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County declares health emergency, closes office doors

Olmsted County has declared a health emergency and will suspend many face-to-face services until at least April 6.

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Olmsted County attorney Mark Ostrem speaks during a press release declaring a county emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic on Tuesday, March 17, 2020 in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

Olmsted County has declared a health emergency and will suspend many face-to-face services until at least April 6.

"That doesn’t mean services will change," Olmsted County Administrator Heidi Welsch said Tuesday. "We will still be able to deliver most of the services we have today."

Five cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Olmsted County as numbers continue to increase throughout the state and nation.

Additionally, Welsch sent an email to county staff Tuesday alerting them that a fellow employee has been tested for the virus.

She indicated later in the day that the person is likely to be included in the county’s numbers with Wednesday’s statewide update.

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The county staffer has reportedly avoided contact with co-workers in the county’s Community Services building since showing symptoms of the illness, which is generally when the illness is considered to start being contagious.

Welsch said the incident isn’t a direct cause for the county’s decision to adjust services to limit in-person services. Rather, she said the county is following state recommendations and practices adopted in other counties.

"Everybody wants to stay uniform," she said.

The city of Rochester followed suit early Tuesday evening, announcing plans to close all its facilities to the public on Wednesday.

Olmsted County buildings on the east campus will be closed until at least April 6, along with the Public Works facility and county park buildings. The goal, she said, is to stop the spread of the virus as quickly and effectively as possible.

She said that’s difficult in buildings that typically have long lines for services.

"It’s just hard to keep everyone a safe distance apart," she said.

Olmsted County will continue to provide essential services, and staff working in closed areas will be moved to fill other needs.

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"We’re not shutting down," Welsch said. "We may take some time to see how we can do this differently."

The county offers many services via phone and online, and a drop-box will be placed near the information desk in the city-county Government Center, 151 Fourth St. SE, for applications, requests for certificates and tax payments.

Additionally, Welsch said many county programs that provide essential food, housing, health and mental health support are expected to remain active without gaps in service.

"We expect we will be able to continue that in many ways," she said, indicating phone calls and other means of communication will be used in the place of some face-to-face visits.

Services that might not be able to be offered while offices are closed include issuing drivers licenses and passports.

"That’s where I anticipate the public will feel this the most," she said, adding that the official documents can be obtained through other vendors in the community.

The county changes also end on-site visits to the Olmsted County Detention Center and the Juvenile Detention Center. Additionally, Sheriff’s Department service counters will be closed, with details posted on how to make contact.

In the courthouse, County Attorney Mark Ostrem said his staff is working within guidelines set by Minnesota Chief Justice Lorie S. Gildea, which suspended several state district court proceedings through March 30.

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"The courts are obviously going to remain open," he said, noting adjustments are being made and people with court dates can call to inquire about schedule changes. 

Welsch said county commissioners are expected to meet in an emergency session Friday to formalize the health emergency status. After that, all official county meetings are expected to be canceled through April 6, which is when county staff plans to re-evaluate the potential for resuming operations. 

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Health Emergency Declared

Health Emergency Declared

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Related Topics: HEALTH
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