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Duluth health care experts urge mask wearing despite council rejecting mandate

The City Council received 230 letters from residents between Thursday night and Monday's meeting, both in support and opposed.

Woman wearing mask leaves grocery store
Sherie Nelson, of Duluth, wears a mask as she exits the Whole Foods Co-Op Hillside location Monday, Aug. 2, 2021, in Duluth.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

Local health care professionals are urging the public to voluntarily mask up, even though the Duluth City Council voted Monday not to enact the emergency ordinance to mandate face masks in public spaces.

John Pryor, president of Essentia Health's East Market, said that while he believes the councilors made the best decision they could with the information they had on such short notice, Pryor believes mandates are one of the most crucial ways to keep the coronavirus pandemic and the omicron variant at bay.

RELATED: Emergency mask mandate fails in Duluth

Specifically, Pryor said masking, in addition to vaccination, is one of the best ways to keep COVID-19 patients out of hospitals, which have nationally been facing critical shortages of both beds and staff for months on end.

"We know it's an imposition on some people," Pryor said. "We've heard this argument about personal freedom, but if it was just about you, that's one thing. When you get sick, it's no longer just about you because you come to our hospital and we have to take care of you."

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According to the city, the council received 230 letters between Thursday evening and Monday's meeting voicing strong opinions both in support and opposition to the mandate, which was proposed by Councilor Terese Tomanek on Thursday, Jan. 6. The measure, which required a unanimous vote in order to pass as an emergency ordinance, was opposed by at large Councilor Derek Medved and 3rd District Councilor Roz Randorf.

    Nick Van Deelen, chief medical officer, co-president and co-chief executive officer at St. Luke's, said in a statement to the News Tribune that he understands that everyone is tired of wearing masks.
    "However, on behalf of all health care and essential workers, we ask that people voluntarily choose to wear masks when around anyone outside of their household," Van Deelen said in the statement. "Masking, distancing and vaccination are our best defenses against COVID-19."

    St. Luke's and Essentia released a joint statement last week in favor of requiring masks. Pryor said the health care system continues to stand in support of a mandate, should a future measure be brought forward by the City Council or mayor.

    Community Memorial Hospital in Cloquet has been feeling the trickle-down impacts of nurse shortages at hospitals across the state. In the Northland, there are more job openings for nurses than there were before the pandemic, causing hospital beds to remain unstaffed and unable to admit critical patients.

    Andrea Boehland, Essentia emergency medicine specialist and St. Mary's Medical Center emergency medicine section chair, wrote to the council regarding the fast-paced timeline of the mask mandate proposal. If the emergency measure had passed, it would've gone into effect immediately instead of the standard introduction where the measure would be read at two separate public meetings before going to a vote, and then go into effect 30 days after a passing a simple majority vote. Boehland addressed the council's surprise about the speed and urgency of the timeline.

    "We in local hospitals are similarly surprised by the speed and urgency of our rapidly deteriorating capacity and staffing situation," Boehland said. "Simply put: We are overwhelmed and we are heartbroken. I fear other businesses in town and schools may face similar staffing nightmares if we do not do more to slow the spread of this very contagious new variant."

    In another letter to the council before Monday's meeting, neonatal and perinatal medicine specialist Anne Simones wrote that Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center has seen an alarming increased rate in pediatric patients hospitalized with COVID-19, including patients as young as one week old.

    "As a neonatologist, I hoped that my specialty would be spared from COVID-19, but now more than ever, this pandemic is reaching every age group in devastating ways," Simones wrote in the letter. "These infants and children are critically ill, requiring intubation and mechanical ventilation, some requiring transfer to the (Twin Cities) due to need for a higher level of care such as ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation)."

    According to the St. Louis County Department of Health, one pediatric patient was hospitalized with COVID between Jan. 1 and 7. Four pediatric patients were admitted to a St. Louis County hospital in December for COVID.

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    "Probably, we will have COVID with us forever, but what we want to do is get it from the pandemic to the endemic vein," Pryor said. "But we're going to have a hard time getting there unless everybody steps up. If people can't do it voluntarily, then I think there needs to be a mandate."

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