No place in Duluth has been hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than St. Ann’s Nondenominational Senior Residence.

But Scott Johnson, executive director of St. Ann's, said the situation is much-improved in recent weeks.

St. Ann's documented its first coronavirus infection on April 6. Since then, the assisted-living facility has recorded 28 more cases of COVID-19, and the disease has exacted a terrible toll, claiming 11 residents’ lives over the course of two incubation periods. But Johnson noted that 18 people have recovered.

"I think that's important for the world to know that just because you're 90 and you get COVID-19, it doesn't mean that you're going to necessarily pass away," he said.

Scott Johnson
Scott Johnson

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Recent days have brought encouraging signs, according to Johnson, who noted: "We are 28 days cleared of the last incubation period, so that was incredibly important."

Johnson said St. Ann's has five residents who are still testing positive for COVID-19 but are symptom-free.

Reflecting on the ordeal staff and residents have experienced over the past couple months, Johnson likened it to “a war where you can't easily grasp what's happening because it's just so ever-changing."

No one was fully prepared for the challenges St. Ann’s would face when COVID-19 arrived, Johnson said.

"Despite all the world news that you see on TV, when it happens to you as an organization, it's just really hard to wrap your mind and your arms around it,” he said.

Yet Johnson said the virus also has made his team stronger in ways.

“What it did for us is really pull together our most dedicated staff that chose to stay. But then you just really recognize the fear factor for everybody, from the staff that just couldn't work in a situation where COVID existed, the residents that are fearful that it was in their homes and then their families — just the incredible need they have for information and the incredible amount of work it takes to communicate through the crisis," he said.

With the help of local grant monies and federal assistance the facility received through the Payroll Protection Program, St. Ann’s has been able to offer employees an additional $3 per hour in hazard pay to recognize those who stayed on the job despite the outbreak.

Before the pandemic, St. Ann's had 87 staff members in the building. But Johnson recalled how that number quickly plummeted when COVID-19 arrived.

"When the crisis hit, and having some people quarantined and what-not through the Department of Health, we went all the way down into the low 40s for staff on hand in the building, which for us was an earth-rattling experience," he said.

"I can't say enough about Essentia and St. Luke's for those employees stepping up and coming into this building. There were days on end where we were staffed almost exclusively by hospital employees," Johnson said.

With a rebuilt team of 77 employees now, Johnson described St. Ann’s staffing as being in “a good, healthy spot today" for the number of residents it now houses.

He described the arc of the infection at St. Ann’s, saying: “My own personal observations through all of this is that the early cases, that really seemed to be where the hard, quick deaths came. And then kind of that second incubation period that happened here, it almost seemed like a different virus. There were a lot of asymptomatic, positive residents."

"So, as we screened our building and tested in our building, you would have probably never picked up on those people having COVID-19," Johnson said.

That’s one of the difficulties in preventing the spread of the virus, according to Johnson.

"What we do know is the community is full of asymptomatic, COVID-positive people walking around, and the incubation period is incredibly slow. It's 10 to 14 days. So, you walk around with it, and you have just no idea," he said.

Tracking the disease presents its own challenges.

“That is some of the frustration that we see in the testing, as well. You could completely test my facility. You could show that everybody's negative today. But if you turned around and did it 24 hours later, you'll have a different result. And 24 hours after that, you might have a different result,” Johnson said.

That makes it tough to tell when St. Ann’s may be out of the woods, Johnson said. “So, that makes it really frustrating on our part, because we'd love to tell the world that we're completely COVID-free. And it feels like we're close to that. But we still have a few people recovering."

The situation is looking up in many ways, but Johnson said he and his staff remain vigilant. "The work culture is very positive. I would say our employees that have gone through this, it's something they'll never forget, and it's something that we take seriously every day."

“As far as the residents go, I see them quite often, and most of them are still choosing to really stay in their apartments and stay isolated,” he said. “They tell me they're doing well, and they're grateful for everything that everyone has been doing to try to keep the building sanitized and clean and providing them with the services they need to live good lives. They're doing better than maybe you would expect. "