Beds, Staff at Duluth Hospitals Stretched Thin Under St. Louis County’s COVID Surge

COVID patients take up 59 of the hospital beds at Essentia St. Mary's Medical Center -- the highest they've seen since last winter. At St. Luke's, 25% of the ICU beds are filled with COVID patients.

DULUTH, Minn.- St. Louis County continues to see an uptick of COVID-19 cases, while the country overall is seeing a dip. The surge is continuing to fatigue health systems according to experts, as they urge more to get vaccinated and mask up.

“Now, while much of the country experiences a decrease in COVID transmission following the latest peak, there’s some uncertainty in St. Louis County,” said Dr. Anne Stephen, Chief Medical Officer of Essentia Health’s East Market.

According to the Mayo Clinic, St. Louis County is seeing an average of 131 reported COVID cases a day out of its 200-thousand residents that make up the population.

74% of people in the county 16 and older have gotten at least one dose of the shot.

According to St. Luke’s Emergency Medicine Physician Dr. Jonathan Shultz, it’s hard to tell exactly why COVID cases are rising in the county but dropping nationwide recently.

“As we’ve already seen in this pandemic these different variants will kind of burn through areas in waves,” he said. “When you have fairly high vaccination rates and then a virus that’s affecting the unvaccinated at some point you receive a level of herd immunity where people have either been vaccinated or they’ve been infected and therefore the virus has a more difficult time spreading.”

“In the Northland and in the entire state, we just have not hit that point yet,” Dr. Shultz said.

COVID patients take up 59 of the hospital beds at Essentia St. Mary’s Medical Center — the highest they’ve seen since last winter.

At St. Luke’s, 25% of the ICU beds are filled with COVID patients.

And doctors there said the number of beds statewide is wearing thin. “We have received patients from south of the Cities, West Central Minnesota, and have had to send patients to these areas also due to ICU bed shortages,” said Dr. Christina Bastin De Jong, critical care physician.

It’s why they’re stressing people not to delay any medical care, so they’re not sicker and needing hospitalization later.

“Both hospitals in town are set up and capable of continuing to handle emergent cases so please don’t delay care, cause that almost always leads to bigger problems further down the line,” Dr. Shultz said.

This, coupled with staff shortages, have forced some hospitals to make adjustments.

Just last week St. Luke’s Hospital postponed some elective surgeries which required an overnight stay.

“We are happy to report that we have not had to cancel any additional surgeries and we were able to do all surgeries where patients can be discharged home that same day,” said St. Luke’s Co-President and CEO Dr. Nick Van Deelen.

“We hope that we don’t need to do this anymore, but again, we’re managing this really on a day-to-day basis,” he said.

Meanwhile, pediatricians say it concerns them how many kids are being hospitalized with the virus.

“In addition to daily calls statewide about hospital bed availability for adults, we’ve now set up, unfortunately, had to set up, a statewide bed availability call for children,” said Dr. Stephen.

Physicians say a majority of their hospitalized and intensive care patients are not vaccinated.

Treatments such as monoclonal antibodies laboratory-made proteins that mimic the immune system’s ability to fight off the virus have been effective at keeping patients out of the hospital, but only in a short window. “Once you get 8 to 10 days out from your symptoms, those meds are no longer helpful nor are they indicated,” said Dr. Shultz.

At the end of the day, they said those treatments don’t hold a candle to the vaccine.

“None of them are as proven as the vaccination,” Dr. De Jong said. “It’s very hard when someone comes in and says ‘I wish I was vaccinated, I’ll take whatever you have.’ At that point it’s a little bit too late for them.”

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