Spotlight Story

On March 18, 2020, Wright County faced a daunting decision that would have seemed unfathomable just a couple of months earlier – sending all its employees home and briefly closing its doors to the public. As much as county officials attempted to avoid that eventuality, it was inevitable.

A year later, those involved in Wright County’s decision-making process before, during and after COVID-19 forced the closure of county facilities can reflect on how the dominoes fell. Through the eyes of six people – County Administrator Lee Kelly, Commissioners Darek Vetsch and Christine Husom, Emergency Management Director Seth Hansen, Public Health Director Sarah Grosshuesch and Information Technology Director Matthew Fomby – the story of what went on behind closed doors is brought to light.

Unlike most Minnesotans, who were unaware until mid-March of the implications that COVID-19 would have on day-to-day life, Grosshuesch and her staff saw the storm clouds building on the horizon before Christmas, as predictions that COVID wouldn’t be contained in Wuhan, China and had the potential to become a worldwide pandemic was growing. 

When the initial guidance of how to combat the coronavirus starting formulating in February 2020, Grosshuesch wasn’t convinced how the plans that were laid out could be executed.

“In the weeks leading up to our first case in Wright County, I was reading how this was going to look and what plans were being put in place elsewhere,” Grosshuesch said. “There was a lot of talk about expanding and contracting – you’re closed, then you’re open, then you’re closed again if cases rise sharply. I remember reading that and not being able to wrap my mind around the idea that we would have the different restrictions on our lives in different places at different times depending on how much disease was happening. And darn if that’s not what happened…and we’re still seeing a lot of those same things a year later.”

In early March, COVID was closing in on Wright County. On March 6, the first case in Minnesota was announced – a Ramsey County resident who hadn’t traveled anywhere to contract the virus. On March 11, with more than 100 countries having confirmed cases, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. On March 13, Wright County saw its first COVID case – the same day President Donald Trump and Minnesota Governor Tim Walz both declared a State of Emergency.

On March 18, an emergency meeting with all department heads was convened to discuss the possibility of closing the doors to county buildings – a prospect Kelly had a difficult time coming to grips with.

“You had this really interesting dichotomy,” Kelly said. “We’re here to serve the public and our buildings are open to serve the public. It’s like the mail – rain, snow, sleet and hail, we’re open. For a variety of reasons, that’s always kind of the touchstone. That was the mindset – we’re going to be open.”

Hansen had spent the previous month updating the county’s Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP). Every city, county and state has such a plan, but it’s intent is to enact a COOP in response to an unexpected disaster like a tornado or a fire – not a disease. A COOP typically deals with how to mobilize a workforce when facilities are unavailable, not having facilities intact but a workforce that largely couldn’t be on-site.

Hansen entered the March 18 meeting unsure if the county was going to pull the trigger and take the unprecedented step of shuttering its doors and sending employees home.

“It was a big question,” Hansen said. “On the government side of things, if we’re going to send everyone home, how long is that going to be? How are we going to continue our operations? Are we set up to handle that? In my mind, the IT portion of that was going to be the biggest hurdle.”

As discussion went on, it became clear that closing county buildings was becoming a realistic option, which presented a slew of problems that kept piling up and multiplying as each new scenario was discussed.

“There was no historical footprint to tell us what a county shutdown looks like,” Vetsch said. “We had to blaze a path. The discussion in that room went on for about 90 minutes and went in many different directions. It became clear that we were to have to activate our COOP plan, pick a path and move forward with it.”

Husom and Vetsch had the authority as county commissioners to enact the COOP and, as Husom remembered, with the events of the previous week, it became clear that each department was going to have to come up with its own process of serving the public while not having many of its employees physically available.

“Everything seemed to be pointing in that direction,” Husom said. “We got every department head in that room and they were expressing concerns about their employees. The more we discussed, the more we felt we needed to come to the decision to send everyone home and close the doors at noon that day. We had to come up with a plan and this would give some time for the departments to devise plans for their offices. Our department heads did a great job of coming up with a plan for their employees to adapt to this.”

As department heads expressed their concerns, Hansen had his eyes opened. COVID was still more of a concept than a reality, but as other parts of the country and the world were shutting down, he witnessed how grave some employees felt COVID-19 could be.

“That meeting was the first time I really saw the level of fear among employees,” Hansen said. “You had a room full of people who had no idea what this virus was going to do and they were kind of freaking out. It was that reaction that got us thinking that we needed to make a decision now and just do it. Given the concerns that were being discussed at that meeting, I thought it was time to enact the COOP plan and send everybody home. That gave us the time to meet with department heads to get a plan in place and do something.”

After several stops and starts at the March 18 meeting, the decision was made to send employees home for the remainder of the week (two-and-a-half days) and give department heads and administration time to formulate a game plan that nobody had envisioned.

“There were a lot more questions than answers at that point,” Vetsch said. “We were making some life-altering decisions on the fly. That was a big concern. We were stepping into uncharted waters. I think we got better as we went along. By the time we got 30 to 60 days out, we had a pretty robust system in place, but we didn’t know on March 18th how that process was going to work, if it was going to work or what the public’s perception would be to the county closing its buildings to public interaction.”

In what became the first in a series of fortunately-timed coincidences, one week prior to the decision to send employees home, county leadership had attended a strategic planning workshop where they were instructed to prepare their departments for changes that would be coming in the future. Few could have predicted those changes would come a week later, but it was an exercise that assisted departments in devising a drastic change in their operations.

