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Hospitals — 'perilously close' to being unable to treat all patients — plead for help from Minnesotans

Minnesota sets new single-day record with 72 dead from COVID-19, 7,877 more sickened.

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Carris Health President and Co-CEO Cindy Firkins Smith on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020, spoke to reporters at the Capitol complex in St. Paul and urged Minnesotans to heed calls to wear masks, social distance and wash their hands. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service
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ST. PAUL — Hospital systems across Minnesota are sounding the alarm as their resources are stretched thin and coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths from the disease continue to surge statewide.

Thursday, Nov. 19, marked yet another record-breaking day in coronavirus statistics: The Minnesota Department of Health reported that 7,877 more people had tested positive for the illness and 72 more had died from COVID-19 and its complications. The totals mark the largest single-day total of fatalities from the illness and the second-largest hike in newly reported cases.

With the state's current trajectory of rising cases and hospitals pushed to the brink, Gov. Tim Walz at a Thursday afternoon news conference said that it "pains (him) beyond belief to know" that the state has yet to reach its peak, and will keep hitting new daily records until Minnesota rounds the corner.

Minnesotans are headed toward a month-long shutdown of bars, restaurants, gyms and social gatherings slated to begin Friday, Nov. 20, in an effort to bend the surge downward. Meanwhile, Minnesota hospitals are struggling with current manpower as thousands of health care workers are out sick with COVID-19, caring for ill family or quarantining after exposure.

Following reports that more than 900 health care workers at Mayo Clinic are unable to work due to personal COVID exposures, Allina Health President and CEO Penny Wheeler said Thursday afternoon that over 800 Allina workers are out due to COVID. Carris Health President and co-CEO Cindy Firkins Smith said that over 1,200 of their workers are unable to work.

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Firkins Smith said hospitals can have "piles of PPE and hundreds of beds," but without the manpower to care for patients, "none of that matters." Unlike the springtime, when disaster struck New York City and health care workers came from across the country to help, "we don't have anyone to replace them" here in Minnesota, Firkins Smith said, because the surge is everywhere.

"There's no calling New York. There's no calling Texas. There’s no calling the Twin Cities," she said. "There's no calling anywhere to get help."

In the first 11 days of November, the shortages in staff caused Rice Memorial Hospital in Willmar, Minn., to go on diversion status 10 times, Firkins Smith said, which means they weren't able to admit new patients with COVID-19 or any other critical conditions. And patients have had to endure delays in care as hospital systems attempt to transfer them to another hospital that can treat them.

“This is a historically unprecedented number,” Firkins Smith said. “Patients can be hurt and, in a worst-case scenario, patients might die. This is the situation that hospitals in Minnesota are facing every day and working desperately to avoid.”

Warning that hospitals are "perilously close" to the breaking point where they can't care for patients, Wheeler implored Minnesotans to take public health recommendations seriously and stop gathering, social distance and wear masks.

"If I could get down on my knees and you could still see me behind the podium, I would," Wheeler said. "We need you terribly."

Firkins Smith also said it's frustrating and disheartening for health care workers to see a lack of compliance with COVID guidelines — or even a disbelief that the virus is real altogether — in their communities after nine months on the frontlines battling the pandemic.

"It's heartbreaking for health care workers to finish an exhausting workday only to stop at the grocery store and see people not wearing a mask," she said. "Don't call health workers heroes if you can't put a piece of cloth or paper over your face to protect them."

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Thursday's new record number of COVID-19 related deaths comes a day after the state posted 67 more fatalities, which at the time was the highest number recorded in a single day. In total, 3,082 Minnesotans have died from the disease.

Reported COVID-19 tests also surged, according to Thursday's reports, though the rate of positive cases held relatively flat.

Additional hospitalizations and fatalities are expected to mount as higher numbers of Minnesotans test positive for the illness and as the sickest require intensive care to fight off the disease.

In the face of the widespread of COVID-19, state officials on Wednesday, Nov. 18, announced that a new set of restrictions aimed at mitigating the spread of COVID-19 and preventing the state's hospitals and health care workers from being overwhelmed by new cases would take effect this week. Restaurants and bars will move to takeout and delivery only starting at 11:59 p.m. Friday, Nov. 20, and gyms, pools, theaters, event centers and other places of public amusement will close down for four weeks.

Wedding and funeral receptions would also be prohibited and social gatherings are not to include people outside of one's household.

Walz announced the proposed changes on Wednesday night and Thursday morning he told members of the Executive Council that the measures and substantial public support were needed to bend the curve of cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

“We’re going to need massive buy-in from the people of Minnesota to do the things to protect their neighbors and this executive order starts to do that,” Walz said.

The changes come a week after the governor set a 10 p.m. last call for bar and restaurant services and limited attendance at wedding receptions. But in the seven days since, new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations outpaced the state's projections, Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said.

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"The context for why this order at this time — and I think the governor has indicated very well — even just since the last week when you approved the prior executive order take the rate of growth in our cases has just accelerated beyond what any model had projected," she said.

Malcolm also noted that hospital admissions for COVID-19 had increased by 80% in the last two weeks alone and hundreds of health care workers had been infected in that timeframe while dozens more had to quarantine after possible exposure.

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  • Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 hotline: 651-201-3920.
  • COVID-19 discrimination hotline: 833-454-0148
  • Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 website: Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) website .

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Dr. Penny Wheeler, president and chief executive officer at Allina Health, on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020, spoke with reporters at the Minnesota Capitol complex about efforts to relieve strains on hospitals seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

Dana Ferguson is a Minnesota Capitol Correspondent for Forum News Service. Ferguson has covered state government and political stories since she joined the news service in 2018, reporting on the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the divided Statehouse and the 2020 election.
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