Duluth's hospitals are near or at capacity, health officials noted during a virtual public briefing Thursday.

A majority of their patients landed in Essentia Health or St. Luke's because they deferred their regular care and appointments as a result of the pandemic. Increasing COVID-19 patients have also contributed to the situation.

These patients, coupled with an upcoming flu season, led one health care leader to call the winter season a “perfect storm.”

To prevent COVID-19, providers are urging people to wear face masks, practice social distancing and avoid small social gatherings — the cause of a number of cases in the area.

“We have to address this as a community. We can't think only about ourselves. Because if we can work together as a community, we can keep all of our neighbors safe,” said Dr. Andrew Thompson, infectious disease expert with St. Luke’s.

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Hospital capacities

As of Thursday, hospitals in St. Louis County had admitted seven patients with COVID-19 since Sunday, according to the county’s dashboard. One person was admitted to an intensive care unit.

For the past several weeks, St. Luke’s ran at full capacity. There was a slight, sustained increase in patients with COVID-19 during that time. However, non-coronavirus patients made up a majority of the new patients, said Dr. Nicholas Van Deelen, chief medical officer and vice president of medical affairs at St. Luke’s.

“It's an additional challenge to our ability to manage those (COVID-19 patients). So we are actively looking at our system and trying to identify ways to be more efficient running at capacity,” Van Deelen said.

The hospital has been preparing for months for such an increase and is well-prepared, he said. St. Luke’s is also working with other regional providers and the state to monitor patient levels at other hospitals and accept their patients if needed.

Down the road at Essentia Health, patient numbers have also been high recently. They’re also running close to capacity, said Dr. Jon Pryor, president of Essentia’s east market.

Even though Essentia is seeing increases in COVID-19 patients, those who are seeking treatment for other health needs are a primary driver of the hospital’s high patient numbers. For example, they’re seeing more stroke patients than ever before, Pryor said.

The surge hasn’t affected its daily operations or services. Pryor also noted that staff are constantly monitoring patient numbers — a figure that changes hourly — and responding as needed.

Responses include changes to staff and resources, triaging patients and even relocating patients to other Essentia facilities if needed, he said.

Dr. Rajesh Prabhu, an infectious disease physician with Essentia, noted that hospitals run at capacity even in non-pandemic times.

“The first moment that you feel you're ill, don't delay care because it could potentially escalate. Instead of being managed in the outpatient setting, it could require hospitalization,” Prabhu said.

St. Louis County

St. Louis County recorded its 56th death on Thursday from COVID-19. The resident was between ages 85 and 89, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. Since Oct. 1, the county has recorded 14 of its total COVID-19 deaths.

Across St. Louis County, 321 residents have tested positive for the coronavirus in the last week; 56 of those cases were reported Thursday. The county’s percent positivity rate — the percent of tests that result in positive test results — increased one-tenth of a percentage point to 3% this week.

In the last week, more than 7,800 diagnostic tests have been administered to St. Louis County residents, putting the testing positivity rate just for the last week at around 4.1%.

Of the 321 residents, 161 of them live in Duluth ZIP codes, according to the Health Department’s weekly ZIP code update. Some of those ZIP codes include communities on the edges of Duluth, including part of Hermantown.

Other new cases Oct. 9-15 in St. Louis County ZIP codes:

  • Hibbing, 42 (174 total).
  • McKinley and Gilbert, 20 (41 total).
  • Eveleth, 16 (41 total).
  • Chisholm, 12 (44 total).
  • Mountain Iron, 7.
  • Virginia, 5.

All other ZIP codes in St. Louis County had fewer than five new cases.

Carlton County

Carlton County recorded a total of 37 more people who have tested positive for the coronavirus in the last week; nine of those cases were reported Thursday.

Most of those new cases were recorded in Cloquet’s ZIP code, which saw a jump of 19 cases in the last week. Its total now sits at 152.