“The timing of that was important,” Husom said. “We had all our department heads together for one of the workshop days and had them thinking about how their departments will adapt to change in the future. Less than a week later, the same people were in a room together discussing how we would adapt to the changes COVID was bringing immediately.”

One of the most obvious and immediate hurdles was how to connect employees to their work without having them in-person and on-site. Once again, coincidence was the county’s friend. A Virtual Private Network (VPN) was going to be needed to connect hundreds of county employee computers to the county’s mainframe to allow them to work remotely. It just so happened that an ongoing project was underway to help get that monumental task accomplished.

“In one respect, we were very fortunate with the timing of what happened,” Fomby said. “Our office had been working on creating a VPN for quite some time and we were in that process. We thought we were going to have it done by the middle of January, but there were delays in getting the hardware. We finally got it implemented in early March just a week or two prior to COVID hitting us. Fortunately for us, we were ready to go when the decision was made that people would be working from home and we were able to equip most of our employees with that capability through our VPN.”

The VPN project was initially designed for a couple dozen employees in Health & Human Services. Now Wright County I.T. had to connect hundreds of laptops and phones with precious little time to get it accomplished.

“The biggest challenge was the volume because we had to set people up individually on the fly,” Fomby said. “We had to use multi-factor identification, so it wasn’t just a laptop we were hooking into a system. We had to connect to everyone’s phone to verify that the person who would be signing into the VPN would be the person who was assigned the license. Getting hundreds of people set up as quickly as possible was a big task.”

In another stroke of luck, the company Webex offered its video conferencing software to the county for free for six months. The county already had Microsoft Teams at its disposal, but hadn’t made it operational because, prior to March 2020, nobody had envisioned the majority of the county’s workforce doing their work remotely and conducting meetings through platforms like Webex, Teams or Zoom.

Getting a VPN and video conferencing in place was the first of many obstacles the county faced as it attempted to maintain operations while the much of the state was shutting down. Barriers needed to be built. Buildings needed to be outfitted or retrofitted. Social distancing guidelines needed to be followed. Mass amounts of Personal Protective Equipment needed to be purchased. Re-opening offices would have to take place. Demands for service needed to be met.

There were numerous challenges – expected and unexpected – that county employees were tasked with accomplishing – even if it meant taking a page from the MacGyver playbook. 

“You had all these problems to solve,” Kelly said. “You would get in a discussion and it would create a new hurdle we had to overcome. I was continually impressed with the ideas people came up with – here is the end solution we need and we couldn’t go the usual route of Option A, B or C. We had to jump to E or F. There were a ton of issues at so many levels of the operation that we had to be innovative to find solutions. It was like Apollo 13 – here’s your box of parts, make it work.”

While other counties struggled badly to make the necessary adjustments to their operations, a string of coincidences that Wright County needed to adapt were in place at the right time to make the paradigm-shifting transition much smoother than most counties.

Was it simply luck?

“Sometimes you make your own luck,” Kelly said. “There were some timing factors that definitely were in our favor. It was good that a week earlier we had department heads at the strategic planning meetings thinking about how they fit into the big picture. COVID forced that issue and now they had to figure out a plan for the ‘new normal’. We had identified a need for remote-work access, so we had a plan in place. When COVID hit, it was all-hands-on-deck and let’s roll this out.”

A year later, the restrictions created by COVID are still everywhere in county facilities. Plexiglass at counters won’t be coming down any time soon. Everyone in the building wears a mask. Many business tasks are done electronically instead of in-person. Many of the changes made will remain long after COVID isn’t controlling the lives of so many.

In some respects, the challenges that COVID thrust upon families, schools, businesses and government were met head on and required innovation and “outside the box” thinking. Vetsch said one of the takeaways from the pandemic is that it pushed Wright County well ahead of schedule in terms of upgrading its service capability.

“One of the greatest outcomes that we got out of the last year was being forced to implement technology in a shorter period of time,” Vetsch said. “COVID accelerated the implementation of technology projects that probably would have taken, two or three years or more under normal circumstances out of necessity. In the long-term, those advancements we had to make will make us more efficient in delivering service to the residents of Wright County.”

Grosshuesch added that Health & Human Services, which deals with segments of the community in the most need of assistance, has seen how it conducts its business was dramatically changed by COVID and opened the department to expand its interaction with other groups that assist those who need help – a number that grew exponentially during the pandemic.

“From our perspective in Public Health, we have worked with a lot of community partners that we never worked with before and we want to maintain those relationships going forward,” Grosshuesch said. “This forced us to have a lot more work flexibility. I think we all learned the importance of having our schools available to us and the importance of in-person learning. We learned that if you disrupt a couple critical parts of our lives, the whole structure of our society breaks down.”

While there is promising news on the horizon a year after COVID shut down much of life as we knew it with a COVID vaccine immunizing more people every day, nobody is popping champagne corks or flying a “Mission Accomplished” banner just yet. We’re still a long way from being done with COVID, but one thing is certain – many of the changes brought on by the pandemic won’t go away.

“Business will never be done like it was pre-COVID,” Kelly said. “My concern in March 2020 was that the day will come when we bring everyone back to some semblance of what it was. This last year proved the concept that, in many ways, the ‘new normal’ way of doing things can work. We haven’t had 100 percent efficiency, but it has been pretty impressive what has been accomplished. When you’re pushed with things like this, you learn the strengths and weaknesses of your organization really quick. I was floored by some of the solutions so many people came up with. The working world was set on its ear by this and, moving forward, we’re going to incorporate the positives we learned over the last year.”