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Minnesota ICU beds filling again with COVID-19 patients, some from out of state - Minneapolis Star Tribune

A fivefold increase in COVID-19 patients in just over one month has Minnesota hospitals reporting the start of another bed crunch.

COVID-19 hospitalizations in Minnesota reached 477 on Thursday, up from 90 on July 14, according to state data released Friday. The total incudes 125 patients in intensive care because of breathing problems or complications of their infections with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

While that total is below the 1,864 COVID-19 hospitalizations on Nov. 29 during the severe fall wave, and 699 on April 14 during the spring wave, hospital leaders said the rapid increase this summer has created a new challenge as they treat other medical and surgical patients and try to give overdue time off to exhausted doctors and nurses.

Minnesota also is receiving transfer requests from as far away as Tennessee and Florida, because the fast-spreading delta variant has caused a COVID-19 surge in the South that has consumed available ICU beds. Minnesota's C4 coordinating center received 29 requests Thursday from hospitals seeking to transfer patients and was able to accommodate only 12.

"We've been trying to raise the awareness of this delta variant and the surge that it's doing to us," said Dr. George Morris, COVID-19 incident commander for St. Cloud-based CentraCare. "Now to see how close we are to some other states in the nation, mostly in the South? We are right there with them."

State data show 1,135 of 1,208 immediately available intensive care beds filled by patients with COVID-19 or other unrelated medical needs — a 93% occupancy rate.

Twenty surge beds have been opened in central and northern Minnesota to address patient demand, the highest number since Dec. 7.

CentraCare converted a cardiac intensive care unit at St. Cloud Hospital into a COVID-19 unit and is delaying nonemergency surgeries. The system confronted the spring wave by making a hospital in Sauk Centre its primary COVID-19 backup when St. Cloud was full, and Morris said that might be needed again.

The rising pressure on hospitals comes amid an increase in COVID-19 cases that is being fueled by the delta variant. The state on Friday reported 10 more COVID-19 deaths and 1,708 more infections, raising its pandemic totals to 7,760 deaths and 633,556 infections.

More than 3.2 million Minnesotans 12 and older have received at least first doses of COVID-19 vaccine — 69.5% of the eligible population — but health officials said more immunizations are needed to slow down the viral spread.

Vaccination activity slowed in July but has since increased because of concerns about the variant and efforts to get eligible children in for shots before school starts this fall. The state also is offering a $100 incentive for new recipients through Sunday and is organizing a pop-up site at U.S. Bank Stadium on Saturday where vaccine recipients will be eligible for a drawing for Vikings-Packers tickets.

More than 56,000 COVID-19 doses have been administered in each of the past two weeks. That is an increase from the 36,166 doses administered in the week beginning July 11 but is equivalent to the daily rate of doses administered at one point this spring.

"I would hope that everyone would take a look at [the hospital situation] and say, 'What can I do so I'm not part of this problem?' " said Kimber Wraalstad, administrator of North Shore Health in Grand Marais.

While Cook County has one of the highest vaccination rates, and isn't seeing many COVID-19 patients, its lone hospital is struggling to find beds when patients with severe heart problems or surgery needs must be transferred. Patients recently have been moved to Wisconsin and North Dakota.

"That's why we need all of Minnesota to be careful," Wraalstad said.

Some of the pressures on hospitals are temporary — with more traumas and accidents occurring in the summer along with more staff vacations, said Dr. Rahul Koranne, chief executive of the Minnesota Hospital Association. Those pressures could ease and offset a rise in COVID-19 activity this fall.

Koranne urged people to seek timely care for medical needs, because part of the problem is that people delayed care earlier in the pandemic and now are requiring more intensive hospital treatment.

Hospitals deferred nonemergency procedures during the spring 2020 COVID-19 wave under an order by Gov. Tim Walz, who has since been relieved by legislative vote of the emergency powers to take such action on his own. Hospitals made their own decisions on surgery deferrals to manage the fall wave, when stockpiles of protective supplies had increased and the coordinating center helped them find open beds as needed.

Morris lamented that the pressure on CentraCare is likely amplified by the lower vaccination rates in central Minnesota. One positive is that 92% of senior citizens have received vaccine — a vulnerable group that has made up 88% of COVID-19 deaths.

"Had we not been able to get our 65-plus vaccinated in that 90% range, this would be even worse," he said. "Without the vaccine, this tight feeling we are feeling now would have been overwhelming, overflowing."

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744