REGIONAL- Healthcare systems continue to grapple with an unrelenting COVID case surge that is keeping Minnesota among the nation’s hardest hit states.Only New Hampshire and Michigan currently …
REGIONAL- Healthcare systems continue to grapple with an unrelenting COVID case surge that is keeping Minnesota among the nation’s hardest hit states.
Only New Hampshire and Michigan currently have higher COVID case rates than Minnesota, according to Tuesday’s data on the Centers for Disease Control’s COVID tracking site. Minnesota’s seven-day case rate of 590.2 per 100,000 population was more than double the national average of 247.1.
Coupled with non-COVID conditions driven up by seasonal illnesses such as the flu and those who delayed treatment of other medical conditions due to COVID, the current surge is taxing the state’s hospitals like never before. Combined patient loads in the state’s adult intensive care units set a pandemic high record last week, with 98 percent of all beds occupied. On Monday, 56 of the 68 hospitals in Minnesota with adult ICU units had zero beds available.
COVID-related hospitalizations hit their highest level of the year on Monday, at 1,621, including 335 people in intensive care.
To address the hospital capacity crisis, Gov. Tim Walz requested and received a third emergency federal medical team, this one from the Department of Health and Human Services, to join two Department of Defense teams in supporting hospital operations in Minneapolis, Edina, and St. Cloud. A fourth alternative long-term care site to accept certain COVID hospital patients in the Twin Cities area was opened last week, bringing the total of alternative placements created to relieve the capacity crisis to 88.
About 400 Minnesota National Guard members have been trained as certified nursing assistants and temporary aides to relieve staffing shortages in long-term care facilities, and the first 50 of those were deployed last week to North Ridge Health and Rehab in New Hope, Mille Lacs Health System Long Term Care in Onamia, and PioneerCare in Fergus Falls. Walz said more long-term care sites around the state would be receiving National Guard support as well.
“We continue to deploy every resource we have available to support our overworked and understaffed doctors, nurses, and long-term care staff who have been fighting on the frontlines of this pandemic for nearly two years,” Walz said in a Monday press release. “It’s very important as Minnesota grapples with the continued Delta surge and the uncertainties of the new Omicron variant that we continue to do everything we can to support our front-line workers.”
As with the rest of the state, case numbers in St. Louis County are showing a new surge in the wake of Thanksgiving. The seven-day case average on Nov. 26, the day after Thanksgiving, had dropped to 138.1, but was back up to 160.0 as of Dec. 2. That increase was driven in part by the largest single-day report of cases during the current surge, 311 on Nov. 30.
“We were seeing a decrease in our numbers, but over the last few days we have seen them go up again,” said Amy Westbrook, county Public Health Division Director. “That could be due to Thanksgiving, but it’s hard to know. But we’re still way above where we have been in terms of our case rates and hospitalizations anytime in 2021. We’re close to where we were in 2020 without vaccinations.”
While the rate of vaccinations is highest among those over 65 and decreases according to age groups, Westbrook said, 74 percent of those 16 and over in the county are now vaccinated. That drops to 70 percent for the total eligible population, which now includes those age five and older. Vaccination rates in northern St. Louis County are slightly lower than overall county averages.
Westbrook also reported that 26 percent of the county’s newest vaccine eligible group, children ages five to 11, have received at least one dose of COVID vaccine after one month of eligibility. The number is roughly in line with national polling of parents, in the months before eligibility was expanded, who said they would get their children vaccinated. Another group is likely waiting to see what happens before getting their children vaccinated, and Westbrook conceded there will also be parents who don’t take advantage of the vaccine for their kids.
Westbrook said the surge continues to exact a toll on regional hospitals as well.
“We are seeing our healthcare systems still really stretched,” she said. “In November, we had over 200 people hospitalized. That exceeded our October numbers and is only second to last November and December. In November, 51 people have died of COVID in St. Louis County, and in October we saw 27 people die. We’re seeing the same trend, unfortunately, that after cases start rising, we see an increase in hospitalizations and deaths.”