Other new cases Oct. 9-15 in Carlton County ZIP codes:

  • Carlton, 5 (19 total).
  • Moose Lake, 3 (61 total).
  • Esko, 3 (61 total).
  • Barnum, 2.
  • Cromwell, 2.

Completed diagnostic tests administered to Carlton County residents have increased by nearly 1,500 in the last week. The county’s cumulative testing positivity rate remains at 2.7%. The percent-positive rate just for the past week was a tad lower this week at 2.6%.

Itasca County

Itasca County recorded the second-highest number of new diagnoses of the 10 Minnesota and Wisconsin Northland counties with 118 new cases. On Thursday, the county recorded 18 of those.

The county’s cumulative testing positivity rate increased by three-tenths of a percentage to 3.2% in the last week. In the last week, more than 1,700 diagnostic tests have been administered to Itasca County residents, putting the testing positivity rate just for the past week above the preferred 5% at 6.9%.

The last death of the 16 deaths in Itasca County was reported Sept. 29.

This week, Itasca County health officials urged its residents to follow coronavirus safety precautions, as the county grapples with an "uncontrolled" spread of COVID-19.

Aitkin County

Between Oct. 9-15, Aitkin County recorded 26 more people with COVID-19, four of which were reported Thursday.

Its cumulative testing positivity rate increased by two-tenths of a percent in the last week to 3.3%. The number of diagnostic tests administered to residents increased by 530 in the last week. That puts the week’s positivity rate higher than the cumulative at 4.9%.

The last and only death reported in Aitkin County was Aug. 5.

Koochiching County

In Koochiching County, 14 more people were recorded with COVID-19 during the week of Oct. 9-15. The state reported two of those Thursday.

During that week, diagnostic tests administered to residents increased by 423, putting the week’s testing positivity rate at 3.3%. The county’s cumulative testing positivity rate is a touch higher at 3.4%.

Koochiching County recorded its most recent of four deaths Sept. 29.

Lake County

Lake County recorded two more people with COVID-19 on Thursday, bringing the week’s total since Oct. 9 to 12.

With 628 diagnostic tests administered to Lake County residents in that week, the county’s testing positivity rate for the week stands at 1.9%, nearly a whole percentage lower than the cumulative positivity rate.

As of Oct. 15, Lake County has not recorded any deaths from COVID-19.

Cook County

In the last week, Cook County has recorded three more residents who tested positive. None of those were reported Thursday.

Diagnostic tests administered to county residents went up by 221 in the last week. The county’s cumulative testing positivity rate is 0.6%.

No Cook County residents have died from COVID-19 as of Oct. 15.

Wisconsin

Of the 10 Northland counties in Minnesota and Wisconsin, the three in Wisconsin all have the highest testing positivity rates, ranging from 4.4% to 6.6%.

Still, those rates for Douglas, Ashland and Bayfield counties are far lower than the rate statewide, which was 20.8% as of Wednesday. This has increased every day for over a week, according to the state.

Douglas County

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services reported seven new diagnoses in Douglas County on Thursday, bringing the last week’s total to 68 new cases.

The county’s cumulative testing positivity rate is 6.6% with 655 total cases out of nearly 10,0000 diagnostic tests performed on residents.

On Monday, the county reported its first and only death from COVID-19 as of Oct. 15.

Ashland County

Wisconsin reported two more people have tested positive in Ashland County. Since Oct. 9, the state has reported 37 new cases.

The cumulative testing positivity rate is 5.5% with more than 3,500 administered diagnostic tests and more than 200 cases, according to the state.

The state reported the most recent of the county’s three deaths Tuesday.

Bayfield County

Since Oct. 9, Bayfield County has recorded 35 more diagnoses. The state reported five of those Friday.

The county’s testing positivity rate is 4.4% with nearly 4,000 administered tests and 166 lab-confirmed cases since the pandemic began.

The state reported the county’s first and only death April 18.