Latest COVID surge strains central Minnesota hospitals

A person wearing personal protective equipment stands at a car window
Nurse Amanda Hitchings uses a swab to take a sample for COVID-19 testing at the curbside collection facility on May 6, 2020, at St. Cloud Hospital. As COVID-19 cases surge, available hospitals beds are dwindling in central Minnesota.
MBR/Dave Schwarz | St. Cloud Times 2020

The latest surge of COVID-19 cases is straining hospitals in central Minnesota, where vaccination rates trail other parts of the state.

In the CentraCare health care system, which operates hospitals and clinics in central Minnesota including St. Cloud, the number of hospitalized patients is higher now than during the spring surge, said Dr. George Morris, medical incident commander for CentraCare’s COVID-19 response team.

That’s led to dwindling space in the hospitals’ intensive care units — sometimes just a handful of available beds statewide, Morris said. 

He said the surge is hindering CentraCare’s ability to do scheduled surgeries and care for patients suffering from heart attacks, strokes or other non-COVID-19 conditions.

New COVID-19 cases by Minnesota region

The vast majority of patients with COVID in CentraCare’s hospitals — more than 90 percent — are unvaccinated, Morris said. 

“I'm not trying to shame or blame here,” he said. “But so much of our resources have to be committed to unvaccinated COVID patients … that limits our ability to provide needed medical care for others.”

Morris attributes the strain largely to the highly contagious delta strain of the coronavirus. A higher percentage of COVID-19 cases are patients under 50 years old — roughly 30 to 50 percent, compared to 10 to 20 percent during the early stages of the pandemic, he said.

CentraCare also is seeing more children with COVID-19, ranging from infants to age 18, Morris said.

A woman in PPE stands at a table with medical equipment.
Nurse Lynette Van London prepares to administer the first dose of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine in December 2020 at the St. Cloud Hospital in St. Cloud, Minn.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News 2020

As kids have been interacting more and returning to school, sports and activities, there’s also been a spike in other respiratory illnesses such as influenza and RSV, he said. On top of that, hospitals tend to see more trauma cases in the summer months, when traffic is up and people are spending time outdoors.

“It's just that this time, it's COVID on top of everything else, at a level that is bigger or worse than what we saw in March, in April,” Morris said.

Pediatric ICU beds are limited in greater Minnesota — St. Cloud Hospital, for example, has just four. Morris said during the earlier COVID-19 surge, those beds were used to treat adults, but now they are needed for children.

In several central Minnesota counties, fewer than half of residents 12 or older have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the state Department of Health. 

Map of Minnesota COVID-19 eligible vaccination rate

To make sure the health care system doesn’t get too overburdened, Morris said it’s important for people eligible to get the vaccine to do so, and wear masks in schools and other indoor public places.

“If you want the last line of defense to be available, then I would expect all of us to be thinking about, ‘Well, what can I do as a citizen of Minnesota to prevent COVID spreading wildly in our communities?’” he said.

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