Northland hospitals feel the stress as latest COVID wave climbs

A patient room sits empty with a large air pump through the window.
A patient room Sanford Medical Center in Bemidji has been converted into a negative air pressure room treat patients with COVID-19. Hospital systems serving swaths of northeastern and northwestern Minnesota are struggling with the newest surge of cases and hospitalizations.
Courtesy of Sanford Health

Hospital systems serving swaths of northeastern and northwestern Minnesota are struggling with the newest surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations amid a shortage of health care staff and rising numbers of non-COVID patients.

"We were running as though it were a sprint to begin with. And it really turned out to be a marathon. And as any sprinter will tell you, you can’t run a marathon at that pace,” said Harmony Tyner, an infectious disease physician at St. Luke’s Hospital in Duluth.

The Essentia Health system, with operations in Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota, is reporting more than 50 patients with severe COVID conditions, up 25 percent from just the prior day.

Hospitals are again close to capacity, said Dr. Andrea Boehland, an emergency room physician at Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center in Duluth. “We have between 15 and 20 hospitalized patients with severe COVID. More concerning: This number has doubled over the past two weeks.”

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The COVID-19 delta variant is infecting younger, healthier people, she noted.

Officials continue to urge eligible people to get vaccinated and to wear masks in indoor public spaces.

Staffing constraints are also making care challenging. Hospital officials say many front-line workers have retired while others have cut back, and it's more difficult to attract traveling health care workers.

Across the state in the Fargo-Moorhead area, patient numbers are approaching the record peak reached during a COVID-19 surge last November, according to officials with Sanford Medical Center.

The North Dakota hospital is elevating its pandemic response by reassigning staff and equipment and is also looking at limiting elective surgeries as COVID cases increase, said Doug Griffin, the chief medical officer.

Sanford is preparing for an expected increase in hospitalizations among children who are too young to be vaccinated for COVID-19, he said, adding that across all Sanford facilities, 95 percent of people currently hospitalized for COVID-19 are unvaccinated.