MN hospitals welcome return of elective procedures; nurses union wary of move

A woman in PPE removes a disposable gown.
Nurse Lindsay Stewart demonstrates donning and doffing PPE inside of Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul on March 26. In an executive order Tuesday, Gov. Tim Walz lifted the temporary ban that he imposed seven weeks ago, which was part of an effort to save scarce masks and gowns for the COVID-19 fight.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

Minnesota hospitals are getting ready to restart nonemergency elective surgeries. In an executive order Tuesday, Gov. Tim Walz lifted the temporary ban that he imposed seven weeks ago, which was part of an effort to save scarce masks and gowns for the COVID-19 fight.

Starting Monday, health care providers across the state, including dental and veterinary practices, will be allowed to resume elective procedures.

Dr. Amy Williams, a kidney specialist and administrator at Mayo Clinic, said the system is ready.

“Our hospitals are less than 50 percent full. We have processes in place where patients are screened prior with COVID testing,” she said. “Both testing to see if they’re shedding viruses and serology testing before their surgery.”

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Williams said Mayo has stringent rules in place to stop the spread of COVID-19. Everyone in the building must wear a mask, social distancing is enforced, and anyone who may have symptoms is escorted to get a test.

Mayo tracks its PPE supplies and available beds, and also keeps a close eye on the spread of COVID-19 in Minnesota.

“So if we all of the sudden would see a surge somewhere we might back off a bit on the surgeries,” Williams said.

The new order requires hospitals to establish criteria for prioritizing surgical procedures and work with other health care facilities to ensure adequate PPE supplies if there’s a sudden uptick in COVID-19 cases.

Walz has noted that someone waiting for a hip or knee replacement or a child in need of back surgery probably wouldn’t consider these types of operations to be elective. At his news conference Tuesday, Walz said the measure is a necessary step forward.

“This is a move I believe that strikes the proper balance between holding COVID[-19] flat, moving things out but also recognizing that quality of life is impacted by that — same discussion we’re having about the economy,” the governor said.

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The resumption of elective procedures is also key to getting health care providers onto a better financial footing. Many hospitals — including Mayo — have had to furlough staff because of the ban. In early April, the Minnesota Hospital Association said the abrupt halt to noncritical surgeries would cost hospitals across the state around a billion dollars a month.

Walz acknowledged the fears of front-line health care workers. He said Minnesota Nurses Association President Mary Turner called him to express her concerns about resuming nonemergency surgery.

Turner has been treating COVID-19 patients at North Memorial Health Hospital in Robbinsdale. She said PPE is in such short supply that nurses are not only wearing the same N95 masks all day, they’re saving them in paper bags for later shifts. Doctors and nurses usually switch masks each time they visit a new patient.

“We are told to keep them in separate bags and that if we go 96 hours in between, it should be fine,” Turner said.

She said there are COVID-19 patients in three of North Memorial’s four intensive care units.

“It seems to be that we’re constantly making these calculated risks. And it’s the nurses and the doctors and all the front-line workers who are at the end of these decisions and taking all the risks if it’s not the right decision,” Turner said.

Her greatest fear remains that a Minnesota nurse will contract a fatal case of COVID-19 while trying to save others from it.