Minnesota hospitals face capacity challenges for second Thanksgiving in a row

(KSTP)- For the second Thanksgiving in a row, the pandemic is putting pressure on Minnesota hospitals.

COVID-19 cases have surged statewide in recent weeks. On Wednesday, the Minnesota Department of Health reported 53 new COVID-19 deaths and 3,759 new positive tests.

“It’s picking up and it feels not just like some brief thing, this feels like a longer haul,” said Dr. Jess Boland, a critical care physician at Mercy Hospital. “The thing that we all worry about the most is just, can we keep this up in a way that gives care to everybody who needs it?”

Allina Health told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS it is operating at, or near, capacity throughout its 11-hospital system. According to Boland, Mercy Hospital’s ICU is also full this Thanksgiving.

“Our ICU has been at capacity a lot and at least half of those folks have been people whose primary issue is COVID respiratory failure,” she said. “The vast majority of the patients I take care of who have COVID bad enough to need an ICU have not been vaccinated. The folks who have been fully vaccinated typically have an immune-suppressing condition.”

The latest data from the MDH shows just four staffed ICU beds available in the metro. There are 39 non-ICU adult hospital beds available.

In the Northeast region of the state, there are zero adult ICU beds available. In the Central Region, there are two adult ICU beds available. Other regions show more availability.

“It’s frankly demoralizing, it’s exhausting,” Boland said. “It’s really hard because we in the ICU really experience the utility of vaccines. One of the things that COVID vaccinations are best at is preventing people from getting critically ill.”

As cases are increasing, the hospital is also facing staffing challenges.

“Staffing is a huge, huge issue,” said Boland. “It takes a lot of time to train somebody who can be a critical care nurse and on our team […] the turnaround of increasing our pool of people who are really good at critical care delivery is years.”

Allina EMS operations Supervisor Kerry Callahan is also dealing with staffing shortages. Her team of first responders is “definitely running a lot harder.”

She said that shortage — combined with typical calls and the added burden of the pandemic — means team members are often working without breaks.

“They’re having less time between calls to rest, to eat,” said Callahan. “They’re definitely feeling the extra weight of everything right now for sure.”

Allina’s EMS call volume is currently 20-40% above normal, a reflection of the increase in COVID cases.

“The numbers are going up and we’re definitely feeling that on the streets,” she said. “The call type that we get dispatched to typically for someone who’s sick with COVID, it’s either going to be a shortness of breath, breathing problem, or a "sick one" is what we call it. I’m definitely seeing a rise in those types of calls being dispatched over the air, just anecdotally speaking.”

Allina Health also reports increased emergency room wait times and delays finding open rooms for ER patients who are admitted.

“These hospitals are at capacity or above and that’s definitely affecting the throughput of those patients, and then that trickles downstream to our crews and causes a little bit of backup too at times,” said Callahan.

She encourages Minnesotans to research their vaccine options and consider getting a shot — a sentiment Dr. Boland shares.

“Today is a day to think about what blessings we have and how to sort of use those to make somebody else’s life better,” said Dr. Boland. “This time last year, I wasn’t going to be anywhere near my parents. I wasn’t going to go into COVID rooms and then potentially take that home to my parents because they are unvaccinated. And this year, I get to see my parents so vaccination is a blessing for me and it sort of reverberates in the lives of the people I know and in the lives of people I don’t. So that is one of many blessings that people can share with others.”