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Duluth hospitals: Take COVID-19 seriously to not overwhelm hospitals

St. Louis County has seen a surge in cases this week.

Hospitals in northeastern Minnesota are pleading with the public to wear a mask and avoid social gatherings as COVID-19 cases surge.

St. Louis County, home to Duluth, has seen record increases in new novel coronavirus cases this week, with Dr. John Pryor, president of Duluth-based Essentia Health's East Market, saying "The numbers paint a really grim picture."

On Friday, St. Louis County reported 170 new cases of COVID-19 and five additional deaths, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) reports

The day prior, the county had 320 new cases, marking a 70% increase from the county's previous single-day high of 190 cases on Nov. 6, the Duluth News Tribune said. This comes as the county's seven-day case average hit 171.6 new cases per day on Thursday.

"COVID-19 has never been this pervasive in the Northland – cases, hospitalizations, including ICU admits, death rates and positivity rates are at all-time highs," Pryor said during the City of Duluth's COVID-19 update on Thursday. "This virus is spreading rapidly and if we don't act decisively, it threatens to spiral out of control."

Pryor and Dr. Nicholas Van Deelen, the vice president of medical affairs at St. Luke's hospital in Duluth, are pleading with community members to take COVID-19 seriously as to not overwhelm the health care system.

"We are at a pivotal moment in this pandemic. Health care resources are stretched dangerously thin just as demand for care is spiking," Pryor said. "Our ability to staff medical and ICU beds is being tested. If the current trajectory of transmission holds, our communities will be at risk."

Taking simple steps to curb the spread of the virus will help keep health care workers healthy and as a result, hospitals staffed to care for people who need it, health officials stressed. 

Pryor urged people to wear a mask, noting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this week that wearing a cloth face mask protects the wearer, not just other people, from the coronavirus. Van Deelen pleaded with people to stay home and not gather in groups – even small groups – because they're driving the spread of the virus. 

Both Essentia and St. Luke's say they're prepared to care for those who don't have COVID-19, but they are taking steps to prepare so they're not overwhelmed. 

That includes transferring stable patients to other hospitals in their respective systems to keep ICU and medical/surgical beds open for patients with unexpected emergencies and those with more severe illnesses. Both hospitals have accepted ICU patients from elsewhere in Minnesota and sometimes out of state.

Essentia is being "very careful and purposeful" about these transfers and performing elective surgeries where a patient may need to stay at the hospital so there's room in the ICU for COVID-19 patients, Pryor said, noting they want to reserve St. Mary's Medical Center in Duluth for the sickest of the sick patients and be available to all of Minnesota if necessary. 

St. Luke's is doing something similar to Essentia for surgeries that are scheduled ahead of time. Van Deelen said the hospital this week is no longer scheduling elective surgeries at its main hospital in order to have the space to care for those most in need from across the region. Urgent and emergent surgeries are continuing "as they always are," he noted.

Van Deelen hopes it won't have to postpone elective surgeries for too long, saying St. Luke's will consider staffing and predicted need on a weekly basis to determine if they'll restart elective procedures at the main hospital.

St. Luke's has also moved to Tier 2 of its three-tiered COVID-19 response plan, meaning the hospital is operating "above its normal capacity due to COVID-19," Van Deelen said. Tier 1 is the hospital operating normally. 

With Tier 2, most of the hospital's services are available, but it has prepared a 40-bed unit dedicated to COVID-19 patients and has added 24 additional critical and ICU beds to the 25 it already has to help care for those most critically impacted by the disease, Van Deelen said. St. Luke's has also adjusted staffing, including preparing some employees to work outside of their normal scope.

Tier 3 of the plan, which essentially dedicates all clinical space to COVID-19 patients, will be implemented if the virus becomes more widespread and there's a greater need for hospital resources, Van Deelen said. 

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Meanwhile, St. Louis County Public Health Divison Director Amy Westbrook stressed that people need to answer the phone when health officials call so they can investigate and do contact tracing. 

"The information that we collect from you is very important to understanding the spread of the virus and understanding where there could be potential risks of exposure in our community," Westbrook said. "You're not in trouble. There's no repercussions or anything."

This comes as Northern Minnesota, which was once the region least-impacted by COVID-19, is helping drive the rise in new cases statewide, MPR News reports

Statewide, MDH reported on Friday 5,552 new cases – with known active cases topping 40,000 for the first time – and 46 additional deaths. The 46 deaths mark the second-highest single-day death count, behind Wednesday's record of 56 deaths. 

The three deadliest days of the pandemic have been reported this week. In the first 13 days of November, 382 Minnesotans have died from COVID-19 compared to 423 in all of October.

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