A year into pandemic, some efforts to help Minnesota health workers may be here to stay

Kelly Smith, Star Tribune
·5 min read

A year into the pandemic, some efforts to help Minnesota health care workers that sprouted up amid the crisis and chaos have taken root.

Students who started babysitting and dog sitting for health care workers last spring have now spread the program statewide, while extra mental health support for essential workers has broadened to anyone struggling with stress.

"Who knew we'd still be in this situation a year later?" said Emily Crosby Lehmann, 20, a St. Olaf College nursing student who volunteers for the nonprofit MN Covidsitters. The organization provides babysitting and other services to health care workers. "Even after the pandemic, there's always a need to help our health care workers."

The first coronavirus case was reported in Minnesota on March 6, 2020. In the months afterward, Minnesotans rallied to help one another, chatting over video with isolated nursing home residents, making thousands of masks, cheering on first responders from downtown balconies and coordinating meals for front-line staff.

Now, a year later, many initiatives have faded away as schools and restaurants have reopened, senior homes have lifted restrictions and coronavirus cases have dipped as vaccinations increase.

"There was definitely a drop-off in the interest [from] that initial adrenaline rush," said Dr. Bryan Williams, an intensive care physician who is M Health Fairview's system director of well-being.

"It's time to take a pause and to really appreciate [health care workers] at this junction. It's been a long year and those signs of appreciation and gratitude go a long way. It's not over by any stretch."

Carleigh Rand isn't sidelining her work. The 25-year-old University of Minnesota medical student has volunteered since last summer to babysit for health care workers.

"I know that COVID has been really hard on health care workers," said Rand, who added that the need for child-care help won't disappear with COVID since health care workers' schedules are often outside child-care hours.

What started by U med students as a spreadsheet to coordinate free babysitting and pet sitting for health care workers has expanded into a statewide nonprofit with some 280 college and university students volunteering for about 250 health care workers. The student-led nonprofit is fundraising to give volunteers gift cards and expanding to tutoring and adult respite care.

While there's growing COVID fatigue, 31-year-old Sara Lederman, one of the founders and a U med student, said it's important not just to serve in times of crisis. For Shannon Marchiando of West St. Paul, a nurse and a single mom, the free help kept her afloat on bills while she worked 12-hour shifts and her 8-year-old son did distance learning at home.

"There was a while that I was paying more for child care than my mortgage," she said. "[Covidsitters] meant more to me than most people would realize. They were truly a blessing."

Mental health helpAs coronavirus cases have declined and restaurants have reopened, efforts to give food to hospitals have waned. Feeding the Frontline Minnesota, for example, wrapped up providing 30,000 meals and snacks to Twin Cities hospitals last summer.

Now, many health care workers may not need a free meal as much as they need mental health help as they confront increasing burnout and psychological trauma. M Health Fairview has added support groups, a peer-support program and even aromatherapy and acupressure. The new momentum for wellness, Williams said, should be here to stay post-pandemic.

"COVID definitely highlighted more than ever the need for well-being to be a part of an organizations' infrastructure," he added.

Last April, the Minnesota Psychiatric Society, Minnesota Psychological Association, Mental Health Minnesota and Minnesota Association of Black Psychologists started a free support phone line for first responders and essential workers. Organizers assumed they'd run the anonymous hotline (833-HERE4MN) for a few weeks, but as the pandemic raged on, they extended it through last summer, then fall. Now, it's available through at least June for any Minnesotan struggling with stress and mental health issues.

Willie Garrett, president of the Association of Black Psychologists, said trauma has accumulated over the last year — from dealing with the anxiety of the pandemic to the police killing of George Floyd and the turmoil of the 2020 presidential election. The free daily hotline isn't meant to be therapy, but the 40 volunteer experts answer calls to listen and connect people to services.

"The mental health pandemic that will follow this COVID-19 pandemic will be a lot longer," said Linda Vukelich, executive director of the Minnesota Psychiatric Society. "The need is growing, the intensity of the stress is growing."

Trisha Stark, a licensed psychologist, talks to about four callers a week, many of whom are isolated in the pandemic, offering words of hope and coping skills tips like deep breathing.

"I think people are a little more hopeful with the vaccine but for a while, people were wondering how long this would go on," she said. "People are traumatized about what they've gone through in the last year."

New national fundAs vaccinations increase and deaths decline nationwide, a national fund for families of health care workers who have died of COVID-19 will hopefully become obsolete.

Last November, the St. Paul & Minnesota Foundation and Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the U, teamed up to create the Frontline Families Fund to pay funeral costs, college scholarships and other expenses for families of health care workers who have died. The fund has supported grants by the national Brave of Heart Fund, which has helped more than 200 families, though none are Minnesotans yet.

The fund has raised $1.7 million from more than 600 people in every state, said Jeremy Wells, the foundation's senior vice president of philanthropic services, adding that fundraising will likely end in June.

"It just shows this broad outpouring of support," he said. "We just want to make sure all these families are getting the support they need."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141