Northland hospitals are nearing capacity again as new COVID-19 cases take off, but unlike previous surges, hospitals have more non-COVID-19 patients to care for and more staffing constraints due to burnout.
"This is a really big deal," Dr. Andrea Boehland, an emergency department doctor at Essentia Health in Duluth, said. "We think it's our duty to let you know about the situation. When hospital capacity becomes tight like this, our ability to care for patients with any kind of health problem is put at risk."
The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 at Essentia in Duluth has doubled in the last two weeks, rising to 15-20 people Tuesday.
Across all 14 Essentia hospitals, 53 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Tuesday. That's 10 more than the health system was caring for the day before. Some of the region's COVID-19 patients, at least at St. Luke's, have been transferred from the Twin Cities.
Hospitalizations are lower than they were during the November and December peak, though they're still climbing and haven't yet peaked.
"Sadly, our situation today is quite serious," said Boehland, whose team has treated more young people, including children, now that the delta variant makes up the majority of cases.
Boehland listed four things people can do to help: Get vaccinated — only 0.3% of people hospitalized for COVID-19 are fully vaccinated; wear a mask; don't delay seeking health care when sick; and understand the stress that health care professionals are experiencing.
"We continue to do our work under unprecedented and exhausting circumstances," she said. "A lot of health care, front-line people of all kinds are experiencing burnout. I think they're tired. So a lot of people have retired. A lot of people have left health care and a lot of people who used to travel aren't really excited about traveling right now."
Last week, St. Louis County had 273 new cases of COVID-19, a 52% increase from the week before, St. Louis County Public Health Division Director Amy Westbrook said. The more contagious delta variant, which even vaccinated people can spread, is the dominant strain of the coronavirus both statewide and in Northeastern Minnesota.
"There has been a definite correlation in our county between rising case rates and lower vaccination rates," Westbrook said. "The areas with lower vaccination rates are seeing the higher incidences of new cases."
Nearly 69% of people eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccine in St. Louis County have done so, but that's not enough, Westbrook said.
"This is for the health of our kids too young to be vaccinated, our neighbors who might be experiencing waning immunity and to prevent other strains of COVID-19 from developing," Westbrook said. "Vaccines are our best defense against this virus."
Dr. Harmony Tyner, an infectious disease doctor at St. Luke’s, said new information is showing that vaccine efficacy has waned a little in people who are more than 150 days out from having received their vaccine.
She urged those who qualify for a booster shot to get one. That includes people immunosuppressed such as people receiving chemotherapy or recipients of bone marrow or solid organ transplants. She recommends that unvaccinated people who have questions talk to a doctor or someone medically trained who they trust, or look to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"I've seen people be ripped apart by conversations about vaccination and about why they've chosen to do one thing or another," Tyner said. "Please be kind to each other. Whether you've chosen to be vaccinated or you've chosen to not be vaccinated, be kind to each other. We're all in this together."
Asked if vaccinated people should consider regular testing for COVID-19, Tyner cited the CDC's recommendation of getting tested after large gatherings as well as three to five days after possible exposure to someone infected.
"Testing regularly probably isn't necessary," Tyner said. "Overall, most people will be symptomatic."
About 0.5% of new cases are among vaccinated individuals. Additionally, the Minnesota Department of Health reported that 0.4% of the more than 3 million fully vaccinated people have experienced a breakthrough case.