Caring for patients in the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center is a possibility if hospitals become full because of COVID-19, a hospital official said Thursday.

“Are we looking at that? Yes,” said Dr. Nicholas Van Deelen, chief medical officer at St. Luke’s, when asked about the idea during a news conference. “We need to plan for every contingency. And we know that at some point we may need a third facility.”

But use of the DECC appears so far to be only a slim possibility.

Chelly Townsend, the DECC’s executive director, said in a phone interview that she hasn’t been approached by either of the hospitals, and didn't think the complex, with large spaces designed for conferences and exhibitions, would be the best alternative.

But if contacted, she’d be happy to discuss the options, Townsend said.

In response to an email query later in the day, Essentia spokesman Louis St. George III wrote that Essentia hasn't ruled out the DECC, "but it isn't an active part of our strategy."

Essentia believes it will have sufficient capacity in its buildings, St. George wrote.

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On the day it was announced that the fourth and fifth St. Louis County residents had been diagnosed with COVID-19, both Van Deelen and Dr. Jon Pryor, president of Essentia Health’s East Market, said they’re anticipating seeing a surge of patients who require hospitalization at some point.

Dr. Nicholas Van Deelen, chief medical officer at St. Luke's gestures while answering a question during a joint press conference with Essentia Health Thursday at the Greysolon Ballroom in Duluth. (Clint Austin /
Dr. Nicholas Van Deelen, chief medical officer at St. Luke's gestures while answering a question during a joint press conference with Essentia Health Thursday at the Greysolon Ballroom in Duluth. (Clint Austin /

“We do expect a surge of COVID-19 cases,” Pryor said. “Predictive modeling that we’ve done both internally and in collaboration with the state will help health care systems like Essentia and St. Luke’s prepare for that certainty. There are unknowns, however. When will the surge happen? How many people will be impacted? How long will it last? These are questions that I can’t answer.”

Van Deelen said when the city of Duluth converted First Street to two-direction traffic in the blocks near the hospital, it was because of a St. Luke’s contingency plan.

“There will come a time that we will be closing down First Street between Ninth and 10th avenues east,” he said. “And we’ll be controlling that as an evaluation and treatment space.”

Ironically, with elective procedures canceled and many services limited, some hospital employees currently have little if anything to do, Pryor and Van Deelen said. That’s why St. Luke’s laid off seven employees, the latter said.

Pryor said he wasn’t aware of any layoffs at Essentia and couldn’t comment on a report that respiratory therapists have been required to limit their hours. But he did offer the rationale behind such moves.

“We are trying to conserve our resources,” Pryor said. “If we don’t have the money to pay people to take care of people when we really have a surge, that’s going to be a problem.”

In an email response later, St. George wrote, "Our respiratory therapy team continually monitors its staffing needs, and adjusts accordingly. That is no different as we face this COVID-19 pandemic."

When that does happen — both Pryor and Van Deelen said “when,” not “if” — a fully staffed crew will be needed, Van Deelen said.

“We want you to know that we value every single employee,” he said. “They are the heart and soul of what we do. We know that once the surge arrives, it will be all hands on deck.”

Anticipation of the surge is also prompting the hospitals to use personal protective equipment conservatively, the doctors said. Dr. Rajesh Prabhu, Essentia infectious-disease specialist, said after the news conference that everyone who should be wearing a mask is doing so, but masks and other gear are being reused.

Essentia uses UV technology to disinfect face masks, Prabhu said. He noted, too, that surgical masks are used in most cases, with N95 masks being used “for particular procedures or people with particular symptoms that require that higher level of protection.”

Prabhu said health workers are grateful for homemade masks being provided by the community but unfortunately are unable to use them. “At the moment, to protect our health care workers, we’re using hospital-grade surgical masks and N95 masks.”


Both Essentia Health and St. Luke’s have phone numbers to call 24/7 if you think you may have COVID-19 or have related concerns.

  • Essentia Health hotline: 833-494-0836.

  • St. Luke’s nurse hotline: 218-249-4200.

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