Leaders of the M Health Fairview system are planning new COVID-19 units inside hospitals in Edina and downtown St. Paul to prepare for a predicted surge in cases of the respiratory illness caused by a novel coronavirus.

The expansion plan, announced Tuesday morning, comes as Fairview’s Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul is nearing its 90-bed capacity for COVID-19 patients. Statewide, the number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals reached 237 on Monday, doubling in two weeks. And 126 of those patients are in intensive care due to severe respiratory symptoms and breathing problems.

“While we recognize a COVID-19 surge may still be weeks away, we want to be fully prepared to respond to a rapid acceleration of cases,” the health system said in a written statement provided to the Star Tribune.

The new units in the St. Joseph’s and Southdale hospitals will not disrupt other operations at the facilities, including their emergency rooms. Activation of these units could result in the transfer of non-COVID-19 patients and their care teams to other units or hospitals, the health system said.

St. Joseph’s will be activated first when need dictates, followed by Southdale. The hospitals were picked in part due to their existing intensive care capacities and negative air flow rooms that limit any circulation of the virus that patients cough into the air.

The health system has reported advantages to the “cohorting” of cases in one location such as Bethesda, which was in the process of being scaled down earlier this year as a long-term acute care hospital before it was expanded back into a COVID-19-only hospital.

The staff at Bethesda are driven to treat this new disease and learn more about it, despite the infection risks, said Dr. Jeffrey Chipman, who directs critical care for M Health Fairview. “This is an amazing place to work.”

The new units come amid a flurry of preparations by Minnesota hospitals to prepare for COVID-19, including rapid addition of negative airflow systems in hospitals such as Abbott Northwestern in Minneapolis, and of intensive care beds in general.

The state’s intensive care bed capacity has increased over the past month to 2,638 — with about half of those beds on backup and available in 24 to 72 hours.

Gov. Tim Walz issued a stay-at-home order until May 4 to reduce face-to-face contact and disease transmission by 80% and to buy time for hospitals to make those preparations.

On Monday, he commended the hospitals for sharing real-time information about their capacity and supply levels, which ordinarily would be considered competitive data.

“For the first time in Minnesota history, we pretty much know where everything’s at in every hospital across the state,” Walz said. “That was asking quite a bit of the hospitals to give up that autonomy.”

Levels of personal protective equipment remain a concern, as doctors and nurses need to don gloves and masks to reduce their infection risks when working with COVID-19 patients. As of Monday, the state had exhausted its reserve supply of medical gowns — though it was awaiting the delivery of 107,000 more.

Fairview in its statement said another benefit of the consolidated units would be the ability to centralize medical expertise and personal protective equipment at those sites.