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Duluth Times Daily Notebook: Sunday, Dec. 12

Quote Me, Howie

Northwood Children’s Services President/CEO Dick Wolleat on the pandemic’s impact on his organization:

“First I would say that adversity does not so much build character as it does reveal it. What the Covid crisis revealed about Northwood is that there is an incredible group of people working here who are willing to do whatever it takes to provide a safe and effective treatment environment for the kids we serve.

We never stopped serving kids in our residential programs — their intense mental health needs were not eradicated by the virus.Figuring out the protocols to keep everyone safe was an incredible challenge. The guidance from governmental agencies changed daily regarding exposure and mitigation efforts.

We had over 100 kids in our various residential programs living together 24/7. I spent hours ever[y day in consultation with our staff regarding potential exposures, quarantines and plugging the inevitable staffing holes. We tested everyone weekly, and established an infirmary in one of our buildings dubbed the Covid Cabana — a little lemonade out of lemons approach.

Anyway, we had scattered positive tests for kids and staff, and would need to take appropriate measures. We had a significant outbreak last November at one of our campuses — on a Friday, we had zero positive tests. A week later, we had over a dozen kids and three-quarters of the staff testing positive.

Staffing the Cabana and the campus was really challenging but a core group or folks stepped up and literally lived here for a couple weeks. Plenty of folks volunteered to assist during that time but we couldn’t afford to have them work in an infectious environment only to return to their usual work site and spread the virus.

The creativity demanded by the pandemic and the creativity we had to deliver was inspirational. We had school every day, and the teachers were present virtually and our staff facilitated the educational program. We had a plethora of creative recreational things going on constantly. Dealing with the kids inability to go home or have their parents visit was really hard- in the spring, we figured out some protocols for on-site visits that the Minnesota Department of Health asked if they could adopt for nursing home and assisted living facilities.

We had to close all of our day treatment programs, as they are offered in school settings scattered around town. We did not lay off any staff, and figured we would need the community services folks to fill in for residential programs due to the absences caused by Covid.

In mid-summer- we began to re-open our day treatment programs, primarily because of requests from the building principals from the schools where we provide services. They were grateful for our return. We opened up our site-based programs as well at about that time.

There has been a great deal of collateral damage caused by the pandemic. We took a huge financial hit, although the PPP program helped with that. The biggest impact has been on the workforce shortage. Even though we have a peerless benefit package, competitive compensation and a great mission to be a part of, we simply cannot find people to work. Our turnover rates are at historic lows, but people aren’t applying for jobs. As a result, we have had to limit the number of kids we serve in our various programs, and we are currently at about two-thirds capacity. That breaks my heart. There is a really unfortunate reverse correlation between kids and families needing services and people available and willing to provide them. In my 43-year career, I can tell you I have never seen anything like it.

However, there has been a lot of positive things that have emerged. Resilient people have stepped up and delivered great care. Our critical incidents are at an all-time low. Figure that. We were able to save 40 day treatment kids when The Hills closed this summer. Those programs are going well.

As the old saying goes, that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I believe that the challenges we have faced in this pandemic will have a lasting and positive impact on Northwood once we return to some semblance of normal. It is all in this frame and perspective, and I believe post traumatic growth is just as possible an outcome as post-traumatic stress.”

Published in Daily Notebook

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