With what’s become an all-too-familiar event, area doctors gathered once again for a virtual news conference Tuesday, Oct. 12, to appeal to their neighbors to take COVID-19 seriously and do what’s in their power to ease the tremendous and growing burden on local health care systems.

Offering a mix of harrowing firsthand experiences and shocking statistics about current hospitalization levels, doctors from Essentia Health and St. Luke’s Hospital in Duluth sought to express how critical the situation is.

“I, along with every other health care provider at Essentia, have made it my life’s work to care for you,” said Dr. Christina Bastin De Jong, critical care specialist in the intensive care unit at Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Hospital in Duluth. “That remains no different today. Whether it’s seasonal flu, a sports injury or battling through a pandemic, we are committed to helping our community and staying healthy. But we can't do that alone. So please, we need your help to put an end to this. Please follow my recommendations. I want to end this just as much as you, but we all need to pitch in for this to succeed.”

Bastin De Jong’s recommendations and those of every other doctor on the call aren’t new — vaccinate, mask up, seek care when needed and as a preventative measure — but their patience appeared to be wearing thin after numerous public appeals of a similar nature.

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“This crisis that we’re in right now — and it truly is a crisis — is really particularly unfortunate given that it’s an avoidable crisis,” said Dr. Jonathon Shultz, emergency medical physician at St. Luke’s Hospital in Duluth. “Really, much of what we’re seeing right now could have been avoided with higher vaccination rates when those vaccines first became available. Because it is true that what we’re seeing right now is really an epidemic of the unvaccinated.”

Dr. Jonathon Shultz speaks Tuesday during a news conference hosted by Essentia Health and St. Luke's Hospital in Duluth. Screenshot / Chelsey Perkins
Dr. Jonathon Shultz speaks Tuesday during a news conference hosted by Essentia Health and St. Luke's Hospital in Duluth. Screenshot / Chelsey Perkins

According to Dr. Anne Stephen, chief medical officer of Essentia Health’s East Market, a total of 129 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized systemwide as of Tuesday, with nearly half of those patients — 59 — at Essentia’s Duluth hospital. In late August, when Essentia Health hosted a similar news conference in conjunction with St. Luke’s sounding the alarm of an impending hospital capacity crisis, there were just 53 COVID-19 patients across all of Essentia Health.

In Essentia Health-St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Brainerd, five more patients are now in the ICU compared to the number reported Friday for a total of 14. Thirteen of those are COVID-positive and 11 are unvaccinated — exceeding the capacity of the hospital’s 10-bed ICU unit.


"This crisis that we’re in right now — and it truly is a crisis — is really particularly unfortunate given that it’s an avoidable crisis."

— Dr. Jonathon Shultz


“During these times of unprecedented patient volumes and patients requiring ICU level of care, we have temporarily expanded some ICU patient placement into the Telemetry Unit, which is next to the ICU,” an Essentia Health statement read. “This unit is staffed with ICU-trained nurses and continuous monitoring to provide the care normally provided in an ICU outside of the walls of the ICU.”

Statewide, COVID-19 patients filled 960 ICU and non-ICU beds as of Tuesday, according to the state, accounting for roughly 30% of all hospitalized patients.

Stephen said monitoring intensive care bed availability as part of the Critical Care Coordination Center reveals how close hospitals are to maximum capacity.

Dr. Anne Stephen speaks during a virtual news conference Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021, hosted by Essentia Health and St. Luke's Hospital in Duluth. Screenshot / Chelsey Perkins
Dr. Anne Stephen speaks during a virtual news conference Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021, hosted by Essentia Health and St. Luke's Hospital in Duluth. Screenshot / Chelsey Perkins

“Recently, that’s become a challenge because there just aren’t beds available,” Stephen said. “And when patients have to be transported well beyond our region for care, that’s scary, especially when time is critical.

“One more number that highlights the severity of the situation. One day earlier this month, we had seven ambulances arrive simultaneously at the emergency department here at St. Mary’s.”

Having to transfer patients to distant hospitals presents a moral dilemma for health care providers, Bastin De Jong said.


“One more number that highlights the severity of the situation. One day earlier this month, we had seven ambulances arrive simultaneously at the emergency department here at St. Mary’s.”

— Dr. Anne Stephen


“We know how important it is to be close to family and friends when we receive critical and oftentimes, life-saving care. Nobody wants to be hospitalized, ever, especially if they have to be sent to a hospital system that is far away from family and friends,” she said.

It isn’t only COVID-positive patients stressing the system — it’s a combination of factors including those who’ve delayed care presenting with more serious symptoms requiring hospitalization they may not have otherwise needed along with a serious labor crunch reverberating throughout health care systems nationwide. Those struggles also extend to skilled nursing facilities, noted Dr. Nick Van Deelen, co-president and CEO of St. Luke’s.

