Northland Hospitals Near Capacity as COVID Cases Surge, Vaccination Rate Lags

There were 273 new cases in the County last week, and St. Mary's Hospital saw the number of patients with severe COVID cases double over the past two weeks.

DULUTH, Minn.- Local health leaders say the Delta Variant is beginning to overwhelm their systems just like last year. Now it’s being fueled by the amount of people in the region who refuse to get vaccinated, as healthcare workers begin to burn out — continuing to fight the virus for far longer than they anticipated last year.

“We were moving as though it were a sprint, to begin with, and it really turned out to be a marathon,” said Dr. Harmony Tyner of St. Luke’s. “And as any sprinter will tell you, you can’t run a marathon at that pace.”

There were 273 new cases in the County last week a 52% jump from the week before. So far, 118,000 people in the County have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine.

“That’s 59% of our total population and 69% of the 16+ population,” said Westbrook. “It’s not enough.”

As families prepare to send their students back to school, doctors, nurses, and health officials are urging vaccination and mask-wearing as St. Louis County and the rest of the region continues to see high rates of community spread.

“None of us want to be in this situation,” Amy Westbrook, Public Health Director for the County said. “But here we are, and here we go again.”

While there have been some breakthrough cases of fully vaccinated people getting COVID, Westbrook said it amounts to just 0.5% of new cases and they’re either not symptomatic or less severe.

Fully vaccinated individuals account for .03% of hospitalizations. But they can still spread the Delta Variant, so masking up indoors is still recommended.

“We continue to urge those who are eligible for vaccination to seek out vaccine,” Westbrook said.

At Essentia St. Mary’s Hospital, Emergency Department Dr. Andrea Boehland has seen the number of patients with severe COVID cases double over the past two weeks. And once again the virus hasn’t cared about age.

“My team and I have cared for many people, younger than me, including children, who’ve had serious COVID cases,” Dr. Boehland said. “This is really unsettling to me because one of my coping mechanisms for the past year and a half has been to think, ‘at least the kids are ok.'”

Anyone younger than 18 has to get parental consent to get a shot, regardless of how much they want to.

With disagreements about vaccines sometimes dividing families, Tyner, a Doctor Of Infectious Disease, said being less combative toward those who refuse to get vaccinated can go a long way.

“It becomes an emotional issue it becomes really almost a political, religious issue and I think that’s something we need to kind of take the weight off of,” Dr. Tyner said. “I think the most effective thing to do is to listen to people who decide not to get vaccinated yet. Open your ears and just ask them why.”

Meanwhile, doctors say it’s unvaccinated patients who have been filling most of the beds.

Just like last year, both Essentia and St. Luke’s are getting close to capacity.  And employees say they’re starting to get burnt out.

But that does not mean patients should put off medical care. “Putting off health care does not help us,” said Dr. Boehland. “Because by putting off health care you’re sicker when we do finally see you.”

And for nurses like Emily Meyer at Grand Itasca Clinic Hospital, it’s her passion for seeing and caring for patients that she misses most.

“I’m asking that you all take masking, social distancing, handwashing, as well as getting vaccinated very seriously,” Meyer said. “So we can return to caring for our patients the way it was, with their families surrounding them.”

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