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COVID-19 surge taking toll on Minnesota hospitals

M Health Fairview says it's a perfect storm of increasing COVID cases, demand for delayed medical procedures and staffing shortages.

MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota — The latest COVID-19 surge is filling up Minnesota's hospital beds. 

"This is serious. This is real. This is our summer surge," said Dr. George Morris, COVID incident commander for St. Cloud-based CentraCare. 

Numbers are not at the levels seen back in late November or in April, but other factors are also adding to hospital workers' stress as demand for hospital beds increases. 

"We are seeing this as another surge. We're seeing this as a surge that has the growth, in other words, the rapid rise that we saw with the one in the fall and winter. It hasn't gotten up to the height of those previous ones where it was 170, 180 patients but we're right around 30-plus patients in our hospital, a lot of cases in the community, and quite a few of them are requiring ICU-level care," Dr. Morris said. 

According to Dr. Morris, most of the COVID-19 patients they are currently treating are not vaccinated.

State data shows 1,135 of 1,208 immediately available ICU beds are in use. As of Aug. 19, there were 477 COVID patients in hospitals compared to 109 a month ago. Of those patients, 125 are in intensive care. 

Dr. Morris said with the delta variant impacting communities across the nation, they are receiving requests from out-of-state hospitals to transfer patients to Minnesota.

RELATED: Here are the latest vaccination and masking announcements as the delta variant spreads

"Yes, we have. Both as a state and even for us in CentraCare. We've had calls from Iowa; we've accepted at least one patient from outside Minnesota," Dr. Morris said. "We have a great collaborative process within Minnesota where all of the major health systems work together. It's a coordinated care call that happens at least daily and that way they're aware as these requests come in. We've had them as far away as you might say Tennessee, Missouri. Just amazing to think of what's happening in the country and knowing that we are a resource for our nation but even we are tight and this truly is a national problem for this surge." 

According to a Hennepin Healthcare spokesperson, "The Critical Care Coordination Center (C4) that was used during the peaks of the COVID-19 surge continues to connect patients with beds as needed in order to level-load the region and the state hospital bed capacity. The C4 does not accept out-of-state transfers with the exception of hospitals from the eastern Dakotas who participate in C4 activity."

On Monday, the Minnesota Department of Health told KARE 11 that in August C4 had four requests for patients from other states to be transferred to Minnesota. 

"None of those patients ended up being transferred to Minnesota. All other transfer requests in August have been from within the C4 region of Minnesota and Western Wisconsin. Health systems could accept patients from out of state, but the C4 protocol is to direct those out-of-state requests to their own state health department first," said an MDH spokesperson. 

According to state data, there are 1.6% of staffed ICU beds available in the metro area. Currently there are 20 surge beds in use. 

HealthPartners is also seeing increased hospitalizations due to COVID-19. Sunday morning, there were 68 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 across HealthPartners hospitals — up from a single-digit number of patients seen at the end of June. 

A HealthPartners spokesperson told KARE 11, "It's also important to note that about 98% of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated. In addition, our hospitals are significantly busier now with non-COVID patients than during previous surges and as a result, the strain that COVID-19 cases are putting on the system is similar."

As of Aug. 18, more than 70% of Minnesotans ages 16+ have received at least one vaccine dose.

RELATED: Reports: FDA could give Pfizer COVID vaccine full approval Monday

A spokesperson for M Health Fairview said it's a perfect storm of increasing COVID cases with the delta variant, demand for delayed medical procedures, and staffing shortages. 

Dr. Morris said healthcare workers have been taking some much-needed time off this summer. 

"They're tired. This has been a long road. We've asked many of them to work for the past 17 months just steady," Dr. Morris said. 

Just one week ago, CentraCare converted a cardiac intensive care unit at St. Cloud Hospital into a COVID unit. 

"We've asked them to kind of dial back some of the elective cardiac patients so that they can be available for the COVID care. So as you think about those dials we have to do, we have started to do our dials backwards for some of our procedures that we have that we can delay a little bit," Dr. Morris said. 

Dr. Morris recommends people who are not vaccinated get the shot as soon as possible if they're eligible. For those who are immunocompromised, get ready for your third dose. Dr. Morris is also recommending people wear masks indoors and in crowded outdoor areas. 

"The last one would be maybe think about what gatherings you're doing, where you're headed... maybe now is the time to kind of cut back a little," he said. 

Dr. Morris added how important it is for people to support their health care workers, whether that's with a letter or appreciation post on social media. 

He said, "We have to pay more attention to this surge because it is harsh, it is brutal and it is affecting people's lives."