Only three adult ICU beds were available in northeastern Minnesota on Monday, with 39 percent of occupied beds filled with COVID patients. Ninety-one percent of non-ICU adult beds in the region were occupied, with just under 20 percent of patients with COVID.
The strain is also being felt outside of hospitals, Westbrook said.
“When we talk about health care systems being stretched, that extends to long-term care facilities that are really stretched with staffing as well,” she said. “So, it’s a system that’s really, really stressed in a lot of ways.”
Repeated waves of COVID, the new omicron variant, and other factors are all taking their collective toll not only in healthcare settings, but in the general public, Westbrook said.
“This pandemic just kind of keeps jerking us around, for lack of a better term, right?” she said. “We had Delta come, and now that’s the dominant strain. Now we hear there are more breakthrough cases and that we’re finding another variant. It continues to just really do a number on our collective psyche. People think let’s just get through vaccines and we’ll get back to normal, let’s get through boosters and we’ll get back to normal, then let’s just get through Delta and we’ll get back to normal, and it’s just not the case. We just keep seeing new variants and so many unknowns, and it’s hard to live with these unknowns the pandemic is creating.”
The Ely ZIP code was far and away the leader in new weekly cases reported last Thursday for the ZIP codes monitored by the Timberjay, with 50 new cases bumping the pandemic-long total for that area to 517. About 29 percent of those cases, or 117, have been reported in just the past three weeks, exceeding the numbers reported during any three-week period of the massive statewide surge experienced at this time last year.
Increases in the other five North Country ZIP codes stayed in single digits. Embarrass had eight new cases, Cook, five, Tower, four, Soudan, three, and Orr, two.
Continuing COVID case growth throughout the region has led to increased interest in booster shots in the Scenic Rivers Health Services clinics, including Cook and Tower, according to chief operating officer Kayla Scrivner.
“The positivity rate in our communities up here in northeast Minnesota is still pretty high,” she said. “We’ve been very, very busy with boosters lately. Any time someone comes in for an appointment for something else, they’re getting their booster while they’re here. We also have been doing booster days several times a week. We’re averaging about 500 people a week right now. We encourage everyone ages five and over to make sure they get vaccinated, and everyone who is eligible for a booster to get one.”
Scenic Rivers is the primary provider of vaccinations and boosters in the Cook and Tower areas, as Cook Hospital does not offer vaccinations after having hosted multiple vaccination clinics earlier in the year.
COVID test availability is also a concern, with Westbrook noting that there are a number of rural “testing deserts” throughout the county where tests are hard to come by.
Scrivner said that anyone with COVID symptoms and those who have been exposed to someone with COVID should get tested, and Scenic Rivers clinics have PCR testing available.
“We can do those in Tower, in Cook, and at our new clinic in Eveleth,” she said. “We’re getting pretty good turnaround time on those. I think the labs are telling us right now (to expect) seven days, and I think they do that to be safe. But on average, we’re seeing about a 48-hour turnaround. It’s a little bit more if it’s on Friday, because they don’t run them over the weekend anymore.”
Since testing procedures vary slightly across clinics, it’s best to call ahead to arrange a test, she said.
“We have options, depending on the site, to make sure that everybody can be tested safely,” she said.
Scenic Rivers is seeing a patient flow that, at a less severe level, somewhat mirrors the mix being seen in hospitals.
“We’re very busy with acute visits,” Scrivner said. “Beside all of the COVID in the community, students are back in school with all the viruses circulating related to that, there’s been some pretty nasty colds out there, just a lot more non-COVID illness that’s keeping our physicians and clinic very busy.”
And, like other healthcare venues, health care workers at Scenic Rivers are feeling the stress of a pandemic that’s gone on for nearly 21 months.
“My heart goes out to my staff, they’re working so hard to try to take care of people,” she said. “If you can do anything for a healthcare worker in your life right now, they could really use some extra support.”
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