More and more hospital beds throughout Minnesota are being filled with people infected by the novel coronavirus, and while Gov. Tim Walz said now is not a time to panic, he did enact new executive actions Tuesday in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19 and buy hospitals more time to avoid becoming overwhelmed.
Discussing a graphic titled "Hospital Capacity At Risk," Walz explained Tuesday that Minnesota is nearing the first weeks of December that tend "to be the peak hospitalizations periods for flu."
Right now, there are four people in Minnesota hospitalized with influenza. During last year's influenza season, the peak number of people hospitalized with the flu or flu-like illness was approximately 450. It got as high as approximately 650 in 2016-17. What's unclear is how many of those hospitalized patients were in intensive care.
In a normal year, there aren't more than 1,200 people also hospitalized with COVID-19, but that's the case right now and the continued spread of the virus threatens to push those numbers even higher. Minnesota has seen the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 jump from around 680 two weeks ago to 1,224 now, including 249 patients in intensive care.
According to the graphic Walz revealed, the number of ICU beds currently available in the eastern half of Minnesota are under pressure, with just 11 beds unoccupied in the northeast and central regions of the state, 22 available in the Twin Cities metro area and 19 unoccupied in the southeast region. Western regions are between 57% and 72% filled.
But while Walz said now is not the time to panic about hospital capacity, he said the biggest worry is available beds being useless when skilled healthcare workers who are trained to treat patients in an ICU can't go to work because they are infected with COVID-19 or have to quarantine due to an exposure.
"While we've built up and we have surge capacity and we have N-95 masks and we have the proper protective equipment, we're simply running out of personnel because they're also getting COVID," Walz said. "Our staffing shrinks to the point where it becomes impossible to even fill the rooms."
The capacity situation in North Dakota has become grim to the point that Gov. Doug Burgum on Monday announced that nurses who test positive for COVID-19 but are asymptomatic can continue to work with COVID-19 patients.
According to Dr. George Morris of CentraCare, one-third of all inpatients currently at St. Cloud Hospital in central Minnesota have COVID-19 or COVID-like symptoms.
"That is an astronomical number," said Morris, adding that about one-third of those inpatients are in intensive care. According to CentraCare's website, there are 489 licensed beds at St. Cloud Hospital.
Walz's decision to shut down bars and restaurants at 10 p.m. and to limit social gatherings to a maximum of 10 people from no more than three households was applauded by the Minnesota Medical Association, which represents more than 10,000 physicians, resident and medical students.
"The governor’s action will help slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and protect the health and lives of all Minnesotans. We are seeing, firsthand, the rapid spike in COVID-19 cases. These are not just statistics, but rather these are our patients, health care professionals, our teachers, our family members, our fellow Minnesotans," a statement from MMA said.
"For the safety of your loved ones and neighbors, stay home and stay well. And when you have to go out in public, wear a mask and practice social distancing. Make alternate plans this year for the coming holidays and limit the size of your get-togethers. Large family gatherings are not advised this year due to uncontrolled community spread of COVID-19."