A view inside an ICU room

Lake Region Healthcare’s ICU has five beds with the potential to expand to seven. While the recent restrictions have improved daily numbers of COVID-19 cases, health care providers state that caution is still required.

Effects of Gov. Tim Walz’s “Dial Back, Minnesota” plan are already evident in this week’s COVID-19 numbers. Restrictions began three weeks ago on Nov. 21, including closing restaurants and bars to dine-in services, closing gyms, prohibiting gatherings with people from other households and pausing sports. Despite improving numbers, a new tool by National Public Radio suggests hospitals in Minnesota continue to be strained by the virus.

The tool, which uses data released by the Department of Health and Human Services and University of Minnesota’s COVID-19 Hospitalization Tracking Project, shows how many inpatient beds in a given hospital are filled with COVID-19 patients and how many inpatient beds are being used overall. It also gives the number of daily COVID-19 patients over a seven-day average.

According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, having 10-19% of hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients is considered “high stress” while more than 20% is considered “extreme stress.”

The NPR tool reports that 23% of all Lake Region Healthcare (LRH) hospital beds are being used by COVID-19 patients, and the University of Minnesota lists Otter Tail County as having 20% of total hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients. Becker County has 16.1% of all beds occupied by COVID-19 patients, Wadena County has 17.2% and Douglas County has 13.23%.

Chief nursing officer for LRH, Roberta Young, says they are not concerned about capacity. “We have plenty of capacity at this time and sufficient capacity for anticipated numbers based on the modeling at this point,” she said.

Some rumors have been circulating in the community that LRH is moving patients to make room for more COVID patients, which Young says is untrue. “We have five ICU beds and can increase to seven which we haven’t had to do yet,” she said. “We do work to get patients placed in the most appropriate level of care when they are diagnosed with COVID and/or are after they have been treated for COVID in the hospital. Placements might be in the hospital, at home, at home with help from home care, to assisted living or long-term care. This is based on patient assessment and what support they have and need, working to provide a safe continuum of care for patients so they can heal and get back to a healthy function. Again, we don’t move patients to make room for more COVID patients.”

To date, the hospital has treated 97 COVID-19 patients who have required hospitalization and has seen eight deaths due to COVID-19. They have tested 13,084 people. Thirty-nine staff members are currently in quarantine due to COVID-19 illness or exposure, down from a peak of 67 earlier this year.

According to the data from the Department of Health and Human Services, about 34.5% of people who sought treatment at the emergency department at LRH at the beginning of November were seeking treatment related to COVID-19.

Although not all hospitals are reporting data, Becker County’s Essentia Health St. Mary’s in Detroit Lakes has 16% of adult inpatient beds being used by COVID-19 patients and Douglas County’s Alomere Health in Alexandria has 14% of adult inpatient beds being used by COVID-19 patients. Essentia Health has 9-10 ICU beds and Alomere Health has seven.

Stearns County is facing the worst numbers in Minnesota, with 66.4% of total beds occupied by COVID-19 patients and 76.2% of ICU beds occupied by COVID-19 patients. All hospitals listed are reporting 100% of adult inpatient beds being used, with Centracare Health in Sauk Centre at 100% of beds occupied by COVID-19 patients.

Since Walz instituted new restrictions, numbers have somewhat improved both statewide and within Otter Tail County. Before the restrictions, Otter Tail County was seeing an increase in 14-day case rate per 10,000 people, peaking at 215.37 in the two-week period of Nov. 8 to Nov. 21. The case rate per 10,000 now is 179.85, the lowest it’s been since the end of October.

Despite these improvements, Minnesota is still considered high risk. The weekly percent of tests positive continues to stay above 10% in the state, with 5% considered indicative of broad community spread of viral transmission. Otter Tail County is at 10.7%.

Otter Tail County is continuing to see an increase in cases and deaths. November had 15 deaths, about 43% of all COVID-19 deaths in the county since the pandemic began, and an additional 12 deaths have occured in just the first 10 days of December.

LRH has been selected as a distribution hub for the Pfizer Ultra Cold COVID-19 vaccine’s first phase. According to recommendations by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, vaccines in this first phase should be offered to health care personnel and residents of long-term care facilities.

When exactly the vaccines arrive depends upon when the FDA gives the emergency use authorization (EUA), but LRH CEO Kent Mattson said it could be as soon as two weeks from now. Once the first phase is completed, plans for offering the vaccine to the public in subsequent phases will be announced.

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