DULUTH – Local health care leaders are warning of a “perfect storm” that could strain hospital capacity this winter, largely due to routine care getting put off, causing more patients to seek emergency care.

“If you need care, please come see us,” said Dr. Jon Pryor, president of Essentia Health’s east market. “The alternative could be disastrous.”

The plea came as both Essentia and St. Luke’s are already at or near capacity in recent weeks on the cusp of flu season and an expected increase in coronavirus cases. COVID-19 hospitalizations have increased slightly along with a recent spike in local cases, but the worst may be yet to come.

“With the holiday season coming up, it’s going to be even more important that we think about and continue being safe,” said Dr. Nicholas Van Deelen, chief medical officer at St. Luke’s. “St. Luke’s has been very busy in recent weeks … it is critical the community help slow the spread of COVID-19.”

St. Louis County has seen 25 new hospitalizations for COVID-19 in the past two weeks — including six ICU admissions — which account for more than 18% of the 135 local hospitalizations for the disease to date.

About half of the hospitalizations occurred following community spread of the virus — as opposed to catching it via travel or in a congregate care facility.

The virus has killed 56 people in the county, nearly all of them elderly residents of long-term care facilities. A total of 2,401 cases have been reported as of Thursday — 320 of them in the last seven days.

“It’s going to sicken and kill even more people if we don’t do the things we talked about,” said Pryor, referring to masking, hand washing and avoiding gatherings.

Both doctors said patients with chronic illnesses should be keeping up regular appointments and not waiting until conditions reach emergency status.

“We’re seeing more strokes than ever before,” Pryor said. “Don’t delay the care — that’s part of what’s creating this issue right now in our hospitals and why they’re so full.”

Clinic closures and a state ban on nonemergency procedures in the early days of the pandemic this year caused many Minnesotans to put off routine care, and Pryor said many hospitals around the state are having the same problem.

Even with swift moves to virtual visits and a gradual reopening of many health care locations, more patients have been putting off care for long-term illnesses and conditions like diabetes.

Many patients “have been reluctant to seek care” even as hospitals and clinics assure folks it is safe to come in or at least check in via virtual visits.

Essentia and St. Luke’s, the two largest employers in Duluth with more than 700 hospital beds between them in the city, are working to manage potential capacity strain and have surge plans in place.

“There is a statewide system that helps us pay attention to and manage areas of the state that are experiencing influxes,” Van Deelen said. “Lots of coordination is being done across the region.”

That could mean moving patients between facilities to best handle capacity issues and the level of care needed.

St. Luke’s and Essentia both have a presence in Superior, where a recent surge in COVID-19 cases matches the state trend. Wisconsin’s Douglas County added 91 cases in the past two weeks, a 16% increase; the state saw cases rise 17% in the same time.