Minnesota hospitals preparing for possible surge of COVID-19 patients

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Hospitals across Minnesota are preparing to activate emergency plans as COVID-19 continues to spread.

“We’re very concerned looking at other cities and other areas that we will probably exceed our healthcare system’s resources and perhaps to really significant degrees,” said Dr. John Hick, director for emergency preparedness at Hennepin Healthcare.

Dr. Hick said the number of COVID-19 cases is expected to double every five to seven days in the community.

“It doesn’t look like much until it hits a tipping point,” Hick explained. “But once it hits that tipping point, there is no going back."

Hick expects a large volume of cases will start to flood emergency rooms in Minnesota by early April.

If hospitals become overloaded, he said they are working to secure extra sites to bring patients, such as hotels and shuttered nursing homes.

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He said about 15% of intensive care beds in the metro are currently open, but those are expected to fill up fast with COVID-19 patients.

"A lot of people are on critical care or on life support for weeks at a time with this,” Hick noted.

As for ventilators, Hennepin Healthcare operates about 50 of them across its facilities. Hick said they can double that number by tapping into other types of hospital equipment.

"By using things like BiPAP machines, that are more specialized than the ones people use at home for sleep apnea, we can use those as ventilators,” Dr. Hick said. “We can also use anesthesia machines from some of our operating rooms, knowing we have to keep some available for trauma."

He noted there is a shortage of personal protective equipment, like N-95 masks, but said Minnesota appears to be in better shape than other states.

“We are reusing masks and using masks throughout shifts, which is not ideal but it is effective at conserving the use of masks,” Hick said.

Hick encouraged Minnesotans to continue to practice social distancing to help slow the spread of coronavirus.

“If the models are correct, all of us need to reduce social contacts by 90% for this to be successful,” Hick explained. "Every decreased contact you have right now means less pressure on the healthcare system in a couple of weeks."