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Vision Northland progress: New hospital on track to accept patients in a year

The new Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center is anticipated to begin training staff in February. The $900 million, 942,000-square-foot project is still on time and on budget, Essentia CEO David Herman said.

Dr. David Herman speaks during a tour of the Essentia Vision Northland project
Dr. David Herman speaks during a tour of the Essentia Vision Northland project Wednesday morning in Duluth.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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DULUTH — Construction at Essentia Health’s Vision Northland project is about 80% complete and is on track to be open to patients in about a year, Essentia and McGough Construction representatives said during a media tour of the facility Wednesday.

The 18-story hospital tower, which is 942,000 square feet, will become the new Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center. Dr. David Herman, CEO of Essentia Health, said the health care system expects to take possession of the building in February. Staff will be given several months to move into and train in the new building before patients are admitted, which is anticipated to happen in late-summer 2023.

Work continues in the cafeteria area on the sixth floor
Work continues in the cafeteria area on the sixth floor during a tour of Essentia's Vision Northland project Wednesday in Duluth.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“We started this in late 2019, and I think all of us know in early 2020 we encountered a pandemic,” Herman said. “The project is on time and on budget, and that took a lot of extra time and extra work from everyone involved within this project to make that happen.”

Phil Johnson, project manager for McGough Construction, said the project has 690 construction workers on-site, and at one point had 750 workers. In total, more than 2 million work hours have been completed. Dr. Robert Erickson, Essentia’s physician lead for the project, noted that about 21% of the workers are minorities and women, which is nearly three times as many as the original goal of 8% set when the project began.

In addition, about half of the workers are from the Duluth area, with an additional 15% from the Iron Range and a large number from along the Interstate 35 corridor between the Twin Cities and Duluth. Jeff Dzurik, executive vice president of project management for McGough, said the $900 million project has drawn labor from nearly 30 states.

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Phil Johnson leads a group through the eighth floor during a tour of the Essentia Vision Northland project
Phil Johnson leads a group through the eighth floor during a tour of Essentia's Vision Northland project Wednesday in Duluth.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Although the coronavirus pandemic posed as a challenging roadblock to the project, Dzurik said it wasn’t all bad. Because of the national and global shortage of intensive care unit beds, Essentia was able to update its floor plan and dedicate an additional two floors of adult ICU rooms than initially planned. The new hospital will now have four ICU floors, plus prenatal and neonatal ICU rooms on the women and children’s floor, which also includes labor and delivery, obstetrics and gynecology, and pediatric care.

“They made some significant changes to (floors) 17 and 18 in order to make them ICU rooms,” Dzurik said. “We had to pause the work up there for a couple of months while we were able to get those changes incorporated. We normally don’t like pausing work, but it was for a good cause.”

A worker buffs the floors on the eighth floor of the Essentia Vision Northland project
A worker buffs the floors on the eighth floor of Essentia's Vision Northland project Wednesday in Duluth.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Herman said the pandemic also influenced some features of hospital rooms, including being able to change the airflow to positive or negative, depending on the patients’ needs. There are also implementations, including video screens and two-way pass-through cabinet doors, that reduce the need for nurses and doctors to come and go from rooms as often.

According to a report from the University of Minnesota, 2020 Northland birth and pregnancy rates stayed largely similar to 2019, but are low compared to years past. In most Northland counties, fewer teenage pregnancies and births were recorded in 2020 than in 2019.

“This has always been a work in progress, meaning that certainly we had everything in design and everything down in the blueprints, but as the care models changed and we learned from them throughout the pandemic, we changed the design of this building to meet those changes,” Herman said.

Visitors of the Essentia Vision Northland project will be able to look out 130 feet above Superior Street in Duluth
Visitors of Essentia's Vision Northland project will be able to look out 130 feet above Superior Street in Duluth from a balcony on the sixth floor.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Because of the changes to the top floors for ICUs, construction crews plan to continue adding finishing touches next spring after staff begin training. Dzurik said work has started from the bottom and worked its way to the top, which means the upper floors of the hospital tower will likely not be completed until closer to the opening date. Some equipment and technology will be installed toward the end of construction as well.

Work continues on the seventh floor of the Essentia Vision Northland project
Work continues on the seventh floor of Essentia's Vision Northland project Wednesday in Duluth.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

The new Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center will have a similar patient capacity and staff workforce as the current hospital, but all patient rooms will be single-occupancy and are larger and updated to meet current standards of care, plus can be changed to fit standards of the future.

Although the project is still about a year from completion, several design elements have been installed, including photo overlays on walls of nature and lake scenes; canoe-shaped decor suspended from the cafeteria ceiling; and a mosaic tile wall that gives a nod to Indigenous people’s birchbark baskets. Herman said the designs were implemented to “bring the outside in.”

“It’s extremely gratifying to see results,” Dzurik said. “And it really helps the team to get through the tough times — the pandemic, supply chain shortages, everything else — because at the end of the day we’re actually building something that will contribute to the community for decades to come.”

Laura Butterbrodt covers health for the Duluth News Tribune. She has a bachelor of arts in journalism from South Dakota State University and has been working as a reporter in Minnesota and South Dakota since 2014.
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