congregate settings, but can no longer do this.

“I think isolation is a real problem for many people,” Liebling said. “It is a real painful time for a lot of people.”

Poppe said economic issues are a top concern. “The biggest fear, the biggest challenge is not knowing what is coming next or when it is coming,” she said.

Sampathkumar received questions about the disease transmissions and ways to protect oneself.

Weggman said most of the comments she heard were about safety. Outbreaks at meat processing plants have raised concerns among workers at other plants. There are requests for personal protective equipment (PPE).

Line speed at plants has made it difficult to socially distance. Employees on the line are standing elbow to elbow.

“So many workers are putting their lives at risk,” Weggman said. “We absolutely need to do more for safety for them.”

The first question from the public was a medical question about how to exercise in isolation and the risk of using gloves in public.

Sampathkumar said as the weather improves, going outside for a walk is the best option. She said even if others outside are infected, keeping a safe distance should reduce risks.

She did not believe gloves were necessary in public. The gloves would prevent the wearer from leaving germs, but material will be picked up on the gloves, possibly causing infection.

“The best thing to do is be cognizant of what you’re touching when you are outside and wash your hands or use hand sanitizer,” Sampathkumar said. This also saves gloves for people who need them in healthcare settings.

Poppe and Liebling gave an update on aid packages to support people and small business.

Poppe said an early action was to bring the Senate and House in line for a bipartisan approach. The most recent bill for agriculture allowed for the farmer-lender mediation extension of 60 days. This allows farmers to pay off debt without going into default.

The Second Harvest Heartland food bank receives $1.25 million for the purchase and distribution of protein and milk, which will be distributed to the food shelves throughout the state.

Liebling said the Legislature has passed four packages. The first package in March was $21 million to shore up the public health system. The second was $200 million for healthcare providers. Some $50 million went out as emergency grants and the remaining $150 million is being awarded through a grant process. This would support health providers to combat COVID-19.

The third package was $200 million to fund the administration for urgent needs. Around $70 million was committed to buying PPE. There is a shortage of this equipment.

“The federal government has really advocated leadership on this and has left the states to fend for themselves,” Liebling said. This has led to competition between the states for PPE equipment and prices have risen.

The last package was $26 million for homeless shelters and additional food shelves funding. Liebling said not everyone can shelter in place and some need help.

“We’re doing better than a lot of states, but it’s really unfortunate that we don’t have the kind of partnership with the federal government all states need,” she said. “The state Legislature does not have the ability to print money. We have to balance our budget. We really depend on the federal government for a partnership here.”

Sampathkumar answered questions about COVID-19 testing in the state. She said testing has increased significantly, but limitations on materials needed for testing were down.

The testing that is done focuses on the source of the infection to identify people who might have it and quarantine them.

Sampathkumar said the Holy Grail of testing is to develop a version that can be done in 10 minutes, but the state is still a ways out for a quick turnaround time.

Weggman said the labor movement is working to fill gaps with worker protection. There have been cases of frontline workers raising concerns over a lack of PPE or improper safety protocols and being retaliated against by a manager or employer. Wegmann said this was seen on the federal level. A Navy captain reported concerns about COVID-19 on his ship and he was dismissed from service.

The Southeast Minnesota Labor Council plans to launch a worker survey next week about how work has changed since COVID-19 and what is still needed.

Weggman said there is hope to expand workers compensation; specifically that for grocery store workers. She said these employees are the unsung heroes of the crisis but there is no benefit system in place if they contract COVID-19.

Liebling said a lot of the work she is doing is trying to fill holes in the system. The largest gap is that some workers are not entitled to sick leave, meaning people might be working sick because they can’t afford to stay home.

“I hope when we get past this immediate crisis we prepare for the next one,” Liebling said. “We will prepare for that by making sure we have a more fair society where people can stay home when they are sick.”

In answer to a question on how to help children struggling in these times, Sampathkumar said there are resources online, including stories that can be read to kids.

A lot of teaching is falling on parents now. Sampathkumar told parents not to beat themselves up if kids fall a little behind on book learning. Kids are likely learning other things during this time. She also thanked all teachers for the work they are doing educating kids online.

Feehan said a trick he learned to deal with ongoing stress is to always give yourself something to look forward to the next day. This keeps a sense of routine and normalcy.

One of the last questions was related to the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) designed to keep small business afloat during the pandemic by keeping employees on the payroll.

Feehan said these funds are out now and he is concerned the people who most need them are unable to apply. The self-employed were initially unable to apply for PPP and others did not participate because employees were better compensated under unemployment insurance.

“I am really worried that this was conceived in a way that didn’t think through how we could benefit people,” he said. Feehan encouraged people to contact their representatives to fix these gaps in the system.

Feehan closed the panel by asking everyone what gives them hope during this time.

Liebling said the healthcare workers give her hope. She said Minnesota was fortunate to have an incredible healthcare community.

Sampathkumar was hopeful for the public partnerships with healthcare institutes. She also appreciated the Minnesota people who followed the stay at home orders, which did slow the pandemic.

Poppe was hopeful about the initiative people have taken to help each other and the innovation across the state.

Weggman named the spirit of Minnesota and the communities coming together.

Feehan wanted to thank the teachers and anyone involved in the schools. “It has been incredible to watch how hard and how much they innovated and adapted.”

Feehan closed with the thought that 2020 will be a year that shapes us, but said it can work in reverse. “We get to shape 2020,” he said. “There is so much more in the resilience we as Minnesotans have.”