Diminished hospital capacity while RSV, flu and COVID-19 continue to rise

State loses nearly 1,000 beds since 2020, impacting pediatric care.

M Health Fairview Masonic Children's Hospital
M Health Fairview Masonic Children's Hospital.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News 2015

The latest data show the big three respiratory illnesses – Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), Influenza (flu) and COVID-19 — on the rise in Minnesota this week. Bed space in the state’s hospitals is in short supply.

Only 36 pediatric beds and another 10 pediatric intensive care beds were available in the entire state on December 12, according to the most recent data available from the Minnesota Department of Health. This comes at a time when the number of hospital admissions for RSV went up by 44 cases in one week in the Twin Cities alone. 

Although it may be a more acute problem when RSV and the flu are trending upward, Minnesota’s hospitals have been very full for quite some time, leaving little capacity to deal with spikes in disease. This is exacerbated by the fact that the state has lost hospital beds over the past few years.

The state lost nearly 1,000 hospital beds since December 2020 according to health department data. That equates to an overall loss of twelve percent of the state’s hospital beds and includes a loss of over one-fifth of the state’s pediatric beds, down from 526 in December of 2020 to 431 currently.  

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COVID-19 and Flu tests available

The “Home Test to Treat” program for COVID-19 and Influenza is expanding. The federal program offers free telehealth care and, if necessary, prescription treatments to anyone who has COVID-19 or the flu. Additionally, the program provides free at-home tests for both COVID-19 and the flu for “uninsured or underinsured adults, [those] on Medicare, Medicaid, in the VA health care system, or [those who] receive care from the Indian Health Services.” 

While not yet available to the general public, progress is being made toward another vaccine type for COVID-19. Two science journals, the Lancet and Nature, just published articles showing promising results for COVID-19 vaccines that are nasally inhaled. While needles may not be the primary barrier for most of the millions of Americans who have yet to receive the vaccine, this new option may prove advantageous to many. 

COVID-19 on the rise across state; high level of cases in assisted living and nursing facilities

As noted above, the latest COVID-19 data show increasing activity. The University of Minnesota’s on-going Wastewater Surveillance Study reports that COVID-19 levels are up 45 percent since Thanksgiving, largely due to the 33 percent increase in just the past week. These increases are mirrored in the single largest region in the study, the Twin Cities seven-county region, and are even more dramatic in the study’s South West region, where COVID-19 levels measured in wastewater doubled in the most recent week.  

For the last several months we have avoided reporting on COVID-19 case data (outside of cases that end up as hospital admissions), since official numbers have become spotty in part due to the rise of at-home testing. Testing is, however, still common in residential facilities.  

Minnesota Department of Health data for the state’s assisted living and skilled nursing facilities show that in recent weeks the number of COVID-19 cases in these facilities is higher than it has been in the entire year—for both residents and staff. 

The health department’s data also show continued relatively high levels of statewide COVID-19 hospital admissions, reaching over 400 for the second week in a row after not exceeding that benchmark since mid-February. Not only is this among the highest level of COVID-19 hospitalization in the state for the year, it is also a return to the range of COVID-19 hospitalizations in Minnesota throughout much of 2022, when the state endured a high plateau of sustained COVID-19 circulation. 

When asked earlier this week on MPR News what people could do in response to the current rise in COVID-19 activity, University of Minnesota professor and M Health Fairview infectious disease doctor Susan Kline stated, “If people haven’t been vaccinated yet, I would still encourage them to get a booster vaccine this year because it is more closely matched to the current [COVID-19] variants.”