Minnesota hospitals taking new steps due to capacity concerns

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Minnesota hospital systems are taking new steps to reduce the strain of ongoing capacity issues.

Statewide, only about 3% of ICU beds were available Friday, along with less than 5% of non-ICU beds, according to the Minnesota Department of Health Response Capacity Dashboard.

Some hospitals report, on any given day, the situation may be even more dire than the statewide data shows.

"We’ve been 100% full for more than a month," said Dr. Bret Haake, vice president of medical officers and chief medical officers at Regions Hospital, part of the HealthPartners system. "Everybody is as full or more full than they’ve ever been in the history of their organizations."

Hospitals are seeing a wide range of medical issues, including people suffering complications due to putting off standard health care during the pandemic.

Haake said the recent wave of COVID-19 is straining hospital capacity even further, putting many facilities at a breaking point.

"It is basically on the verge of overwhelming all of the hospitals in the Twin Cities and in outstate," Haake said. "It’s increasingly hard to be hopeful because we’ve been hopeful so many times in the past and it just keeps happening."

Minnesota reported 4,849 new cases of COVID-19 Friday, along with 28 deaths.

HealthPartners said its system is currently caring for more patients with COVID-19 than it has all year, with 148 people hospitalized with the virus as of Friday morning, up from 105 last week.

"Patients that need care are getting the care they need but our resources are very, very stretched," Haake said. "We basically have meetings every day to try to be more inventive and try to come up with other ways to take care of patients."

HealthPartners is taking steps to create urgent care capacity to help take pressure off of emergency departments.

That includes collaborating with other hospital systems across the state, discharging patients earlier in the day to free up beds, transforming outpatient and post-operative rooms into inpatient rooms, moving certain procedures to outpatient clinics and providing "hospital at home" care for patients with certain illnesses.

"We have internists and community paramedics that will come into patients’ homes and basically treat them as if they are in the hospital," Haake explained.

CentraCare, a hospital system serving central Minnesota, is also implementing changes due to the current surge of hospitalizations.

"This is the wildest nightmare scenario," said Dr. George Morris, CentraCare’s incident commander for COVID-19 response. "The reality is, we’re at a point in time where we need to do things differently to help impact this outcome."

Morris said their hospitals have been at capacity since September.

"We’ve been at crisis levels for quite a while now," Morris said. "The wait time in the emergency room might be 12 hours instead of two. You think about, well what happens if I get in an accident? You’re going to have a longer wait. What happens if I need my appendix out or my gallbladder out? You’re going to have a longer wait."

Morris said staffing shortages are playing a direct role in the capacity issues.

CentraCare is asking for anyone with health care experience to consider working at one of their hospitals.

He said on-the-job training is being expedited to help accommodate the need.

"In other words, if it used to take us two weeks, it takes us two days. If it used to take six months to onboard somebody and educate them to the process, we’re going to do it in two weeks," Morris said.

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS asked both health systems if vaccine mandates are playing a role in staffing shortages. HealthPartners provided this statement:

"As of our Oct. 29 deadline, 99% of HealthPartners employees had been vaccinated against COVID-19 or received an approved medical or religious exemption. The small number of employees who have not yet met the program requirement have been placed on an unpaid 30-day leave of absence, during which time they will have the opportunity to meet the requirement and return to work. Of the small number of employees placed on an unpaid 30-day leave of absence, fewer than 45 are full time."

CentraCare’s mandate doesn’t go into effect until December. CentraCare is also putting out a call for volunteers to help with lower-level tasks in hospitals.

"It doesn’t have to be a doctor. It doesn’t have to be a nurse," Morris explained. "We’re really looking for anybody to come help us out. Many times, we have a nurse or nursing assistant help transport a patient. Instead, let’s use a volunteer. Or there could be times where I just need someone to go get me that specialized piece of equipment from down the hallway. Well, let’s have a volunteer save you five minutes of walking and going to get it, so during those times you can be providing patient care."

Hospital leaders are urging Minnesotans to get vaccinated against COVID-19 to help relieve the pressure on the health care system.

"We know the holidays are coming up. That tends to also trigger more travel, more exposures," Morris said. "Until we get to the point that we have a very high level of vaccination, that herd immunity concept, we are going to be at risk for this surge just continuing for a very long time."