The fact that financial stress increased during the pandemic wasn’t surprising, but county officials worry it could get worse during the recovery.

“This is probably just the tip of the iceberg,” lead county epidemiological Meaghan Sherden said Wednesday in reviewing results from the county’s COVID-19 impact study.

RELATED: Olmsted County eyes options for expected $30.7 million in federal funding

The survey conducted in January pointed to a steady increase in financial stress since 2013, when compared to past surveys.

“The most common stressors were medical bills and rent and mortgage, which is pretty similar to what we have seen in previous Community Health Needs Assessment surveys,” said Derrick Fritz, the county’s community health assessment and planning coordinator.

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Sherden, who has helped lead past assessments, said the important thing to remember is the timing of the survey.

“There was so much going on when this survey was happening,” she said, pointing to a variety of support programs, as well as a state moratorium on evictions.

“We paid a lot of rent, and we kept people on health care,” said Corrine Erickson, the county’s director of Family Support and Assistance.

“Even with those measures in place, people were still feeling the stress,” she added.

Erickson said the county had a 32 percent increase in the number of Medical Assistance cases throughout the pandemic because new recipients were being added, while the federal emergency meant no one was being removed from the program.


What happened: Olmsted County's Health, Housing and Human Services Committee received an update on the COVID-19 impact survey conducted earlier this year.

Why does this matter: Survey results are expected to help guide county commissioners and administrators as they prepare a plan for spending federal recovery funds.

What's next: County commissioners will review a spending plan at a later date, and the county will continue work on the next Community Health Needs Assessment survey to be conducted later this year.


She said that will change with the expiration of the status at year’s end.

“There will be a whole bunch of people, families, who will lose that health care eligibility,” she said. “We hope they have something else in place.”

Other financial pressures could increase as housing protections and support wind down, she added.

“(Rochester Public Utilities) has told us they are going to start disconnect notices in August,” she said.

The city-owned utility provider has been working with federal funds and local agencies to help people keep bills paid and recently established a program, Neighbors Chipping In, that provides a way for customers to help others.

Fritz said the recent survey shows the financial stress goes beyond whether a household can pay a bill.

“We’ve also noted those who are financially stressed are also more likely to have poor mental health overall,” he said.

The survey also pointed to an increase in mental health issues and substance abuse, which join financial stress as Olmsted County’s three top health issues or threats.

Results from an Olmsted County COVID-19 impact survey are compared to results from past Community Health Needs Assessments to show how self-reported mental health issues have changed in recent years and during the pandemic. (Olmsted County Public Health)
Results from an Olmsted County COVID-19 impact survey are compared to results from past Community Health Needs Assessments to show how self-reported mental health issues have changed in recent years and during the pandemic. (Olmsted County Public Health)

Results from an Olmsted County COVID-19 impact survey show how alcohol and drug use has increased during the pandemic. (Olmsted County Public Health)
Results from an Olmsted County COVID-19 impact survey show how alcohol and drug use has increased during the pandemic. (Olmsted County Public Health)

The data collected, with 737 people completing 2,000 randomly mailed surveys, will help county officials decide how to spend the nearly $30.7 million expected from the federal American Rescue Plan Act over the next two years.

While the mailed survey provides context to how the pandemic has impacted local residents, Sherden said a wider view will also be needed as recovery efforts continue.

She said comparing the 2018 Community Needs Assessment with the recent study provides some new understanding, but it will likely take the results of the next large-scale assessment at the end of the year to get a clear picture of what people have faced and how long recovery could take.

“I think that will be an opportunity to really see more of the impact of financial stress,” she said .