Rising number of COVID-19 patients increases stress on Minnesota hospitals

The number of Minnesotans hospitalized with COVID-19 has more than doubled during the month of August, contributing to a tightening supply of available beds across the state.

Health officials say it’s not physical space or materials that are in short supply — it’s people.

“It’s not the beds that are the issue,” Jan Malcolm, state health commissioner, emphasized in a recent press call to discuss the state’s ongoing surge in coronavirus cases.

“We’ve got plenty of beds and high-tech equipment. What is in short supply is highly trained staff,” Malcolm said.

It’s not just COVID-19 patients filling up hospital beds.

Health care providers are reporting an unusually high number of patients recovering from serious ailments like heart attacks and strokes. There’s ongoing concern that spike is due to patients continuing to defer routine medical care because of fear of the coronavirus.

It’s also “trauma season” in Minnesota. Warmer months typically lead to an increase in people needing care because of accidents.

In the Twin Cities metro area, just 2 percent of intensive care unit beds were empty and less than 1 percent of regular hospital beds were available, according to state data released Friday.

“Our hospitals are significantly busier now with non-COVID patients than during previous surges, and as a result, the strain that COVID-19 cases are putting on the system is similar,” said Annelise Heitkamp, a communications manager for HealthPartners, which oversees Regions Hospital in downtown St. Paul.

RISING NUMBER OF COVID PATIENTS

As of Friday, there were nearly 600 people hospitalized with COVID-19, including 166 patients in intensive care. That’s more than double the number of patients with COVID-19 needing hospital care at the beginning of the month.

The latest surge in cases is driven by the more contagious delta variant, which health officials suspect can also cause more severe illness. Serious cases are most common in older residents, but since delta became the main source of infections, severe cases have trended younger, health officials say.

Since the pandemic began in March 2020, roughly 35,000 Minnesotans have needed hospital care and more than 7,000 have been in intensive care.

The number of Minnesotans hospitalized with COVID-19 now is roughly double what it was in August 2020, before there were widely available and effective vaccines. However, it is nowhere near the state’s peak in mid-November, when more than 1,800 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19.

State data show nearly all new infections, hospitalizations and deaths are residents who are not vaccinated.

“It’s also important to note that about 98 percent of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated,” said Heitkamp, who noted 81 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 across HealthPartners hospitals, including 31 at Regions.

Yet coronavirus patients make up just a fraction of the patients in the state’s more than 7,400 regular and 1,200 intensive care beds.

BURNOUT, RESIGNATIONS AND RETIREMENTS

Dr. Rahul Koranne, president and CEO of the Minnesota Hospital Association, says the pandemic has been like an 18-month marathon for health workers. It’s led to an exodus of care providers nationwide, including in Minnesota.

“The health care heroes and care teams at the frontline are exhausted,” Korrane said. “There’s a high level of stress and burnout that we are seeing. It’s no surprise. These are human beings.”

Koranne says hospitals across the state are faced with health workers taking early retirement, requesting leaves of absence or quitting altogether.

Shannon Cunningham, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Nurses Association, said there were “significant staffing issues at most major metro hospitals and in Duluth” that were driven by the rise in COVID-19 cases and exacerbated in St. Paul by the closures of Bethesda Hospital and the emergency department at St. Joseph’s Hospital.

Joe Campbell, a spokesman with M Health Fairview, which operated St. Joe’s and Bethesda hospitals, agreed that staff departures have left the entire industry reeling.

“We would be where we are today with 15 more hospitals, if we had them,” Campbell said. “The problem isn’t space — it’s people. It is disingenuous for anyone to say otherwise because nearly every hospital system in the country is faced with this.”

There are not yet hard numbers available on health workers who’ve left the industry, but Malcolm says nearly every part of Minnesota has been affected. Some providers have two to three times the open jobs they typically had before the pandemic.

“I don’t know of a single provider who hasn’t had staff departures,” Malcolm said.

DON’T DELAY CARE

Minnesota briefly delayed non-emergency surgeries in the spring of 2020 to ensure the state’s hospitals would be ready for a possible flood of COVID-19 patients. Some systems also halted some procedures during the big fall surge in cases and hospitalizations.

But health officials continue to urge residents not to delay routine medical care, especially people who have chronic and possibly life-threatening health conditions.

“It is important to note the escalation in volume that’s being seen are primarily due to medical needs,” Koranne said, noting the rate of heart attacks and strokes is about double what is typically seen.

“When we look at that, we start to worry about all the deferred care over the last 18 months,” he said. “Minnesotans who are suffering from chromic conditions should continue to connect with their primary care providers and their specialists.”

State health officials are hopeful the latest surge in cases will not reach the level the state hit last fall when some hospitals had to convert space to treat severely ill coronavirus patients.

“We are definitely seeing another stress test of the system,” Koranne said, but his message remains positive. “Hospitals and health systems across the state are here for you. We are making sure every Minnesotan who needs hospital-level care gets it.”

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