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Mayo faces Depression-like challenges

Mayo anticipated a surge of COVID patients, but they didn't come

Downtown Mayo Clinic
A pair of pedestrians wearing protective masks cross West Center Street at Second Avenue near Mayo Clinic's Gonda and Eisenberg buildings amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic Monday, April 20, 2020, in downtown Rochester. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

Anchored by Mayo Clinic, the Rochester area has always been seen as a recession-proof region. For people living and working in Rochester, the bedrock belief has almost been a birthright.

Part of that belief was rooted in demographics. As the U.S. aged, the need for health services expanded and so did Mayo.

The coronavirus global pandemic has upended that article of faith . When Mayo's chief administrative officer Jeff Bolton compared the current pandemic-fueled crisis to the Great Depression last month, he was not only describing the magnitude of the challenges ahead. It also shattered Rochester's bullet-proof reputation.

Joe Powers, owner of the family-owned Powers Ventures, believes the analogy doesn't capture the rocky road ahead.

"I think it's worse," Powers said, after Mayo announced a $3 billion shortfall that has led to the furloughing or reduction in hours of about 42 percent of its 70,000 employees across all of its campuses.


"The difference between the Great Depression and now is that Mayo is so huge," Powers said. "The cost to operate that business each and every day is mammoth compared to what it used to be in the 1930s."

Powers is former chairman of the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce. His restaurant, The Canadian Honker, on Second Street Southwest sits across the street from Saint Mary's campus. His businesses have benefited from that proximity. He also gotten to know many of the doctors and professionals who work there.

Within the scope of his own life, Powers said, Mayo's growth has been stupendous. When he was growing up, Mayo encompassed three or four downtown buildings. It was maybe one-10th of the size it is today. Saint Marys and Methodist hospitals were their own entities. There was no Gonda Building. They were no campuses in Florida and Arizona.

"It's a bigger engine, and when you get problems with bigger engines, it's more money. If you look at the size of their workforce compared to the Great Depression, there isn't even a comparison," he said.

Powers says a more apt comparison is to 9/11. After the terrorist attack on New York and Washington D.C., and the suspension of international travel, many of Mayo's foreign patients disappeared. Thankfully, the loss in business was short-lived.

The current situation threatens to be far more economically damaging for Mayo and the Rochester economy. When the clinic decided to defer all elective surgeries and procedures for at least two months, the move was made in anticipation of a surge of COVID-19 patients. But the wave never came. Indeed, one Mayo doctor called it a "trickle" compared to what New York hospitals have been seeing.

In the meantime, Mayo has found itself with a lot of empty beds and a monumental loss of revenue.

Mayo faced huge challenges during the Great Depression, World War II and 9/11, but the current crisis is the "ultimate," Powers said. "I think this one is one of the worst, just because the buildings have been empty for so long."


At a roundtable discussion Tuesday, a Mayo doctor told Vice President Mike Pence that 60 patients have been hospitalized on the Rochester campus, a far cry from what was expected. Tele-medicine has become a much larger component of Mayo's care as a result. More is done through tele-health each day now than in all of 2019, Mayo said.

"Fortunately, we have not been overwhelmed with the numbers of patients that have been seen in New York City," the doctor told Pence.

Ginger Plumbo, Mayo's communications manager, said Mayo is beginning to meet the needs of patients whose medical care was delayed due to the deferment of elective and less urgent care, which started March 23.

"As we've remained closely connected to patients through telehealth services, some of the care that was able to be deferred at that time cannot be delayed indefinitely without impact to patients' health and wellness. We are committed to safely meeting our patients' needs to prevent worsening of their conditions," she said.

"The provision of these services adheres to the executive orders at both federal and state levels and we are taking every precaution to ensure the safety of our patients, staff and our communities," Plumbo added.

Powers see this year as being difficult for people and organizations, from non-profits to commercial ventures. He's hopeful that by the beginning of next month, Rochester and other communities can get back to work.

"These are troubled, serious times we're in the middle of," he said. "Will we survive? Yes. We will get through this. I have confidence in that. But we got to get going. We have to have the governor and the federal government allow elective surgeries to start.

"If Mayo doesn't get going, none of us is going to get going," Powers said.


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