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Duluth hospitals to test elective-surgery patients for COVID-19

If there is a surge in COVID-19 cases, elective surgeries at St. Luke's and Essentia Health may need to be scaled back to preserve personal protective equipment.

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Buildings from Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center (left) and St. Luke's hospital dominate this aerial view of Duluth's Central and East Hillside neighborhoods. (2017 file / News Tribune)

Hospitals will begin elective surgeries again Monday after Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz lifted restrictions earlier this week. Duluth’s two major health care systems said during a weekly Zoom video news conference that extra precautions are being taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Dr. Jon Pryor, president of Essentia Health’s East Market, said every patient scheduled for surgery will be tested for COVID-19 three days prior, and patients will be asked to self-quarantine for those three days as well. Other precautions are also being taken at the hospitals before, during and after surgeries.

According to Dr. Andrew Thompson, infectious-disease physician at St. Luke’s hospital, some test results are produced on-site, but most tests are sent to testing labs, which have a turnaround time of about one to two days.

“That remains an issue, but one that we’re dealing with pretty well, I think,” Thompson said.

Pryor and Dr. Nicholas Van Deelen, chief medical officer at St. Luke’s, said elective surgeries are prioritized based on necessity, as well as some that don’t require much personal protective equipment (PPE), like outpatient surgeries. Both emphasized they are slowly ramping up these procedures and will cut back if there is a surge of COVID-19 cases.


“We will then move on to bigger cases. We call these, in general, time-sensitive cases, where the longer you wait, the bigger the risk there is to the patient,” Pryor said. “We'll start with cases that we know are pressing and where the risk of delaying it is greater than the risk of COVID.”

If a patient scheduled for surgery tests positive for COVID-19, the surgeon will evaluate the need for the procedure and if it can be delayed, it will, Essentia spokesperson Louie St. George III said. If it’s an emergency, it will be performed with appropriate PPE.

Essentia and St. Luke’s reported they believe their PPE stockpile is adequate, but if there is a surge in COVID-19 cases, elective surgeries may need to be scaled back to preserve PPE. Dr. Sarah Manney, Essentia’s chief medical information officer, said they expect multiple surges of COVID-19 cases in the future — and that will continue until vaccination is available or there is widespread immunity.

Pryor said having elective surgeries again will also help with the bottom line for Minnesota hospitals. According to the Minnesota Hospital Association, the state's hospitals and health systems are collectively losing $31 million in revenue per day as a result of reductions in patient volumes. This represents a 55% average reduction of patient revenues. Smaller hospitals are reporting closer to 70% revenue reductions.

“Pretty soon, the hospital system and health systems could be on life support,” Pryor said.

Adelle Whitefoot is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune.
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