Surge of COVID Patients, Lack of ICU Beds Impacting Smaller Rural Hospitals

Lake View Hospital in Two Harbors and Community Memorial in Cloquet are stressing vaccinations, and patience with their overwhelmed employees.

TWO HARBORS/ CLOQUET, Minn.- Hospitals in small rural towns are echoing more intensely the issues overwhelming larger city facilities — more COVID patients filling beds, and fatigue at battling a pandemic for close to 20 months — causing them to transfer patients far away when they pride themselves at providing local care.

“The emotional strain that it puts on a facility to have to tell a family yeah, you’ve exceeded our capability here,” said Dr. C.W. Hall, Family Medical Physician at Community Memorial Hospital.

Community Memorial Hospital in Cloquet is hitting maximum capacity of 15 patients almost daily according to Dr. Hall.

Four of those are in the ICU, but there is not always enough staff or equipment for each bed.

“We have some ventilators but they’re not of the same capabilities that the ventilators are down in those larger facilities,” he said. “Basically they’re only useful for managing a patient in a very short term.”

So patients need to be transferred for higher-level care, sometimes 100 miles away.

But for a small rural community, sending someone far from their family can be even more painful.

“Having sent somebody somewhere where they basically have to go at it alone and sometimes die alone when they come to you as their local hospital is, it’s a heavy burden,” said Dr. Hall.

That of course, if ICU beds are available elsewhere. “The ICU beds are out there we just don’t have the staff across the state to staff them and provide the care patients need,” said Greg Ruberg, President and CEO of Lake View Hospital in Two Harbors

“Before somebody needed surgery, you sent them for surgery. And now we’re told sorry, there are no beds,” Ruberg said.

Lake View Hospital does not have a formal ICU unit, so those patients are being kept in emergency rooms, according to Ruberg.

The higher volume, he said, is exhausting medical equipment and their smaller staff. “One of our biggest challenges here is typically we don’t have a lot of depth in our departments we might have a department of 5,6,7,10 people.”

“We had a couple of patients come into our ER some by ambulance that needed pretty significant and involved care. So we had RNs doing one-on-one care,” he said. “And when you’re trying to serve high volumes week after week that takes its toll on that staff.”

“Staff can only handle that kind of workload and stress and fatigue for so long and then there’s a negative consequence,” said Ruberg.

At Community Memorial, 2 of their 5 COVID patients are unvaccinated, and 2 are overdue for their boosters.

“That’s one of the major frustrations right now is we have an answer out there we have a way out and people are choosing not to take it,” Dr. Hall said.

So both hospitals are stressing vaccinations, and patience with their overwhelmed employees.

“Our staff is working extremely hard people are doing sometimes two jobs, the phone never stops ringing and we strive to provide really good customer service,” said Ruberg.

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