DULUTH – The CEO of St. Luke's abruptly resigned Wednesday after just over a year leading the Duluth-based health system.

Kevin Nokels, who joined St. Luke's in August 2019, gave no public reason for his departure, nor did the hospital or its board of directors.

"We thank Kevin for the talent he brought to St. Luke's, especially during this incredibly challenging pandemic," Herb Minke, vice chairman of the St. Luke's board, said in a statement. Board members deferred comment to spokeswoman Melissa Burlaga, who did not elaborate on Nokels' departure when asked.

When reached at his Duluth home on Wednesday and asked if he wanted to comment on his departure, Nokels said: "Not interested."

Chief Financial Officer Eric Lohn and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Nick Van Deelen will lead the hospital as interim co-presidents/CEOs until the middle of next year, when "the board of directors will re-evaluate and determine the permanent organizational structure," St. Luke's said.

The departure caught employees off-guard.

"We were surprised to hear of Mr. Nokels' departure from St. Luke's," said Pete Boyechko with the Minnesota Nurses Association. "The St. Luke's MNA bargaining unit has had productive conversations with Dr. Van Deelen and Mr. Lohn in the past and look forward to collaborating with them as they take helm of the organization moving forward."

The resignation comes as area hospitals remain at or near capacity due to a jump in COVID-19 patients and a rise in emergency room visits due to delayed care. In St. Louis County, there were 73 new COVID-19 hospitalizations reported between Nov. 23 and Nov. 30, the most recent data available. Nearly every critical care bed in northeastern Minnesota was filled earlier in November.

"We appreciate Eric's and Nick's willingness to step into these roles," Minke said in a statement. "We are confident in their ability to lead St. Luke's, along with the rest of the executive team. They have already showed exemplary leadership during this pandemic and the challenges it has presented."

St. Luke's is a regional health care player with locations around Duluth, Two Harbors, Silver Bay, the Iron Range and Superior and Ashland, Wis. Last year it had more than $526 million in revenue. The health system is the second-largest employer in Duluth, behind Essentia Health, and had 2,300 employees as of last year.

Nokels, previously the president of CHI Health Creighton University Medical Center-Bergan Mercy in Omaha, Neb., was hired after longtime CEO John Strange retired in February 2019. Strange had led St. Luke's for nearly 23 years.

Another regional hospital CEO also announced his departure this week. Patrick Sharp, CEO of Hibbing's Fairview Range Regional Medical Center will be taking a job leading Centura Health-Mercy Regional Medical Center in southwest Colorado starting in January, Centura said.

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496