The Bethesda long-term care hospital in St. Paul will be converted in the next few weeks into a COVID-19 treatment center, providing specialty intensive care for severe cases and keeping infected patients from other hospitals.

M Health Fairview had cut operations at the hospital in half this winter due to budget constraints and reimbursement challenges but announced Tuesday that it would now expand Bethesda from 50 beds to 90.

The facility will include 35 intensive-care beds and ventilators. Ventilators have proved to be crucial tools in the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic because patients with severe cases often suffer pneumonia and struggle to breathe.

Patients now at Bethesda, part of the M Health Fairview system, will be transferred this week to other hospitals or skilled-nursing homes. The health system in a statement said that it would strive to keep those patients under the care of existing providers.

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus that emerged in December in Wuhan, China, and spread worldwide. Of Minnesota’s 60 confirmed cases, three remained hospitalized and one was still in critical condition, state health officials said Tuesday.

Concerns about COVID-19 in Minnesota increased this weekend, when testing identified three people in the state whose infections couldn’t be traced back to other sick people or to travel in areas where the coronavirus is widespread. This so-called community spread means there are more COVID-19 cases in the state that haven’t been identified, and infected people who may have only mild symptoms but are potentially spreading the virus.

The Bethesda move complies with recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to create cohort facilities in communities that can receive COVID-19 patients and add critical care staff familiar with the illness. The CDC also recommends maximizing use of equipment and personal protective gear such as masks and face shields.

“COVID-19 presents challenging realities that will put unprecedented demand on our system and care teams,” Linda Wick, associate chief nurse executive for M Health Fairview, said in a statement. “By implementing the CDC’s cohorting guidance in our system, we are taking every measure available to prepare and protect the safety of patients and staff.”

Fairview had cut nursing and other positions from the hospital but was in negotiations Monday with the Minnesota Nurses Association to relocate or hire staff back at the facility. Another negotiating session was scheduled Wednesday, a union spokesperson said.

Fairview leaders met this winter to address a $96 million shortfall in 2019 and another projected loss this year. They proposed reducing operations or closing both Bethesda and St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul.

As part of the reduction in operations at Bethesda, Fairview leaders decided to transfer only patients needing long-term medical care from other partner hospitals within their system. A spokesperson clarified Tuesday night that the hospital will now accept transfers of COVID-19 patients from other health care providers and hospitals when there is open space and need.