Hospital needs hit 2021 highs as COVID-19 surge worsens

Published 5:44 pm Friday, November 12, 2021

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By Kirsti Marohn and David H. Montgomery, Minnesota Public Radio News

COVID-19’s summer-fall punch continues to pummel Minnesota, with key metrics reaching new, worrisome highs for the year. Active and newly reported cases are trending at levels not seen since mid-December.

Hospitalizations are especially concerning right now.

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Bed counts that fell below 100 in mid-July jumped in the late fall, putting huge pressure on the state’s short-staffed care systems — 1,245 people are hospitalized now with COVID-19; 296 need intensive care. Those are the highest counts all year.

‘You’re going to wait’

The latest COVID-19 surge and staffing shortages are overwhelming hospitals in central Minnesota.

CentraCare and Carris Health, which operate hospitals in St. Cloud, Willmar and other smaller communities, say those hospitals are full. Staff are struggling to find beds for critically ill patients. Others are waiting hours to be seen in emergency rooms.

“The strain on resources, and the almost unlimited amount of people that need our help right now, is a combination I don’t think many of us have ever experienced,” said Bryan Bauck, executive director for rural health in CentraCare’s western region.

Bauck said the strain is due to a combination of a surge in COVID-19 cases, patients needing care for other illnesses and people who delayed getting care over the past year and a half.

CentraCare officials are urging people not to seek treatment for non-emergency conditions in the emergency room at St. Cloud Hospital, where patients are waiting hours for care.

“We have a plea out to the community: Please use the health care resources in the right way at the right time at the right place, because we absolutely want to help you and we’re going to help you, but we’re bogging down in some other areas, and we just don’t have capacity — and you’re going to wait,” said Rachel Mockros, director of emergency preparedness.

CentraCare also is asking the community to help by getting vaccinated, practicing social distancing and masking. It’s also encouraging people with experience in health care to consider working or volunteering.

Earlier in the week, the HealthPartners medical system reported “the highest number of patients with COVID-19 in our hospitals since last December. And many of our hospitals are at or near capacity.”

Unvaccinated far more likely to be hospitalized, die

State data offers striking evidence of vaccine effectiveness in Minnesota.

Adjusted for age, unvaccinated Minnesotans have been about four times more likely to get COVID-19 than those who’ve been vaccinated — and 16 times more likely to be hospitalized or die from it.

The shots, of course, don’t insulate people completely from getting COVID-19.

Minnesota Health Department figures released Friday show about 40 percent of Minnesota’s COVID-19 cases among people 12 or older were breakthroughs — people previously inoculated — as of a month ago, the most recent available data.

The share of cases, hospitalizations and deaths that are breakthroughs has risen steadily in recent months. However, health officials say this isn’t surprising or even alarming.

More than 70 percent of Minnesotans 12 or older are fully vaccinated, which means as the disease has spread in recent months the virus has encountered plenty of vaccinated people.

‘Truly alarming spike in cases’

State officials have been pleading with Minnesotans to take care against spreading the disease as Thanksgiving and other year-end celebrations approach and children return home from college.

“We find ourselves in a really truly alarming spike in cases in recent days,” Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters Wednesday, adding that the current surge is due in part to the waning vaccine immunity among some who were inoculated early in the year.

Driven by the highly contagious delta variant, the entire state shows a high level of COVID-19 transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Minnesota averaged about 3,800 new cases a day in the last seven reporting days. Active cases also reached a 2021 high — 32,388.

The rate of COVID-19 tests coming back positive continued to edge higher, topping 9 percent, according to MPR News calculations, higher than the 5 percent officials find concerning and a key signal that transmission of the virus is accelerating.

The state’s death toll stands at 8,996, including 28 deaths newly reported on Friday. Deaths typically follow a surge in cases and hospitalizations. In past COVID-19 waves, it’s been the last of the key metrics to improve.

Last year’s death rates were driven by residents of nursing homes, where deaths are much lower now. People outside of long-term care are dying at almost the same rate as last fall.

Minnesota seems better positioned now than during its fall 2020 and spring 2021 spikes. More than 74 percent of state residents age 12 and older have received at least one vaccination shot, with more than 70 percent now completely vaccinated.

The state is seeing progress in getting booster shots into Minnesotans who’ve already been vaccinated.

However, the struggle continues to get first shots into more Minnesotans. Wide gaps remain in the vaccination rates among regions and counties.