The recently approved $900 billion federal COVID-19 stimulus package promises to include money for Minnesota to bolster testing, distribute vaccines and help nursing homes better protect those most vulnerable to the virus.
But just how much the state will get for vaccine assistance or nursing home help has yet to be disclosed, said Margaret Kelly, deputy commissioner and chief operating officer at the state Department of Health.
"We haven't heard yet how they are going to allocate the dollars or what vehicle they are going to use," she said. "We anticipate getting money to help continued testing — to allow us to continue our community testing strategy — and with distributing vaccines."
That's especially welcome news as concerns rise nationwide about delays in getting vaccines to those atop the priority list for receiving them.
Overall, the stimulus package will provide $70 billion for public health measures, including $20 billion for the purchase of vaccines, $8 billion for vaccine distribution, and an additional $20 billion to help states continue their test-and-trace programs.
In Minnesota, Kelly said, the anticipated funding boost could help schools reopen to in-person learning by paying for every-other-week testing for teachers. It could also mean money to develop more rapid testing, or help develop more efficient ways to distribute more vaccines to priority groups, such as those at higher risk of serious illness or death.
The stimulus money is an expected infusion of cash for health care at a critical time.
"I would think nursing homes would be a part of that," Kelly said.
Kari Thurlow, senior vice president of advocacy for LeadingAge Minnesota, said building an adequate network to deliver and administer enough vaccines to residents and staff members at the state's 300-plus nursing homes and 1,200 assisted-living facilities has proved to be "a heavy lift," one that will benefit from the additional money the stimulus is expected to provide.
"These past few weeks, we have been so happy to see our members begin to get vaccines. It's been uplifting," she said, noting much more remains to be done before residents and workers are protected. On any given day, she said, member facilities care for more than 70,000 older adults in Minnesota.
Patti Cullen, president and CEO of Care Providers of Minnesota, said she anticipates that Minnesota will see stimulus aid for vaccines and nursing homes in the hundreds of millions of dollars, "allowing another boatload of vaccines to be purchased."
Another provision of the bill allows Liberian refugees to stay in the U.S. longer. Thousands work in long-term care settings, Cullen said. Allowing them to stay means avoiding additional staffing shortages.
Annette Greely, president and CEO of the Jones-Harrison Residence in Minneapolis, said she hopes a new round of aid for businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program will help nursing homes that have seen their resident numbers drop. The stimulus measure sets aside $284 billion toward forgivable small-business loans, but it remains unclear what will be available for small businesses in Minnesota.
Jones-Harrison is licensed for 157 beds, Greely said, but it reduced the number of beds to 130 to allow for more spacing, and its actual resident numbers are even lower. The facility is struggling to offset lost revenue.
"People are waiting to move into long-term care until a vaccine is widely available," she said. "They're waiting to see how we handle this, which is understandable."
But advocates for nursing home workers and residents say any financial assistance should include cash for the workers themselves — through pay or bonuses.
"These people are working for $12 an hour," said Jean Peters, president of Elder Voice Family Advocates and a nurse. "The most important thing is that any stimulus money goes to the workers who are doing the hard work — people who sometimes have to work at multiple facilities in order to eke out a living."
One way to ensure money goes to workers and not just to the facility's profit margin is through an online dashboard, Peters said.
"Let's find out how much [stimulus] went to each facility," she said. "Once one has that information available, the questions become easier to ask."
James Walsh • 612-673-7428