Minnesota hospitals diverting patients to combat capacity, staffing shortages

The situation is very dire, according to Minnesota healthcare leaders.

Speaking alongside healthcare leaders Thursday afternoon, Gov. Tim Walz appeared agitated over having to deal with Minnesotans who don't want to follow his executive orders that are aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19 and preventing the state's hospitals from being overrun. 

"I get people, [saying] 'well what happens if I'm doing this at 11:58 tomorrow night, what are you going to do?'" said Walz, referring to the new executive orders that go into effect at 11:59 p.m. Friday.

"Probably not a damn thing because I don't want to have to be out there having to do that. If it's not the right thing to protect healthcare workers, don't do it. That's all we're asking," he said.

The situation has become so dire in parts of the state that hospitals are diverting patients to different hospitals just to keep as many ICU beds available for patients who need that level of care, be it for COVID-19 or other illnesses or injuries.

Dr. Cindy Firkins Smith, president and co-CEO at Carris Health, said there were times during the first week-and-a-half of November when Rice Memorial Hospital in Willmar was on divert, meaning it could not accept any new patients and all incoming patients were diverted to different hospitals. 

"Patients have been shifted all over this state throughout the last few weeks," said Firkins Smith, adding that it's like playing "musical hospital beds." 

"We're doing it in the entire state. Finding the best place to take care of patients so we have room to take care of the next one," she added. 

A growing fear is that the number of people who need care for all reasons won't get the care they need because there are too many healthcare workers who are ill with COVID-19, quarantining due to an exposure to the virus, or are home taking care of their children because their child care facility has closed because of COVID-19. 

Carris Health, which has hospitals all over west-central Minnesota, is down 10% of its workforce due to the reasons listed above. 

"We've had more than 10% of our staff out. That's 1,200 people for us in rural Minnesota," said Firkins Smith. "We don't have anybody to replace those people. We could have piles of PPE and hundreds of beds and none of that matters if we don't have the people to care for our patients."

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She said there's "no calling New York or anyone in the Twin Cities or anywhere in the country for help. It's Minnesota healthcare workers or bust. 

"We're up here to today because we are perilously close to not be able to, even collectively, take care of everybody that we need to take care of in this state," said Dr. Penny Wheeler, president and CEO of Allina Health. 

Wheeler said Allina Health is currently down about 800 employees for COVID-related reasons, which comes on the heals of Mayo Clinic announcing that 905 employees have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past two weeks. 

"Don't call healthcare workers heroes if you can't put a piece of cloth or paper over your face to protect them," said Firkins Smith. "We're begging you. Please, wear a mask. Socially distance. Wash your hands. Protect yourself so we can protect you." 

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