As Minnesota continues to set 2021 records for the number of COVID-19 patients receiving hospital care, Gov. Tim Walz on Tuesday outlined steps the state is taking to protect hospital capacity amid the latest pandemic surge.
Federal medical teams this week are starting to help at Hennepin Healthcare's HCMC in Minneapolis and will soon arrive at CentraCare's St. Cloud Hospital. New facilities are creating space so hospitals can discharge patients to the next level of care, Walz said, and Minnesota National Guard members are being trained to support long-term care providers.
But even with those efforts, the governor said during a news conference at HCMC that the state faces a critical time in the coming weeks.
"We understand very clearly this is a triage situation ...," he said. "The biggest keys to stopping what you're seeing here is stopping the spread of COVID through the most effective means — these vaccines."
The latest data Tuesday from the Minnesota Department of Health show that as of the beginning of the week, hospitals across the state were caring for 1,429 patients with the virus. It's the most this year, rivaled only by last Thursday when hospitals were treating 1,420 COVID patients.
While hospital figures declined over the weekend, the resurgence means Minnesota continues to push toward last year's pandemic peak of 1,864 hospitalized patients in late November.
The stress is clear at places such as HCMC, where the emergency room has been backed up with about 20 patients daily because beds aren't available. And that has forced HCMC to routinely tell other hospitals it doesn't have room to accept patient transfers.
"Transfers not happening is not ideal, and it can be life-threatening," said Jennifer DeCubellis, the chief executive of Hennepin Healthcare who joined Walz and state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm at the news conference.
A team of about 20 doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists from the Air Force is helping free up staff so HCMC can better manage the flow of patients. Lt. Col. Brandon Shealey said the duration of the support hasn't yet been determined. But he said the team is committed to "relieve the pressure on the health care workers that are overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic."
Compared with last year, Minnesotans can be thankful for many advances in coping with COVID-19, Malcolm said, with vaccines being first and foremost. Minnesota ranks second among states in adults who have received booster shots, Walz said, and sixth in immunizations among children ages 5-11.
Doctors also know more about how to treat COVID-19 patients, Malcolm said. On Tuesday, the state Health Department and Minneapolis-based M Health Fairview announced plans to expand capacity in the Twin Cities metro area for outpatient monoclonal antibody treatments, which are an option for certain patients.
But like HCMC, just about every hospital in Minnesota now is in "tough shape," Malcolm said. While Monday set a record for COVID-19 hospitalizations in Minnesota, high-water marks are being set regularly, she said.
COVID is "tipping these hospitals over the edge," Malcolm said, but "they're very, very full of very sick people for a lot of reasons."
"It is a critical time for people to be mindful of the risk that's out there with this much virus circulating around our state," she said. "This is the time to be still doing those basic things that matter — vaccination, number one. Getting tested so you know your status and you can take the appropriate action, but also masking."
The Health Department on Tuesday reported 11,455 new cases from the 72-hour period starting at 4 a.m. Friday and ending at 4 a.m. Monday. Tuesday's case report typically is the highest of the week, since it encompasses three days, and the latest tally is up from the Nov. 16 weekend count of nearly 11,000 new cases .
The seven-day average for new cases has been hovering recently at about 5,000, Malcolm said. She said that number offers a "glimmer of hope" because case growth doesn't seem to be accelerating.
But, Malcolm said during an interview, there's no guarantee what's coming next.
And considering the case growth in recent weeks, she said, "what's in the pipeline is going to keep these hospitals very full for several weeks at least, and that's even before factoring in a holiday surge."
The Minnesota Hospital Association on Tuesday said hospitals are encouraged to see daily increases in the number of Minnesotans receiving vaccines and boosters. The state is also helping by bringing on more capacity for skilled nursing facilities, the group said, and individuals still can take their own steps to reduce the spread.
But the hospital association concluded: "We are in a true crisis — hospitals are literally full. ICUs are full, emergency departments are full, medical surgical units are full, hallways are full, and surgeries are getting cancelled."
At Mayo Clinic, modeling suggests that Minnesota in the coming weeks could exceed last year's peak of just over 400 patients with COVID-19 in hospital ICUs, said Curt Storlie, a health sciences researcher at Mayo. He said there is also a chance the state could exceed the previous peak for total hospitalizations, as well.
But Storlie offered one positive note: "It's likely our cases will begin to decrease soon, and it is even possible they have started, but we need to see a more sustained decrease to have any confidence that this is really the case."