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Public health leaders fear 'perfect storm' could strain Minnesota hospitals

Bed capacity is not an issue statewide.

Record-setting levels of testing and positive results is raising eyebrows of public health officials, but despite the rising COVID-19 numbers Minnesota's overall hospital capacity is not yet an issue. 

Not everywhere, anyway. According to FOX21, two hospitals in Duluth are nearing capacity: Essentia Health and St. Luke's. The TV station reported Friday that St. Luke's Hospital is already at capacity, while Essentia Health is nearly full, though COVID-19 isn't the main reason more and more patients are being hospitalized. 

But the hospitals reaching capacity happened while high transmission of COVID-19 is ongoing in St. Louis County, which led to a single-day record 96 confirmed cases in the 24-hour period ending at 4 p.m. Thursday. That coincides with the largest single-day case total Minnesota has had in any one day: 2,297 new cases in Friday's report from the Minnesota Department of Health. 

Record case levels comes in tandem with a record level of tests completed in a reporting period (44,688), though despite a high mark in testing the positivity rate was still above 5%, which is a "caution level indicating widespread disease growth," according to state health department Commissioner Jan Malcolm. 

"I'm very saddened and deeply concerned about today's numbers, but frankly, not surprised," said Malcolm during a press call Friday. "It is the result of steady, inexorable spread in communities across the state between people who don't know they've contracted the virus,"  

"The exhaustion and the weight of this situation is real, and it has set in. People want to get back to normal," Malcolm added. 

The commissioner noted that hospital numbers are "clearly trending upward," though Hennepin Healthcare CEO Jennifer DeCubellis said hospital capacity is not yet an issue statewide. The bigger concern is the number of healthcare workers who are ill with COVID-19 or exposed to the virus, which leads to 14-day quarantines and staffing shortages. 

"Bed capacity is not our challenge in Minnesota, it's keeping our hospital systems staffed," DeCubellis said. According to public health data, there are currently 484 COVID-19 patients hospitalized, 126 of whom are in an intensive care unit in Minnesota. Overall, Minnesota hospitals have a total ICU bed capacity of 1,899. Of those, 1,071 are currently occupied by patients of all ailment. 

Though the ICU capacity is not currently being threatened, the total number of beds available depends on how many healthcare staff are available to work them, meaning that every time a healthcare worker falls ill or is exposed to the virus, they must quarantine and the number of available beds is reduced. 

"Don't delay necessary medical care. Take care of yourselves now so that those critical hospital beds are utilized only when we need them most," DeCubellis said.

"Our biggest concern has been that COVID-19 is a preventable illness and we're not doing well enough in Minnesota to protect each other, protect workers and protect the critical health resources so that they are available when people need them most."

In the past five weeks, St. Louis County hospitals have admitted 12 COVID-19 patients to an intensive care unit and an additional 59 COVID-19 patients to non-ICU care. The fear is that staffing shortages combined with more seriously ill COVID-19 patients and increasing hospitalizations due to people who have delayed medical care will further strain Minnesota's healthcare systems. 

"Unfortunately, we have the potential for a perfect storm of COVID patients, flu patients, and an increase of patients with medical problems because they have not gotten the care they need,” said Dr. Jon Pryor, the president of Essentia’s East Market, during a Thursday press conference.

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