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Twin Cities frostbite cases jump as temps plummet

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A surgeon discusses the recent surge in frostbite cases
Regions Hospital Burn Center surgeon William Mohr talked about a surge of frostbite cases in recent days, and the St. Paul hospital's experience in treating severe cold injuries.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

Update 2:11 p.m. | Posted 1:20 p.m.

Frostbite cases were coming in at the rate of one an hour to Regions Hospital in St. Paul over the New Year's holiday as the recent cold snap blanketed the Upper Midwest.

"As the temperatures dip below freezing, and especially below zero, people find themselves outside for extended periods of time with inadequate clothing. The temperature will get to them eventually," said William Mohr, a surgeon in the hospital's burn center.

Exposed skin could suffer frostbite — ice crystals forming in skin tissue — in as little as 15 minutes in the worst cases, he said.

Besides the spike in local cases, Mohr said his center is fielding calls from doctors as far away as the Dakotas seeking telemedicine consultations on which cases can be treated locally and which require more intensive therapies to try and restore blood flow to damaged extremities.

Regions' emergency department has seen or treated more than 25 cases of frostbite since Christmas Eve with many of those coming the past few days. At the burn center, 15 patients were treated for frostbite. 

Hennepin County Medical Center has seen 26 patients with frostbite since Dec. 24, hospital spokesperson Christine Hill said. Fourteen patients were admitted, 12 were treated and released from the emergency department with follow up clinical care.

Mohr said cases are worse this year than typical years, although it hasn't been as bad as the historic polar vortex winter in 2013 and 2014.

"But people quickly forget, and they get themselves into situations in which their not adequately prepared," Mohr said. He suggested people limit their time outdoors in the bitterest cold and prepare for the worst-case-scenario: being outside for longer than you might expect. 

Minnesotans should bundle up and keep more protection — hats or mittens, for instance — nearby. "Whatever you think is right, then add one or two more," he said. "And if you're in a car, have another layer in the car. Always have a cell phone with you to call for help."