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Northland hospitals ready to resume elective surgeries

While hospital officials said they're eager to resume operations Monday, nurses are continuing to express concern over a shortage of 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)

Duluth's two major health care systems welcomed a Tuesday order from Gov. Tim Walz that will allow elective surgeries to resume next week.

Hospitals, surgery centers and clinics — whether medical, dental or veterinary — have been forced to suspend non-emergency procedures since March 23 as a measure primarily aimed at preserving the supply of personal protective equipment needed for a projected surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations.

But Walz's new directive gives providers the green light to resume many of their currently delayed procedures, so long as they establish procedures to maintain a safe environment for staff, patients and visitors.

Dr. Jon Pryor, president of Essentia Health's East Market, said facilities are ready to start with outpatient procedures Monday, crediting the governor for listening to experts and implementing a "data-driven" plan.

"We'll start slowly," Pryor told the News Tribune. "We want to be sure to do it in a careful way that will preserve personal protective equipment. We know there will be a surge. We need to be prepared for that and keep our staff and patients safe."


Pryor listed hernia repair as an example of a "bread and butter" operation that can resume next week. Surgery requires minimal resources and the patient can go home the same day.

Pryor added that Essentia will continue monitoring the situation and assessing the use of supplies before deciding when to resume more intensive operations that require overnight stays at the hospital.

Dr. Nick Van Deelen, chief medical officer at St. Luke's, said the month-plus Minnesota has spent under a stay-at-home order "has bought us critical time," allowing for the accumulation of supplies and medication. He said St. Luke's will also resume operations Monday and continue assessing supplies.

"Even cases that are deemed 'elective' are important to our patients' overall comfort, health and safety, and we are prepared to help them through it," Van Deelen said. "We have prioritized cases based on clinical need and have revised procedures in order to ensure patient and staff safety."

Elective surgeries are a major revenue driver for hospitals, and officials have said resuming procedures may help avoid situations where patients with chronic conditions are forced to visit the emergency room. The resumption of surgeries could also allow hospitals to begin recalling some furloughed staff.

But the decision wasn't universally embraced. The Minnesota Nurses Association said members are "frustrated and disappointed" by the order, arguing it puts the financial interests of the industry ahead of the safety of frontline workers.

"MNA nurses are eager to 'get back to work' and provide patient care to those in need of elective procedures," president Mary Turner wrote in a recent letter to the Minnesota Department of Health. "However, the risks to resuming elective procedures before healthcare systems can prove that workers and patients in all settings can be protected from infection, are deadly."

While acknowledging the issue of resources, the governor's office said expert guidance "recognizes that extended delays in the provision of certain care may pose substantial risks to patients."


“Minnesota has made significant progress in building up critical resources to combat COVID-19,” Walz said in a statement. “We’re proud that this progress will allow our medical professionals to safely resume certain procedures to keep Minnesotans healthy and improve their quality of life.”

Pryor added that hospitals are "a heck of a lot safer" than most places people may go in their day-to-day lives now, with rigorous symptom checks in place and patients and staff wearing masks, among other precautions.

"We want to ensure safety is at the center of everything we do," he said. "With that in mind, we'll approach this slowly. We'll start to ramp up and see how it affects supplies before we make additional decisions about how to proceed."

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or tolsen@duluthnews.com.
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