Hospitalizations are on the rise and area hospital leaders are strongly encouraging people not to gather with families this Thanksgiving as COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus, slams the lakes area.

“It is still rising,” Tim Houle, Crow Wing County administrator, said of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the county.

Sharing statistics to put that statement in perspective, Houle said the most recent data he has indicates the county can expect 183.85 new cases for every 10,000 residents if the current trend continues. That number was once 25.06, and stood at 40 as recently as a month ago, Houle said, noting Crow Wing County has 63,000 residents.

“Numbers are rising,” Houle reiterated, with simple words of advice for residents: Wear masks.

“Masks work,” he said. “If we had more universal compliance, I’m confident in saying our numbers would come down.”

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Pointing to recent Centers for Disease Control guidance on using facemasks, Houle said: “They are saying data supports that not only does wearing a facemask protect others, it also provides some protection for the wearer.”

In addition to wearing masks, people are still urged to follow other guidelines that have been reiterated since the start of the pandemic: Wash hands frequently, stay at least 6 feet away from others and avoid gathering in groups, especially indoors.

Houle said it’s noteworthy that the two-week period ending Oct. 31 showed Crow Wing County with a case count of 91, compared to 50 for the large metro counties of Hennepin and Ramsey.

“We were twice their rate at that time,” Houle said. “They are going up, but they aren’t going up as rapidly as we are. That makes no sense to me. We used to think this was an urban issue. Clearly it’s not.”

Houle said Thursday, Nov. 12, that in the previous seven days, Crow Wing County reported 595 COVID-19 cases.

“That equated to 28% of all COVID cases occurring in Crow Wing County since the inception of the pandemic,” he said. “If that doesn’t shock people, it should.”

Hospital systems are strained, Houle said, noting it’s important to let people know this or hospitals are likely to become overwhelmed. At the same time, people with serious health issues still need to seek medical help.

Houle also said people shouldn’t forget the businesses in the community operating under new state mandated restrictions.

“For those businesses that we have in our community that now have new restrictions from Gov. Walz that will impair their ability to make a living … if we can’t have compassion for them, shame on us,” Houle said. “Buy a takeout dinner. Send your money to those businesses that are hurting the most so that they can survive. We’re going to survive this together or we’re not.”

Houle also talked about the community spread of COVID-19, saying the community hasn’t seen that spread at retail establishments where people all funnel in through one door but then spread out to do their shopping.

“That spreading out in such a big space, I think, is why it has not been a primary source of transmission. It’s when you take your masks off, and it’s when you are in close proximity to people you know,” he said.

And it all comes down to data.

“The data is inescapable. There are lots of folks that are asymptomatic. There are lots of folks that are symptomatic,” Houle said, noting the rising hospital rates, the rising ICU bed use, the decreasing capacity of health care systems to produce workers.

“They’re suffering the disruption just as much as the rest of us,” he said. “Whether bed or staffing capacity, as case numbers rise we will put a strain on our health care system and at what point will it break?”

Hospital leaders

The Brainerd Dispatch reported that area health care leaders are urging people to reconsider Thanksgiving family gatherings in light of escalating community spread of COVID-19 in Minnesota.

“Those need to be reconsidered. If they’re not in your bubble, you probably should … not have those get-togethers,” Dr. Jon Pryor, Essentia Health’s East Market president, told the Dispatch. “And I know it’s painful. It’s a thing people don’t want to hear. But this is really serious.

“ … This can have lasting effects on young people that get it, and even if young people have COVID and it’s no big deal to them, when they spread it to people who are older or people who have chronic conditions, it can be deadly. And so everyone in the community has a role to protect their families, their loved ones and their neighbors.”

Pryor told the Dispatch that some days the hospital is full, and other days it’s not as hospitalizations ebb and flow.

Hospital leaders told the Dispatch their facilities are facing more COVID-19 patients than ever before, an influx of people who delayed care for chronic conditions, and reduced staff due to illness or quarantine.

Kyle Bauer, CEO of Cuyuna Regional Medical Center in Crosby, told the Dispatch he’s keenly aware of the rising hospitalizations and what that could mean as other viruses begin their annual spread.

“If we can’t slow this thing down, just given the trajectory we’ve been on just in the last couple weeks, if that continues, I’m very concerned about the increased hospitalizations that we’ll see,” Bauer said. “And the challenge is, it’s just not all COVID either. This is the time of year when there are other types of viruses - the flu is a good example - but just as people are no longer outside and they’re having to congregate inside, we typically see an increase in hospital volumes anyway.

“And now you’re adding COVID on top of it. Especially if … you could slow it down and people are just ignoring what really are simple and best practice ways to slow this down. Whether that’s a physical bed issue or staffing or both, that is definitely a concern for us.”

Jessica Herron, director of inpatient surgical care at Essentia Health-St. Joseph’s Medical Center, told the Dispatch the stress experienced by Essentia frontline workers is compounded by the fact they might personally know the patient who is lying in front of them.

“We live in a nice tight-knit community, so some of what you run into is it’s your friends and your neighbors and your family members, and so that can add additional stress,” she said. “You do see people posting things on social media reminding people, remember I’m your neighbor, I’m the one that is working in the hospital. When I’m telling you use that mask and do those pieces, I’m your neighbor and I’m also the doctor, so try to, you know, listen to me.”

Bauer told the Dispatch his overall message to the community is if they want to help their friends and neighbors in health care, it’s simple - take the steps to protect oneself and others.

“We all want the best care for ourselves and our loved ones and our friends and family and the things we can do to make sure we can continue to provide that high level of care is to help us out by protecting yourself and others,” Bauer said. “ … I cannot stress enough how far that can go to help everyone and let us do what we do best and not be in a situation where we’re overwhelmed. And we can continue to provide that high level of care that people expect.”

Nancy Vogt may be reached at 218-855-5877 or nancy.vogt@pineandlakes.com. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Nancy.