As respiratory viruses spike, health care systems ask Minnesotans to reduce the strain on providers

People stand at the front of a room
At a press conference on Monday physicians from health care providers across the state shared the challenges they're facing as cases of RSV and influenza increase.
Michelle Wiley | MPR News

Minnesota health care providers are asking patients to help reduce strain as increasing cases of influenza and RSV cause delays at some facilities across the state. 

At a press conference Monday at Hennepin Healthcare in Minneapolis, providers from across the state – including Allina Health, CentraCare, M Health Fairview, HealthPartners and Children’s Minnesota – spoke about how the rapid influx of patients have put some providers at, or over, capacity.

“Our pediatric ICUs at Children's [Minnesota] have been operating at capacity – actually over capacity – for the past several weeks,” said Dr. Robert Sicoli, system medical director of Children’s Minnesota’s emergency services.

“There have been days when we've had 30 to 40 children waiting in our emergency departments, waiting for an inpatient bed. That’s unprecedented. That backs up the care for all the other children.”

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The state’s most recent flu report shows influenza hospitalizations, which represent some of the most severe cases of the illness, are continuing to rise. During the week ending Nov. 12, there were 243 influenza hospitalizations, more than double the previous week, with a majority among people aged 5 to 24, and those over the age of 65. 

“This is earlier than we normally see this steep of an increase,” Melissa McMahon, a senior epidemiologist at the state health department who specializes in influenza surveillance, told MPR News. “The level of the increase is not necessarily something we haven't seen before. But this is a solid month earlier than we usually see it, at least according to pre-pandemic patterns.”

McMahon said it’s unclear if the flu will peak early, since the season is spiking earlier. In a typical year, she said, it tends to climb after the holidays. But since COVID, the season has become more difficult to predict. 

“In our emergency departments, in our outpatient clinics, we are seeing numbers that are equivalent to the middle of the winter, a bad middle of the winter,” Sicoli said. “So there's days, in both of our emergency departments, we're seeing well over 200 patients a day on both campuses. Which is a lot.”

At the same time, ongoing staffing issues, as well as shortages in bed space and essential medications, like amoxicillin, are contributing to the challenges. To reduce the strain on health care facilities, providers recommend utilizing telehealth, and caring for less-severe illnesses at home, if possible.

Part of the challenge, providers say, is that some parents have never seen their child sick like this before – potentially due in part to COVID mitigation efforts – and are bringing their kids into facilities when they don’t need to. 

“It's out of fear, you know, a lot of people haven't seen these illnesses in their children. And it's not that the kids don't look sick – they do. It's the degree of illness and the symptoms in which you're bringing them in for,” said Dr. Andrea Singh, chair of pediatrics at Park Nicolett. 

Singh said signs of more severe illness include a persistent fever that’s not coming down, signs of dehydration and shortness of breath where a child’s ribs are visible or its causing nasal flaring. In those cases, you’ll likely want to reach out to your health care provider.

“It's not that we don't want to see your kids, but we also want to allow capacity for those kids that really need a higher level of care to get that,” Singh said. 

As we head into the holiday season where more people are gathering together and indoors, providers are also recommending that you take steps to prevent yourself from getting sick in the first place. That includes washing your hands regularly, wearing a mask, staying home if you’re sick, and making sure you’re up-to-date on your COVID booster and influenza vaccine. 

Experts say even if you haven’t gotten your flu shot yet, it’s not too late.

“Your highest level of protection will be about two weeks after the shot, but your body will be building its immunity as soon as you get it,” McMahon said. “So, for people saying: ‘oh, it's too late for me to get it before Thanksgiving,’ It's really not. Any level of protection is going to be helpful.”

Lastly, providers are asking that people be patient with them during this difficult time. 

“Please have mercy on us,” said Dr. Ashley Strobel, emergency physician at Hennepin Healthcare. “We are working very hard and doing our absolute best. We are parents just like you. We are Minnesotans just like you and we want to take care of you.”