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'He's listening,' Duluth hospital officials say of Walz

Medical leaders say they're much better prepared now for a COVID-19 influx than they were six weeks ago.

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Dr. Nicholas Van Deelen, chief medical officer at St. Luke’s, provides an update on the hospital's expanded COVID-19 testing procedures. (Samantha Erkkila / serkkila@duluthnews.com)

Duluth hospital officials expressed cautious optimism Thursday about a measured relaxation of COVID-19-related restrictions, saying Gov. Tim Walz’s March 27 stay-at-home order bought them needed time to prepare for a potential influx of sick patients.

“I think our organizations are like many health care organizations across the state that have used these past six weeks to do really incredible preparations,” said Dr. Nicholas Van Deelen, chief medical officer for St. Luke’s hospital, during a weekly news conference. “So we're in a different place than we were six weeks ago.”

The news conference took place late Thursday morning, so medical officials from both St. Luke’s and Essentia Health were asked to respond to an announcement Walz hadn’t yet made, although some easing of restrictions was widely anticipated.

Walz later announced he was extending his order by at least two weeks while providing flexibility for some retailers to reopen under certain conditions.

The measured response fit with what Van Deelen and Dr. Jon Pryor, East Market president for Essentia, expected of Walz.


“I think the governor is really trying to balance things here, and do it in a very smart way,” Pryor said. “I think he’s very data-oriented. He’s listening to lots of experts.”

St. Luke’s and Essentia, like other hospitals, have been busily making adjustments in the belief that there will be a surge of patients at some point who need care for COVID-19. St. Luke’s, for example , has been in the process of more than doubling its emergency department rooms and more than tripling its intensive care unit rooms.

“We will be in a better place to care for our patients as they need it,” Van Deelen said Thursday.

On another matter, representatives of both hospitals said the number of tests they administer for COVID-19 rose this week after the Minnesota Department of Health expanded testing criteria to include all patients with COVID-19 symptoms.

Pryor said an average of 363 tests were administered per day across the Essentia Health system Monday through Wednesday. The week before, the average was 223 tests.

But Van Deelen, who didn’t have specific numbers available for St. Luke’s, said the increase wasn’t as great as he had expected.

He speculated that there could be a low incidence of the virus in this region, or the virus in many cases might not produce symptoms with enough severity that people bother to get tested.

Dr. Rajesh Prabhu, infectious disease physician at Essentia, commented that while the testing numbers have gone up, the percentage of positive tests has gone down — to around 1% this week compared with 2%-3% previously. But he noted that some people are tested for specific medical reasons even if they aren’t symptomatic.

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