ST. CLOUD, Minn. — The day after Thanksgiving, Captain Andrew Dennis arrived at St. Cloud Hospital. For at least the next month, possibly longer, the ICU nurse from Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi will call St. Cloud home, as he helps the hospital stretched thin by the latest surge of COVID-19 patients.
When asked what he encountered upon arrival?
"A staff that's exhausted," Dennis answered.
Dennis is one of 23 members of a federal emergency medical team sent to help St. Cloud Hospital. Four of them, including Dennis, are in the ICU.
"We are busy, busy," said Dr. Jack Lyons, a critical care physician at St. Cloud Hospital. "For [our ICU] to get a new patient, someone would either have to get better or pass away."
St. Cloud is one of three Minnesota hospitals so full with COVID patients it was granted federal help. Department of Defense teams were sent to St. Cloud and HCMC in Minneapolis. A team from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is helping at M Health Fairview Southdale in Edina.
Adding to the strain is how long some of the ICU patients with COVID-19 are staying, which is unique to the disease, Lyons said.
"We've definitely had patients intubated for two months or longer," he said. "In any other time, to have someone on the ventilator for a month, would be tremendously rare. Everybody working in the hospital would know about that patient...but unfortunately [that's] the norm now and it's due to the tremendously long time it takes the lungs to heal, potentially heal, from COVID."
Dennis and the other members from the federal emergency team will allow St. Cloud take on more patients, but even with their help, Lyons says they still aren't able to treat every patient who needs a bed in their ICU.
"Every day we get hundreds of calls across the state from patients in small hospitals hoping to come to a bigger hospital, to an intensive care unit like ours, and there’s no availability, our hospital or others," he said.
There is a solution, however. Lyons said "very few" of the COVID patients he sees in the ICU are vaccinated.
"I know we sound like a broken record, but the fewer folks who are available to get infected, the less folks will need ICU care."