Health experts across MN encourage vaccines as hospitalizations soar

Two women talk to a woman filling out paperwork.
St. Louis County public health workers Emily Lian and Stephany Medina answer questions about COVID-19 vaccines at a pop-up clinic at the Duluth Transportation Center in May. Health providers and officials in Duluth and the Twin Cities held news conferences Monday to urge people to take action to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
Dan Kraker | MPR News file

Health providers and officials in Duluth and the Twin Cities held news conferences Monday to urge people to take action to help slow the spread of COVID-19, as hospitalizations and deaths from the virus continue to strain hospitals.

The St. Louis County Public Health Department and Duluth, Minn.,’s two large health care systems are again encouraging people to get vaccinated and take other measures to fight the pandemic. COVID-19-related hospitalizations and deaths reach some of the highest levels northeastern Minnesota has seen since the pandemic began.

Just over 200 people countywide were hospitalized due to COVID-19 in November, and 52 people died — the third-highest monthly totals since last year, said St. Louis County Public Health Director Amy Westbrook.

At St. Luke’s in Duluth, infectious disease specialist Dr. Andrew Thompson said of the 102 patients the hospital cared for with COVID-19 in the past month, 85 percent were not vaccinated.

“It’s been heartbreaking for me to see people really in the prime of their life, get COVID and not survive it,” Thompson said.

Meanwhile, he said, hospital capacity is strained, not due to a lack of beds, but due to a shortage of adequate nursing staff to care for patients. Hospitals are also experiencing an increase in health care workers who become infected with COVID-19.

There are patients at small, rural hospitals in the region who need care in an intensive care unit at a larger facility, but aren’t able to access it, Thompson added, saying there are “countless stories” of emergency room physicians at those hospitals who can’t find a place to send their patients.

Anne Stephen, chief medical officer for Essentia Health East Market and a pediatrician in Duluth, said to cope with the shortage of critical care beds, hospitals are shuffling patients to beds in different units.

“We have people in the emergency department sometimes for days waiting for a bed,” Stephen said, due to the staffing shortage as well as the “heavy burden” of COVID-19 patients requiring hospitalization.

Stephen and Thompson said cases and hospitalizations have plateaued, but as the more-contagious omicron variant takes hold, they stress the region is still in the thick of the pandemic.

In the Twin Cities, members of the statewide union Minnesota Nurses Association shared their concerns, saying they’re at a breaking point dealing with the challenges of COVID-19.

The union President Mary Turner, who is a COVID-19 ICU nurse at North Memorial Medical Center, said the burden of the pandemic continues to fall on nurses, whom she said are overworked.

Woman with red scarf
Minnesota Nurses Association President Mary Turner, who is a COVID-19 ICU nurse at North Memorial Medical Center, says the burden of the pandemic continues to fall on overworked nurses.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News

“We will not abandon our patients, we won’t abandon the public,” Turner said. “We’re going to keep muddling through, we’re going to keep doing our job. What we are asking today is for some help.”

Turner urged hospital executives to do more to address staffing issues and asked the public to help by getting vaccinated. Turner also sees a role for the Minnesota Legislature, which has a large projected budget surplus available.

“Use the resources to help hire the nurses, help with bonuses, help some of these rural hospitals that have no hope of getting extra nurses because their pay is so much less,” she said.   

Kelley Anaas, an ICU nurse at Abbott Northwestern Hospital, said management needs to do more to support nurses and improve working conditions.

“We can’t keep showing up like this when they aren’t showing up for us,” Anaas said.

In Duluth, the two health care systems have teamed up with St. Louis County Health to produce a public service announcement encouraging people — once again — to get vaccinated, wear masks in public places, stay home if you’re sick, and get tested if you’re exposed, and before you attend a large gathering.

Vaccines are especially important, says Westbrook, the public health director with St. Louis County, citing state data that shows that people who are unvaccinated are 16 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than those who are vaccinated.

Even though vaccines have been available for more than a year now, St. Luke’s Thompson said there’s still an opportunity to reach more people who are reluctant to get vaccinated. He said minds can still be changed as evidence of the vaccines’ effectiveness and safety accumulates.

“A common theme I'm hearing is when when a family member finally falls ill, sometimes that will change the rest of the family's mind about how real this is and how this hits home,” said Thompson.

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