WADENA, Minn. — It's likely there will not be a groundbreaking for the planned 123,000 square-foot Tri-County Health Care replacement facility until spring of 2021, according to Tri-County Health Care President and CEO Joel Beiswenger.

Beiswenger shared the news of the suspended project during a virtual press conference Wednesday morning, April 1, adding that the delay was due to the hospital's need to put all efforts behind the fight against COVID-19.

"We know that right now our mission critical status is about managing this emergency situation with the COVID-19 crisis," Beiswenger said. "Our first commitment is to the present needs of our patients, our communities and our staff, and we have to be careful that we not allow something like our building project or anything else divert our attention from those goals at this critical time."

The estimated $70 million replacement facility, deemed "the rural health facility of the future," has been in the works for three years and it's been almost one year since TCHC held their first community forum to share details about the project. Project organizers planned to break ground in July 2020 and be complete in the spring of 2022. Beiswenger believes it will be backed up one season, likely starting in spring 2021 and ready for use in spring 2023. The hospital is also putting on hold fundraising for this project until further notice. Beiswenger said the actual length of this delay is unknown at this time.

A letter was also sent out to all project partners notifying them that the project was officially and indefinitely suspended until further notice.

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"To be clear this is not a termination, but a suspension of activities until TCHC can get on the other side of this emergency and evaluate our position," the letter from Beiswenger said.

Tri-County Health Care President and CEO Joel Beiswenger answers questions during a virtual press conference Wednesday morning. Beiswenger used the conference to announce the suspension of all activities related to the replacement hospital planning until after the COVID-19 crisis.
Screenshot by Frank Lee
Tri-County Health Care President and CEO Joel Beiswenger answers questions during a virtual press conference Wednesday morning. Beiswenger used the conference to announce the suspension of all activities related to the replacement hospital planning until after the COVID-19 crisis. Screenshot by Frank Lee

The letter goes on to say that TCHC has reached out to the United States Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and staff have confirmed that they will not need to restart data and documentation from scratch, however, it will need to be updated or revised based on the timing of the start date. Beiswenger addressed that concern further during the press conference when he said there are unknowns with this delay as far as the variables for the lending partners, cost of inflation and the state of the economy following this pandemic.

Economic concerns are hitting Tri-County Health Care and most other healthcare facilities at this time as they have had to stop all non-essential, non-emergent medical services. Beiswenger shared that the hospital is down to about 40-45% of their usual revenue since the changes came into effect in recent weeks. Beiswenger said it was impossible at this time to know what possible stimulus packages could look like for the healthcare industry.

The hospital gets 90% of its revenue from outpatient services. That's one of the driving forces behind the need for a new facility -- one with space designated for those outpatient treatments rather than inpatient. A need for inpatient rooms has been in decline since the current facility was constructed in the 1970s.

While the news was regrettable for Beiswenger, who said the project was in a healthy position to begin on time, he shared that there have been some positives coming from the current crisis in that the staff are seeing what new needs exist in times of a pandemic.

"We're learning a lot about how we deal with a crisis like this, it's already identified some things in how we should reconsider how we designed our project," Beiswenger said.

Those things included how they handle surges of patients, isolating patients, negative pressure rooms, infection prevention and patient flow.

"As we look to restart the program, whenever the timing dictates that, we've actually got a few things that we are going to be reconsidering in the project as well," Beiswenger said.

This crisis has actually further shown Beiswenger that a new facility is needed and can better address these pandemic concerns than the current facility. The planned hospital includes 15 universal platform rooms. Those can quickly switch from outpatient to inpatient needs giving the new facility space for 29 inpatient beds.

COVID-19 status

Beiswenger notes that TCHC is planning a town hall meeting where they plan to update the community on their work related to COVID-19. He did however speak on the topic some during the press conference.

To date, TCHC has done 41 tests for COVID-19. Thirty-eight of those have been negative, and three are pending. Also as of Wednesday, April 1, there were no confirmed cases in Wadena or Todd County, according to the Minnesota Department of Health website. Beiswenger adds that TCHC believes there are positive cases in the area but the limitations of testing are not showing that data at this time. He encouraged the community to take precautions, assuming it is here.

"We will have COVID cases here in the Tri-County region, we will have staff that get sick from this. It's not if it's when," Beiswenger said.

Beiswenger shared that no staff have been laid off and they do not have a specific plan for layoffs. He said all staff are needed to help during this crisis. Staff have been remobilized to areas of need, in some cases taking on different roles.

Staff have attempted to segregate their hospital and clinic as much as possible. One example is the rehab center, a separate building from the main hospital facility, is now the center where their most at-risk patients are being cared for. That's an attempt to keep those higher-risk individuals farther away from the site where ill individuals may be checking in.

The hospital is licensed for 25 inpatient beds. They are staffed to handle a cap of about 18-20 beds. Beiswenger said the hospital typically sees about seven beds in use but surges up to 14-15 are seen at times.

With current changes, they can accommodate up to 54 inpatient beds. They also had two ICU beds and ventilators but have upped that to six under present conversions. Beiswenger said the hospital was challenged to try to double their capacity. He was proud to say they've exceeded that goal.

Beiswenger put out a reminder that it's OK to let people know if they are too close to you, suggesting that social distance practices should be put to use by all. He added that he's not aware of any shortage of soap, and encouraged its use to wash hands often.