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Doctors, hospitals show support for COVID dial back, some say more is needed

Hospitals say record COVID-19 hospitalizations are compounded by major staffing concerns due to community spread of the virus.

MINNEAPOLIS — As Minnesota Governor Tim Walz dialed back state guidance on group gatherings and bar closings in response to a surge in COVID-19, some of those on the frontlines are worried that it doesn't go far enough.

"It's a step in the right direction," said Dr. Hannah Lichtsinn. "But I fear this is too small a step to make a huge impact right now. Any time people are together in an indoor environment without masks on, or with inconsistent use of masks, as happens when you're eating or drinking in a bar or restaurant, COVID can spread."

Dr. Lichtsinn is among more than 430 doctors and healthcare providers that have signed on to a letter to Governor Walz, urging him to dial back even more in an effort to stop a surge that they worry is rapidly getting out of control.

"When we had 'Stay Home Minnesota' in the spring, that was an act of prevention," Dr. Lichtsinn said. "Now, the pandemic has spread. People are sick. Our hospitals are full."

The Minnesota Department of Health dashboard shows that hospitals keep reaching new highs for COVID hospitalizations each day. More than 12 hundred Minnesotans were hospitalized on Tuesday, including 249 in ICU. 

The dashboard shows that hospitals still have remaining surge capacity, but Dr. Lichsinn says Minnesotans have to keep one thing in mind when it comes to the space remaining.

"That capacity that is being reported out are the physical beds that exist in Minnesota," she said. "Where we are struggling now is having nurses, respiratory therapists, other staff in the hospitals to actually provide that care."

And that is a message that is being echoed by hospital systems across the state.

"The most critical worry that we have right now, as far as our ability to care for patients, is staffing," said Dr. Amy Williams, Dean of the Mayo Clinic.

Dr. Williams says the stress on staff is increasing for two reasons. She says COVID hospitalizations have more than tripled in just two weeks at the Rochester hospital. Most importantly, she says staff members are impacted personally.

"We have over a thousand staff in the Midwest that are out because of COVID reasons," Dr. Williams said. "It could be caring for a family member who has COVID, they could be on quarantine because of being exposed in the community, or it could be that the staff member actually has COVID."

Through contact tracing, Dr. Williams says they know the vast majority of those Mayo Clinic staff members are not getting it at work.

"Greater than 93% of the COVID exposures for our staff are in the community," she said.

The President of the Minnesota Hospital Association, Dr. Rahul Koranne, says they've seen similar issues with staffing across the state, which is why many hospitals have turned their own dials back in terms of some care.  

"We have had to postpone surgeries, we have had to tell other Minnesotans that they may have had a surgery scheduled, but they have to wait," Dr. Koranne said. We're doing all that so that we can continue to take care of the rising number of COVID-19 patients. We need your help."

"Just in North Dakota today, they announced that nurses with COVID, (asymptomatic) nurses who are sick with COVID will be forced to care for patients," Dr. Lichtsinn said. "We can do better than that, but we can't take care of you if you don't take steps to limit the spread of this illness."

Which is why she is pleading for help.

"I beg the people of Minnesota to take this seriously," Dr. Lichtsinn said. "Wear your mask, avoid these gatherings, do everything you can because this is a critical time."

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