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As COVID strains emergency rooms, health officials urge extra precautions during cold weather

As the weather drops below zero, HCMC officials say they see 5-10 patients daily with cases of frostbite.

MINNEAPOLIS — In the first two days of the new year, Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) has already seen more than a dozen patients for frostbite, according to a spokesperson.

While Dr. James Miner says that's not an overwhelming amount, he does expect it to get worse as more frigid temperatures are on the way later in January.

"Once it gets cold, we definitely see people with frostbite and hypothermia almost every day," said Dr. Miner, who serves as the chair of the emergency department at HCMC.

An added challenge for hospitals this year is dealing with an already-strained system due to COVID.

"We still see so many more people with COVID than anything else," Miner said.

A spokesperson for Regions added while there hasn't been a large number of cases of frostbite and other cold-weather injuries during the recent cold stretch, their emergency departments are still very busy.

"We urge people to take extra precautions to avoid emergency room visits," said spokesperson Scott Beedy, over email.

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Cold weather-related injuries are avoidable, says Dr. Miner. But he says even the most experienced Minnesotans who've braved many-a-winter can fall victim to frostbite with one major culprit: alcohol.

"Being outside when it’s really cold and drinking alcohol...takes away your sense of judgement of when you’re getting too cold, and your sense of feeling of, 'this hurts, I need to get some help,'" Miner said. "It makes you more likely to make a decision like, I’m just going to pull my gloves off for a second."

He says HCMC's emergency department will also frequently see people who got frostbite in the relatively short time just waiting outside for an Uber ride.

"You’re in a restaurant, you’re wearing dressed-up clothes, not outdoor gear, and you think your car’s going to be five or ten minutes, you’re going to be fine," Miner said. "Really, it doesn’t take long."

He urges people to pay attention to their bodies, especially if they're starting to hurt from cold.

"Frostbite hurts before it’s frostbite," he said. "If it still hurts, it’s probably not frostbite yet. You’ve got some time to go get warmed up. So when you start feeling your hands and feet get painful, that’s when it’s time to get more warm clothes on, get inside, get warmed up, get dry stuff on."

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