In just a few weeks, Sanford Health will open a new 47th Avenue South clinic in Grand Forks — a roughly $12 million investment paying off just in time to welcome patients back into the examination room after a long, lonely pandemic.
The project, launched last year, is a two-story, 22,000 square foot building, designed to house everything from family medicine to X-ray machines to dermatology services. Set to begin serving patients Aug. 2, it will be right next to Edgewood Healthcare’s forthcoming senior living campus.
The new building comes just as the pandemic — cross your fingers — fades away from public life, and as patients who might have stayed away from nonessential medical care are ready to seek it out once again.
“We're starting to see, definitely, schedules fill up again with a lot more preventative exams," said Lisa Jamsa Tollefson, a Sanford MD at the company’s East Grand Forks clinic. "Last year, people were just more reluctant to come in if they weren't feeling well. We're really getting back to the core of what we do in primary care, which is prevention.”
But even as life gets a little closer to normal, signs of the pandemic remain. At Tollefson’s East Grand Forks clinic, there’s still plenty of masking — and probably will be for a while.
“I'm not sure when or if that's going to change in the future,” she said. “We did see a big decline in the amount of influenza last year, and certainly masks had something to do with that.”
But whether or not they’re wearing masks, patients are coming back to the doctor’s office. According to statistics from Altru Health System, the Grand Forks-based provider’s number of inpatient discharges is rebounding after a dip in 2020 — when health care providers often canceled nonessential care or patients themselves stayed away for fear of the virus. Numbers are back up — and sometimes at their highest point in years — for neurosurgery, gastroenterology, cardiology and more.
And just like Sanford, Altru is also ready to make big investments in itself, with construction on its nine-figure flagship hospital expected to resume before the end of the year. It’s all the more remarkable for the Grand Forks group, which was staggered financially at the beginning of the pandemic, laying off more than 160 workers.
But Altru has since appeared to begin righting its figurative ship. Roughly a fifth of those workers have been hired back, Altru has said, and the company’s 2021 Q1 disclosures show it had nearly 200 days’ cash on hand, up from 120 days during the pandemic. CFO Doug Arivn said it’s since gone above 200.
“Our operating margins for last fiscal year were at 4.5% … and this year, through the first five months, we're at 5.2%,” said Arvin, speaking in an interview conducted before the end of June.
That’s after the hospital not only laid off staff, but also began refinancing debt. In July, Arvin said, the hospital will continue to refinance debt as well as take on more to pay for its hospital project. Arvin declined to offer a figure for that coming move. Earlier this week, Altru also said it has been in early talks with leaders in Devils Lake to potentially take on a larger role with that community’s hospital, possibly in the form of ownership or management.
The pandemic has been a big part of Altru’s financial life, and as the crisis draws to a close, it still is. The pandemic lowered interest rates, and that’s expected to greatly help Altru’s costs as it takes on and pays off its debts. It’s also pushed up on the cost of construction materials, though it’s not clear how much that will affect the new hospital.
“Our position is that there will be an impact. We should know in the next few days more about that,” interim CEO Dave Molmen said. “Overall, this very favorable rate environment has made this an opportunity for us.”
In short, Altru is trying to move back to something resembling normal order — just like the rest of the health care industry and just like the rest of the Grand Forks community. An Altru spokesperson points out that Altru’s COVID hotline is transforming into a 24-7 nurse advice line.
And on the day top Altru leaders spoke to the Herald, in late June, the number of inpatients with COVID-19 at Altru had tumbled dramatically since earlier in 2021.
That number, the spokesperson said, was zero.