'It was really scary:' Minnesota hospitals struggle with COVID surge

Minnesota hospitals are caring for 40 percent more COVID-19 patients since the start of November as the state became the country's worst COVID-19 hotspot this week.

The surge is straining hospital capacity, overwhelming staff, and affecting patient care, health care professions and Minnesota's top public health officials said.

Dr. Christina Dewey said she got a personal look when she went to the emergency room last Friday suffering an allergic reaction. Staff put Dewey in a COVID unit because, as a pediatrician, she treats COVID-positive patients in her own practice. In the COVID unit, she had another allergic reaction and said it took two hours for a nurse to arrive.

"My lips were swollen, my face was swollen, I was itchy everywhere, I was coughing, I was congested and I could feel my throat closing," Dewey said in an interview. "It was really scary. I now know what impending doom means."

As she waited, Dewey said she started messaging a physician moms' Facebook group to ask if anyone was at the hospital and could help. Physicians have increasingly used social media in recent weeks to coordinate and find bed space for patients, she said.

"I don’t want to say I got bad care," she said. "I want to stress the fact that everyone is overworked, understaffed, and being put in an impossible situation to deliver the appropriate standard of care we would like." 

This week, Minnesota had the country's highest rate of infections per 100,000 residents, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention metric used to show where the worst outbreaks are. Several rural Minnesota counties are among the nation's biggest hotspots. 

Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, said if someone had predicted months ago that Minnesota would have the most cases per capita in the U.S., "no one would have believed it."

"We're not just bending. In some cases, we're breaking," Osterholm said during a Thursday morning forum with Andy Slavitt, a former COVID-19 adviser to President Joe Biden. 

Unlike Minnesota's worst surge in fall 2020, hospital beds aren't the issue this time -- 1,381 people are hospitalized, compared with a peak of nearly 1,900 last fall -- it's a lack of hospital staff. 

The staffing shortage is "more permanent and structural," Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters earlier this week. Burnout and resignations have contributed to the issue.

Next week, the federal government plans to send U.S. Department of Defense emergency medical teams to Hennepin County Medical Center and St. Cloud Hospital to help doctors and nurses. Malcolm said administrators at other hospitals have also asked without success for federal help. 

The Minnesota Nurses Association, which represents tens of thousands of nurses, called the federal assistance a "Band-Aid."

Physicians are pleading with the roughly one-quarter of unvaccinated Minnesota adults to get a shot and for all adults to get a booster dose to prevent waning immunity. Fewer than 800,000 Minnesotans have gotten a booster, though the state has one of the highest per-capita booster uptakes in the country.

"The public seems to not realize how dire our situation actually is," Dewey said. "I wish I could say we’re in a better place in this pandemic, but we’re almost exactly we were a year ago – except we’ve got vaccines."