WILLMAR, Minn. — The staff at Willmar’s hospital is stretched thin and worn out 18 months into the pandemic and two months into the latest surge in COVID-19 cases.
The latest surge of cases hasn’t shown signs of reaching a plateau yet. The state reported nearly 3,000 new cases in its Friday, Sept. 24, update.
The Emergency Department at Carris Health-Rice Memorial Hospital had its busiest month ever in August with an average of more than 47 patients a day, according to Dr. Kenneth Flowe, an emergency physician and physician director of acute care. That’s about 10 more patients per day than normal.
When the hospital has needed to send a patient on for more specialized care, finding a place has been difficult. Hospitalizations related to COVID-19 are high across the state.
Earlier in the week, CentraCare, which includes Rice and other Carris Health facilities, reported on its Facebook pages that 62 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19, and 57 of those were unvaccinated.
“It’s not the vaccinated patients that are needing to be hospitalized or in our ICUs, it really is the non-vaccinated population," said Kathy Dillon, chief nursing officer and executive director of acute care.
“I think this is a tell-tale sign that we still need to be using all our efforts to encourage our community members to vaccinate,” she added.
Very few vaccinated patients have been to the Emergency Department, and most have been able to go back home, Flowe said.
“Our practitioners, our nurses, our staff as a whole — they’re getting tired, and they’re getting burned out,” Dillon said. “Our greatest fear is we will lose many great people out of health care altogether.”
The labor shortage extends to businesses in the community, too, she said, as it’s common to see businesses with reduced hours because of a lack of staff.
The hospital’s Emergency Department is open at all times, but the hospital has had to divert patients to other facilities at times, Flowe said.
At times, it’s taken calls to a dozen or more hospitals to find a place for a patient who needs services that can’t be provided at Rice.
In some instances, there been no ICU beds available in the state. “That’s something I never expected to see in my career,” Flowe said.
In addition to staff shortages, the hospital has had a number of staff members who are out of work because of a positive COVID-19 diagnosis or because of a close contact, Dillon said.
It’s been a “tightrope walk” to maintain other hospital services along with the COVID-19 response, she said.
The delta variant has changed the pandemic game in a number of ways.
“It’s more contagious, it’s much more severe and it affects younger people,” Flowe said.
“Unfortunately, we would be hoping to see statewide hospitalizations plateauing and starting to move in a downward direction, but in the last week we have not seen that,” Dillon said. “We have yet to see that plateau.”
It’s become more common in the state to have people on ventilators longer, now for more than a month instead of about a week, he said.
Half the people hospitalized in Willmar are younger than 60, and the hospital has seen many people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, Dillon said.
Flowe said he’s cared for several children with COVID-19. The youngest was 6 months old.
“So far, I have not had any positive children with COVID who had a vaccinated parent,” he said. “I remind parents, a child’s best defense against getting COVID is for all the adults in the child’s life to be vaccinated.”
Flowe said he and other physicians will meet with people who have questions about vaccines. He’s met with staff members since Carris Health and CentraCare announced they would require employees to be vaccinated.
“Some people are unfortunately really struggling with making a decision,” Dillon said. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there, and there’s a lot of values and beliefs individuals hold.”
A recent uptick in staff vaccinations has been promising, she said.
“I think what we all want at the end of the day is to get through this pandemic and to get through it sooner rather than later,” Dillon said. “Right now, the journey to do that is really about vaccination, and improving our numbers of vaccinated individuals.”