COVID patient

The number of staff members out due to COVID or possible exposure caused significant decreases in staffing at the three Rice and Steele County hospitals. (Photo courtesy of Mayo Clinic Health System)

Staffing shortages caused by employee exposure to COVID-19 are posing logistical problems for three area hospitals, and causing patients to be transferred to other cities.

In the last two weeks, eight to 10 employees at both Allina Health’s District One and Owatonna hospitals have been away from work each day due to COVID-19-related reasons, said David Albrecht, president of both hospitals. The situation is worse at Northfield Hospital. On Thursday, its president and CEO, Steve Underdahl, said 40-50 employees are out each day due to COVID-19 or exposure to the virus.

Allina Health CEO Penny Wheeler told MPR News Monday that intensive care beds in Allina hospitals were full over the weekend and while there are enough medical supplies and beds for now, staffing is critically short. That led both the two local Allina facilities to transfer patients to nearby hospitals, freeing up beds.

The staffing shortages at Northfield Hospital are from all departments, said Underdahl, and however alarming, are “manageable.” But if the shortages worsen, he said NH+C might need to make “some really hard decisions.” He noted the recent surge has taken its toll on staff members physically and psychologically. Most staff care for family members, including older adults and children.

Any exposure, even if minimal, could disrupt a small department, he said during Thursday’s Hospital Board meeting.

Despite the time frontline health workers spend with people who test positive for the virus in a hospital setting, he said the greater danger comes when staff is exposed to asymptomatic transmitters of the virus away from work.

Albrecht credited staff for filling in for those who cannot work in-person. Telehealth services and contracted physicians have helped Owatonna Hospital weather the surge, which tends to peak at nights and during weekends. Those times, Albrecht says, have proven to be the most difficult to staff.

“That’s why personal precautions are so crucial right now: Wear a mask, keep your distance, avoid gatherings, stay home if you’re sick,” Underdahl said. “These are the best ways to prevent spread, and it takes all of us to make them effective. I know people are fatigued with this pandemic and just want to get back to normal, especially with the holidays coming. Truth is, until a vaccine is widely available, the best way we can fight COVID is to each be responsible for our own behavior.”

All U.S. medical facilities are grappling with possibly dangerous staffing shortages as case numbers and deaths continue to rise across the Upper Midwest. As of late last week, the Mayo Clinic Health System has seen a “very rapid rise” in COVID-19 cases and the hospitals in the Mankato region are feeling the impact on their medical and surgical bed availability. Its Mankato and Waseca hospitals were at 100% of their capacity on Friday, and the New Prague hospital was at 94% capacity.

In Rice County alone, 536 newly reported confirmed cases were listed from Thursday to Monday. There were 226 more cases in Steele County during the same time period.. As of Monday, 31 COVID-19 deaths were reported within the county. Of those, 18 came in long-term care facilities, 11 in private residences, and two in the Faribault prison.

Due to the surge in cases, NH+C is monitoring its capacity three times a day for the number of patients, staffing levels and demand for beds. Underdahl said NH+C will use those benchmarks to activate emergency plans if needed, using surge plans created last spring.

Positive case rate drastically increases

Dakota County has a test positivity rate of more than 10%, requiring NH+C to test staff two times per week. The hospital system is emphasizing video visits, increasing the capacity of the respiratory clinic and testing to better treat the virus. NH+C screens for the virus at each entrance. Masks are required in each building along with social distancing in waiting rooms, personal protective equipment, extra cleaning and sanitizing. Underdahl noted the hospital system ramps up or winds down precautions as needed. NH+C tightened restrictions starting Nov. 10 and restricted visitors beginning Nov. 17. NH+C has increased clinic care for respiratory conditions, with separate respiratory care available in Northfield, Lonsdale, Lakeville and Faribault clinics — plus Urgent Care by appointment in Lakeville.

Underdahl noted hospitals across the region are transferring patients when needed to where beds, staffing and equipment are available. As an example, he said NH+C will transfer a patient who needs a ventilator to a larger facility with a vent unit. NH+C also receives transfers from other hospitals for patients who fit the level of care the health system provides.

Underdahl said he is encouraged by successful initial vaccine testing results from prescription drug manufacturers. Despite the pending mass availability of the vaccine, Underdahl anticipates the virus will take a “terrible” toll over the next 100 days.

In response to the surging virus, Gov. Tim Walz instituted new restrictions last week, including limiting bars and restaurants to take out for at least four weeks and closing fitness centers. There has been pushback to his proposal. Protestors gathered Saturday at the governor’s mansion to show their disdain for the new restrictions. Also, Chanhassen-based Life Time Fitness has filed a public records request seeking information on how the state traced any spread of the virus to gymnasiums, fitness facilities or pools.

Reach Associate Editor Sam Wilmes at 507-645-1115. © Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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