by Winona Health CEO Rachelle Schultz


Back to business, sort of. As we gain some breathing space from the onset of COVID-19 to resumption of services to our community, we are also very actively establishing new processes that position us for a surge, a second wave, a new vaccine, or any new infectious disease that may show up. This experience has taught us a lot and we are putting it to good use. Further, COVID has disrupted health care in a manner that allows for deep and long-lasting change to a system that was in a rut. Some have parsed this experience into three phases: respond, recover and reimagine. I like these phases.

We responded, and we continue to do so. Our plans were developed and executed, and elements lie in wait in the event they are needed. For example, we have approval to expand the number of licensed hospital beds if a surge occurs, and we have sufficient resources to outfit that expansion. Ongoing testing, screening, and overall surveillance are also core to this work. Testing in our regional congregate living residences is almost complete and expanded community testing is underway. To date (May 18), there have been very few positive cases in our service area. That is both good news, and cautionary information. It does not mean the threat of COVID is over; rather one conclusion may be that Winonans answered the call to maintain social distancing, wore masks, and practiced hand hygiene and other infection-prevention actions. This is great news; however, it also means Winonans cannot let up on these practices lest we begin to experience outbreaks.

We are now in the recovery phase. As you are likely aware, Winona Health has resumed full clinic hours, elective procedures, and elective surgeries over the past two weeks. Even so, we are taking a measured approach to this recovery to ensure patients and our health care staff remain protected and safe from exposure to COVID. Processes we may have thought were temporary have now found their way into our daily work. A primary example is screening all individuals (patients, staff and visitors) who come into our buildings. This screening includes temperature taking. Our approach to this included consideration for patient needs, our around-the-clock operations (e.g. physicians and staff on call after hours for emergency surgery), and continued separation between patients presenting with and without COVID symptoms. Our recovery plan is extensive as we address how we resume all normal operations while at the same time ensuring we can flex and accommodate COVID situations. This means we monitor our PPE supplies, testing, screening, inpatient ICU and medical/surgical bed capacity and unit separation, and more, so that we can adjust if needed.

You may think the reimagine phase is yet to come; however, it is running simultaneously with the other two phases. This is no time to wait and see if things settle down. While the pandemic tested and stressed many processes, it also opened new doors to how we deliver care. For example, telemedicine has been available for a number of years but regulatory barriers limited its use. The telemedicine genie is out of the bottle. The elimination of those barriers and the rapid adoption of telemedicine has proven to be a game changer. It will not entirely replace visits to one’s provider, but it will enhance and complement care provided to patients. That is but one example of health care reimagined. A key strategic focus at Winona Health is population health or value-based programs. Essentially, our focus is on collaborating with patients to advance their health and well-being. We have been very successful in this work and are expanding it. The major measures of success are lower health care costs, high-quality outcomes and improved patient experience and access. Our work aligns the needs of patients, providers and payers.

As I reflect on some of the lessons learned from the pandemic, it is clear that one’s health status is a critical element in the outcome of contracting such a disease. Studies are showing that high blood pressure, obesity, age, any respiratory conditions, immunosuppression, and other chronic conditions play a significant role in the course of the illness and its outcome. I know there is a lot more we will learn as more studies are done. In the meantime, I am grateful that Winona Health’s transformation work was well underway and focused on chronic conditions, health promotion, well-being, and early intervention. We do not want to wait for the next novel virus or disease to show up and wreak havoc on our community. Our preparation includes moving the dial on the health of our community, reflecting our mission, and we do that in partnership with all of you. Be well.