In statewide ad, MN hospital leaders warn COVID is overwhelming health care

A nurse adjusts a medical device.
ICU nurse Tanya Shaw makes an adjustment while working a shift last week. The leaders of nine Minnesota health care organizations signed a letter published in newspapers across the state over the weekend urging people to get vaccinated and wear masks.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News file

Essentia Health CEO Dr. David Herman sees the pandemic impact on hospitals as heartbreaking in many ways. But for him, what stands out are the unvaccinated patients who are very ill with COVID-19 and on a ventilator.

"Many of the sickest patients that we see, that was avoidable,” said Herman. “And to see patients so sick, to see the suffering that the patients experience, and the suffering that their families experience is heartbreaking."

Essentia has hospitals and clinics across northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota. The biggest challenge at all of those facilities is staffing, said Herman. Not only are staff leaving, in part because of the overwhelming work, he said many are forced to quarantine each week after testing positive for COVID-19.

Across Minnesota, the percentage of all available hospital beds is at the lowest point it's been since the pandemic started.

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Herman said far too often, patients who need care must wait because there aren't enough beds available.

"I don't know if there's such a thing as a breaking point in health care. We've been asked: 'How close to the edge are you?' and there really is no edge in health care. So what we do is we make do, we never say no to someone, but what we provided in the past may not be what we can provide today,” said Herman.

And when they run into barriers that prevent them from providing the best care possible, medical staff are left to ponder an unsettling question.

“If someone doesn't make it, we wonder, 'If we could have had more space or more staff, would they have done better,’” said Herman. “I think this is something that we will determine as we look back."

Minneapolis-based Allina Health CEO Penny Wheeler says those situations take a toll on health care workers.

"When we, as somebody who wants to provide health and health care for others, feel like because of the workload and the intensity of it and all that's facing us, we can't give our absolute best, that really causes a moral injury," said Wheeler.

The shortage of hospital beds is directly related to people choosing to not be vaccinated against the coronavirus, said Wheeler, who pointed to the 28 percent of hospitalized Allina patients who have COVID-19.

"We'd have a whole 200-bed hospital open if people were vaccinated,” said Wheeler. “That would mean everybody with cancer, appendicitis, stroke, cerebral hemorrhages would have greater access [to care] more quickly."

Wheeler said wider adoption of coronavirus vaccines and masking is critical to easing the ongoing strain on hospitals.

That's especially important with the holidays approaching and people eager for a return to normal family gatherings, said Herman.

"All of us are hungry for that human connection, for those gatherings,” she said. “Yet at this particular point in time, we're not at a point in the pandemic where we can say that's safe."