Minnesota hospitals increasing capacity, ventilators

Experts say ventilators will be in high demand as the COVID-19 outbreak ramps up.

Data released from the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) shows hospitals are gearing up their capacity for the Coronavirus pandemic, as Governor Tim Walz made a dire prediction that 40 to 80 percent of all Minnesotan’s might eventually get the virus. 

The hospital data is a five-day snapshot of last week from the MNTrac system that monitors the capacity and resources of hospitals through eight regional consortiums in Minnesota.  As recently as Sunday afternoon MDH had declined to release any specific numbers. 

Since Wednesday, March 18, the number of empty hospital beds available across Minnesota has gone from 1,941 on Wednesday, March 18, to 2,413 on Sunday, March 22, representing a 24 percent increase. 

The number of adult intensive care unit (ICU) beds, which will be most critical at the height of the pandemic, has gone up 20 percent, from 197 on Wednesday, to 238 on Sunday. 

And the number of beds that could be made available during a medical surge -- when the pandemic strains hospital resources — went from 1,011 beds to 1,355, up 34% in just five days.

But the biggest surprise of all is the supply of ventilators, which would help the most critically ill breathe. 

In what is the first real snapshot of the availability of ventilators statewide, these new numbers show there were 800 ventilators available in Minnesota hospitals as of Wednesday, and that number had grown to 1,190 by Sunday, representing a 49 percent increase. 

Data Based Decisions

In a conference call with reports on Monday, Governor Tim Walz said he is eager to have computer modeling that will show how various social distancing measures, like closing schools and restaurants, might reduce the demand on hospitals, and the potential impact of an order to shelter in place.  

“I should be able to get some answers on how much does it slowdown ICU (intensive care unit) use if you put this in place,” said Walz.  “That’s the question I ask the modeling to show me, and does it make a difference, and what are the repercussion of doing it.”

State health officials have been working on a computer model of the coronavirus spread with experts at the University of Minnesota, but Walz said the lack of testing data has made it difficult until recently.  He has promised to share the results of the model with the public when the information is available.  

Walz said people should be prepared for the long haul, and an emergency that will last not just a couple of weeks, but likely a couple of months.

Governor Walz made a prediction while answering a reporter’s question defending his decision not to order people to shelter in place. 

“You can say just shut it down, and keep everyone home, and it will be over. Well, that’s not the way it’s going to work,” said Walz. “Forty to 80 percent will eventually get this, even if we shut it down now.”

It was unclear if Walz was basing that large range of possible infections on preliminary data for Minnesota, or modeling that has been conducted in other places, like California and New York.  

Regardless, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said there are many more cases of CoVid-19 than testing would indicate.  

“We know there are more cases in Minnesota, and we should assume the virus is circulating in communities. In fact. we should assume it’s in all of our communities,” said Malcolm.