Dr. Nick Van Deelen of St. Luke's Hospital speaks during a virtual news conference Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021, hosted by Essentia Health and St. Luke's Hospital in Duluth. Screenshot / Chelsey Perkins
Dr. Nick Van Deelen of St. Luke's Hospital speaks during a virtual news conference Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021, hosted by Essentia Health and St. Luke's Hospital in Duluth. Screenshot / Chelsey Perkins

“Many of our skilled nursing facilities are also struggling to accept patients once they are ready for discharge from the hospital,” Van Deelen said. “They’re experiencing staffing challenges, along with the rest of us. And that means patients are staying in the hospital longer than they would normally.”

Van Deelen said the labor woes are not due to vaccination requirements — less than 1% of employees at St. Luke’s left because of the policy. Instead, he said, people are retiring at higher numbers than typical and others left to become traveling nurses, perhaps enticed by the disproportionately high salaries currently offered for those positions. The crunch led to recent postponements of elective surgeries requiring an overnight stay at St. Luke’s, the leader said.


" Influenza can be really bad, and we have all, I think every one of us on this panel has experienced really bad seasonal influenza seasons, where the disease has been particularly deadly. And none of those seasons has come close to what this has been with COVID-19."

— Dr. Nick Van Deelen


“We hope we won’t need to do this anymore, but again, we are managing this really on a day-to-day basis. We’re committed to using our resources effectively in order to provide the best care that we can for this region,” Van Deelen said.

Eighteen months into the thick of the pandemic, it’s abundantly clear to these doctors now — COVID-19 is truly unlike anything they’ve ever seen.

Stephen, who sports nearly 40 years of medical experience after entering school in 1982 while practicing in Duluth for more than 32 of those years, said there’s no doubt there’s nothing comparable in her career and she hopes this will be the only time in her life.

“I’ve also been around long enough to see the incredible result of vaccinating children for meningitis. When I was a resident, we did spinal taps, not once a week, not twice a week — multiple times a week on children, especially babies and toddlers,” Stephen said, noting this changed after the introduction of two vaccines. “ … Now, almost never. … So it’s been a phenomenal change just in my lifetime, to see the results of vaccines and how effective they’ve been.”


"Whether it’s seasonal flu, a sports injury or battling through a pandemic, we are committed to helping our community and staying healthy. But we can't do that alone."

— Dr. Christine Bastin De Jong


Van Deelen has almost as much experience as Stephen, beginning his career in 1988.

“There is nothing that I’ve seen in my career, or even heard of from some of my mentors — and again, it speaks to the historical nature of this pandemic,” he said. “This is truly a once-in-a-generation pandemic. It is not just influenza. Influenza can be really bad, and we have all, I think every one of us on this panel has experienced really bad seasonal influenza seasons, where the disease has been particularly deadly. And none of those seasons has come close to what this has been with COVID-19.”

Dr. Christina Bastin De Jong speaks Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2021, during a news conference hosted by Essentia Health and St. Luke's Hospital in Duluth. Screenshot / Chelsey Perkins
Dr. Christina Bastin De Jong speaks Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2021, during a news conference hosted by Essentia Health and St. Luke's Hospital in Duluth. Screenshot / Chelsey Perkins

Bastin De Jong said the H1N1 outbreak in 2010 was also a very busy time for her in the hospital, recalling 42 patients intubated at one time.

“The difference is now that because of technology, we can keep people on very, very high flow oxygen, so there’s less people intubated with the COVID. But there’s just many more patients with it requiring high flow oxygen. So less intubated, but a ton more patients,” she said. “ … We’ve never experienced anything like this before. However, it does make me more concerned for the future, because that was 10 years ago, very severe respiratory disease. Here’s 10 years later. So I do think we need to just really, you know, stay vigilant, keep our vaccinations up and then, you know, just really look into the future for how do we prevent this in the future.”

Van Deelen noted despite the serious and mounting concerns amid the latest surge, there are still advancements in care, treatments and vaccinations for which to be grateful.

“This really is a success story. If you look at our COVID hospitalizations or certainly deaths related to COVID and ICU hospitalizations in this surge compared to our highest surge last fall, it's a totally different environment,” he said. “We’re definitely seeing a surge. We’re all feeling that in our hospitals. But it really is a credit to the advances that have been made in treatment and the availability.

“Remember early on, we were limited on who could get the vaccine. We didn't really have any options for treatment and we really have good options now. Our monoclonal antibody clinic has been really busy and that's great because people are getting treated early in their illness, which keeps them from progressing.”



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