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As virus spreads, area hospitals say months of preparation paid off

Health care leaders warned the Brainerd lakes area community not to let its guard down, however, as positivity rates increase and predictive modeling is on track.

Photo illustration by Metro Newspaper Service.

During the month when health care providers predicted a peak in coronavirus cases in the lakes area, local hospital leaders said they’re more prepared than ever to respond.

In May, leaders from Essentia Health, Cuyuna Regional Medical Center and Lakewood Health System noted modeling showed a likely escalation in lakes area cases in the late summer and early fall. That prediction has so far shown to be relatively accurate in Cass and Crow Wing counties, with case numbers rising at faster rates beginning in mid-July.

During an Aug. 4 video interview, Dr. Peter Henry, chief medical officer of Essentia Health’s central market, said the case positivity rate among Crow Wing County residents rose to about 5% in late July, up from 1-2% of all tests completed in June.

“If you look at Crow Wing County where we’ve done a number of tests in our facility, as well as Cuyuna Regional Medical Center has done a number of tests, the percent positive clearly is increasing and that’s obviously a marker for increasing risk for hospitalizations as a result of that,” Henry said.


Dr. Peter Henry

Henry said while rising case numbers are a concern, he noted it’s following the timeline of predictive modeling the hospital system’s been relying on as it’s prepared surge plans. With the Brainerd lakes area located within the Twin Cities hospital referral region, Henry said the coronavirus modeling Essentia uses for planning purposes accounts for the metro population, as well as movement of people throughout the region. The Essentia Health system in the lakes area prepares for increases in medical care during the summer months in a normal year due to population increases, Henry said, and 2020 is no different.

“Our plans include the fact that we know that as our population increases, our ED visits increase, our outpatient visits increase and our hospitalized patients increase,” Henry said. “And as part of that planning, we put that base number that we expect to have every year and then we add into the factored data that goes with the predictive modeling of the COVID patients on top of that.”

Kyle Bauer, CEO of CRMC, said Wednesday, Aug. 12, despite the recent local spike he’s encouraged hospitalization numbers haven’t been as high as anticipated. He said although there were fears early on about the impact of summer visitors on COVID-19 cases in the lakes area, it hasn’t materialized in a dramatic fashion. Bauer attributed this to the majority of people complying with expectations to wear masks, social distance and engage in proper hand hygiene.

“We really haven’t seen an increase in hospitalization rates that you might anticipate just given that there’s going to be more people up here during the summertime,” Bauer said. “ … I think people are pretty diligent about wearing their masks and appropriate social distancing. It’s not ever going to be 100%, but I think we’re doing, as a community, we’re doing a pretty good job up here.”

Henry, on the other hand, said it was his personal feeling the recent increase in cases reflected a more lax approach to social distancing and mask-wearing amid summer gatherings. He noted on a recent drive with his wife around a local lake, he witnessed a group of about 15 pontoons clustered together with 10-12 people each.

“All were in very close proximity, none of whom were masked that were participating in activities that weren’t quote social distancing,” Henry said. “So you know, there’s a lot of behavior that is happening now in the summer months, related to the Fourth of July and family gatherings and vacationing, that is attributing to the increased spread of the disease and increased incidence of disease.”


It’s difficult to determine just how many summer residents or weekend tourists may have tested positive or perhaps were contagious while in the lakes area and positive in another location. Since Minnesota Department of Health data tracks case numbers by residency, those who may have fallen in those categories are counted in the statistics of the primary county in which they live.

Insight into the possibility of community spread by lakes area visitors came when the health department identified Crosslake business Moonlite Bay Family Restaurant as a likely source of at least 17 cases. Doug Schultz, information officer for the health department, was unable to offer a precise breakdown of the counties where the cases tied to Moonlite were counted, but did confirm there were multiple counties among them.

Looking ahead to the fall and winter months, both hospital heads said they expected cases to increase, but noted they have the benefit of months’ worth of knowledge and preparation they did not have in the spring. Bauer said Gov. Tim Walz’s executive orders and the temporary suspension of elective surgeries — albeit economically painful — put CRMC in a good position to be stocked with personal protective equipment and have a solid plan in place to adjust as needed.

“We’re in pretty good shape from a PPE standpoint,” Bauer said. “I’m much more comfortable today than I was back in April.”

Kyle Bauer
Kyle Bauer

He noted the expectations of the public associated with the coronavirus may have an unintended positive effect of reducing the impacts of the seasonal flu this winter as well.

“We might not actually see as big of numbers — not only from a COVID standpoint — but just from a regular flu season, our numbers might be down just because people are being much more cautious and thoughtful about when they are out and how they are protecting them,” Bauer said.


While optimistic about their approaches and feeling better prepared, both Bauer and Henry made clear this isn’t over, and lakes area residents must still do what they can to protect themselves, their neighbors and their loved ones.

Bauer said with no real timeline for a vaccine, residents shouldn’t let their guard down and should continue to follow best practices outlined by the health department. This will help keep the curve flatter so the area doesn’t experience a crisis situation overwhelming facilities, he said.

“I know that’s different for people, and sometimes people don’t like that or don’t think it’s a serious deal, but it really is a serious deal. It might not be serious for you, maybe you’re young and healthy and you’re not going to have a problem, but it’s the person in the grocery store that’s 85 years old that’s standing next to you,” Bauer said. “ … That’s what I think people have to keep in mind. It’s not just about the individual, but it’s about helping to protect members of our community that are at high risk for complications from this illness.”

Henry said he understands how people might get lulled into a false sense of security because the perceived risk to oneself may appear low.

“I think we all get led into this kind of belief that the risk is not as great for me as it is. And so then we engage in behaviors that potentially will add to the spread of disease, you know. Your perceived risk of something oftentimes dictates your behavior,” Henry said. “ … I think it is our job as health care providers and health care organizations in conjunction with their media partners … to try to educate people to the truth and the facts about this disease, without adding any hyperbole to it, but just trying to get the facts out there.

“Wearing a mask doesn’t necessarily protect you as much as it protects others. And all of us will eventually have somebody that we know, care about, is a family member, who is affected or impacted by this disease and sometimes in devastating ways, such as death.”

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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