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Crow Wing officials sound alarm on hospital capacity, case growth

“As this rate of case growth, it’s not hard to conceive that we could outpace the health care system’s capacity to help us,” the county administrator said Tuesday.

County Administrator Tim Houle discusses the surge in COVID-19 cases in Crow Wing County and what the future might hold if the pace of infection continues during the Tuesday, Nov. 10, county board meeting.

“Nobody is coming into Crow Wing County to do this to us,” County Administrator Tim Houle said during the Tuesday, Nov. 10, county board meeting. “ … We’re going to do this to ourselves. So collective action is really important.”

This was Houle’s message to county residents as the number of new confirmed cases of COVID-19 continues to explode and hospitalizations escalate. Houle told commissioners a total of 565 new cases of the disease caused by the coronavirus have been reported in the span of eight days. Meanwhile, of the county’s 16 intensive care beds, 13 were filled as of Tuesday, he said, and other hospital beds are filling as well. Tuesday's data showed eight new hospitalizations among county residents since the previous day.

“As this rate of case growth, it’s not hard to conceive that we could outpace the health care system’s capacity to help us,” Houle said. “Right now, we are already transferring folks outside the community for COVID, so we’re sending them to other hospitals in Duluth, St. Paul, Minneapolis, Fargo. If those hospitals get full, then we’re on our own. And I am concerned because as we listen to the news media talk about what’s happening … I am concerned that those hospital systems are going to be stretched to near capacity.”

Asked for confirmation on the use of intensive care beds, Essentia Health provided a statement late Tuesday.

“While we have seen an uptick in COVID patients over the last few weeks, we do not believe that is the sole reason for the increase in patient volumes,” the statement read. “The surge is likely due to patients who have delayed treatment during the pandemic and are now requiring acute care. This surge within our hospital has not affected our daily operations or services that we offer our patients. It is our privilege to care for the patients who come to us for their care and we will continue to fulfill our mission of making a healthy difference in people’s lives.”


Houle said his concern was not centered on the idea Crow Wing County would run out of beds — the local hospital systems spent the last several months developing contingency plans for a potential surge in COVID-19 cases. But, Houle said, he’s concerned the surge plan would have to be implemented in the first place without alternatives available to transfer residents requiring a high level of care.

“Then we’d start setting up additional capacity,” Houle said. “But it’s going to be a tent location, it might be in a civic center location, it might be in the hallways. So there is surge capacity and that has not been ramped up, and that is plan B if we can’t send folks to a higher level of care elsewhere.”

Houle said Crow Wing County could control its own destiny, but it requires residents to listen to the advice of public health experts and to follow mandates and recommendations nearly everyone should be familiar with by now. He said while the county is performing better than some of its neighbors, Hennepin and Ramsey counties both have a substantially lower per capita rate despite much higher population densities.

“In my mind, this ought to be concerning to us, that our case rate growth in the last two to three weeks is geometric. It will outpace our capacity to keep up at this rate,” Houle said. “So I just have to encourage all the folks who are listening, we know what the safety protocols are. Wear a mask, wash your hands, socially distance. I would suggest that our experience here is going to be a direct reflection of the degree to which we all engage in those safety practices.”

Commissioner Paul Koering asked what kind of role county government would play, should hospitals begin to reach capacity limitations. Houle said the hospital systems are taking the lead, with the county acting more as a backstop from a public health perspective.

“So we would play a supporting role,” he said. “ … If they become overwhelmed we will have more of an active role with them than if they’re not.”


Later in the meeting, Chairman Steve Barrows echoed Houle’s calls for residents to follow public health measures, calling it the “adult thing to do.”

“We’re all concerned about the economy, and I hear that all the time,” Barrows said. “If you’re worried about the economy, then worry about the business owner and whether or not you’re going to shut him down by bringing COVID into his business. That is a direct contradiction to what everybody says, that we want the economy to get back to where it was. Well if we do, then let’s all do our part. Wear a mask, and do social distancing.”

Behind the numbers

One more area death was reported Tuesday. An Aitkin County resident between the ages of 80-84 years old was the latest to die due to complications associated with COVID-19. This marks the 85th death among the seven area counties, including Aitkin, Cass, Crow Wing, Mille Lacs, Morrison, Todd and Wadena.

Five of the seven counties are already in the triple digits for new cases reported since Friday, Nov. 6, with Crow Wing County reporting 265 cases in that time frame. But in terms of per capita growth, Mille Lacs County led the way, with both Todd and Morrison counties also registering higher rates per 10,000 since Friday than Crow Wing.

COVID-19 data as of Nov. 10

  • Aitkin — 365 (+76 since Friday, Nov. 6), with eight (+3) deaths.

  • Cass — 718 (+103), with seven (+2) deaths.

  • Crow Wing — 1,894 (+265), with 22 deaths.

  • Mille Lacs — 847 (+183), with 21 deaths.

  • Morrison — 1,179 (+159), with 12 deaths.

  • Todd — 1,246 (+119), with 10 (+1) deaths.

  • Wadena — 430 (+54), with five deaths.

NOTE: These numbers are cumulative since March 21 and many are out of isolation.


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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