Hospitals prepared for COVID-19 surge

Health officials urge public to follow precautions and to celebrate safely

By Anna Jauhola
Hospitals in the northwest corner of Minnesota are working together and are prepared to handle COVID-19 patients, according to officials. Kittson Healthcare in Hallock is a member of the Northwest Regional Emergency Preparedness Group, which comprises all hospitals in the northwest corner, plus Altru in Grand Forks, and Essentia and Sanford in Fargo.
In recent weeks, a rumor has circulated that hospitals on the North Dakota side of the river would not be taking Minnesota COVID-19 patients because the facilities were at capacity.
“That is not factual,” said Tawnya Sorenson, director of nursing at Kittson Healthcare. “There’s times that Altru and Sanford and Essentia have not been able to take patients because they don’t have the capacity to take them, not because they’re from Minnesota.”
She said every regional group call includes officials from Altru, Essentia and Sanford in North Dakota. Dr. Josh Deere, medical director at Altru Health System in Grand Forks and a Kennedy native, echoed Sorenson.
“Altru, as a health system, we aren’t determining which patients to accept during COVID or other conditions based on their state of residency. So that’s just false,” Deere said of the rumor. “Altru is a health system that’s here for our entire community and that includes the communities in Kittson County.”
With that rumor quelled, health officials hope to help the public focus on preventive measures, which have been in place since April.
Wear masks. Wash your hands. Stay home if you are or feel sick. Socially distance from others. And, especially as the holidays approach, seriously consider altered celebrations.
Gov. Tim Walz signed an executive order last week reinforcing these measures and imploring the public to find alternate ways to celebrate Thanksgiving, but also implementing restrictions on business hours. Bars and restaurants must remain at half capacity to promote 6-foot social distances and must close by 10 p.m. See page 2 for the full details.
These criteria can help reduce the spread of COVID-19, which has risen in Minnesota over recent weeks to alarming heights. Hospitals in both Minnesota and North Dakota have been and are prepared for hospitalizations.
Sorenson said Kittson Healthcare, which is licensed for 15 beds, has two designated single rooms for COVID-19 positive patients, should they need them. However, being a critical access hospital, any seriously ill patients with COVID-19 will be transferred to a larger facility, she said.
“It would depend on the acuity of care needed. We do not have a ventilator. It would have to be a fairly stable COVID positive patient we would keep internally,” Sorenson said. “The providers make that determination after assessment, whether it’s someone that could be managed here or not.”
After the regional group call last week, Sorenson said all critical access hospitals are prepared to offload patients from the larger hospitals – Sanford Bemidji, Altru Grand Forks, Sanford Fargo and Essentia in Fargo. This means the less critical patients, COVID or otherwise, may be moved to critical access hospitals should more room be required for patients needing critical-level care.
Should Kittson Healthcare hospitalize a COVID-19 positive patient, Sorenson said she will designate one person on staff to handle that patient. That staff person would wear all proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and only work with that patient throughout their shift, which creates less contact in the facility.
Hospitals in the region have COVID-19 plans in place. Altru is the closest major hospital to Kittson County and Deere commented on the facility’s readiness for the situation. In Altru’s current plan, the hospital has up to 50 beds designated for COVID-19 positive patients. However, that number can flex to more if needed. They have all the major equipment needed, including ventilators.
Altru has been already hospitalizing COVID-19 positive patients with daily patient counts ticking up between 35 and 45.
“The majority of patients don’t require hospitalization,” Deere said of COVID-19 patients. “If they did we’d be having a whole other discussion. Someone who can’t support oxygenation on their own, those are the patients we end up admitting. Mostly the criteria is oxygen demand, if the saturations are lower than expected.”
Altru has already been administering other therapies to patients who qualify, Deere said, including the antiviral medication Remdesivir, steroids and convalescent plasma. Altru could also soon offer an antibody like Regeneron, which is a drug that targets one thing in the virus that makes it less effective.
“Our patients are receiving treatment here just like they’d receive at any other healthcare facility across the United States,” Deere said.
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So far, Altru has not been offloading patients to smaller hospitals, nor has Kittson Healthcare been taking on patients. Neither have the hospitals’ emergency rooms been overwhelmed by COVID-19 positive patients. However, both are prepared for the day that may happen.
Most people who visit the ERs or clinics present with new shortness of breath, Deere said. They have trouble saying a full sentence or doing everyday tasks without having to sit down.
“It’s a disease that has to be taken very seriously,” Sorenson said. “It’s in our hands if we control it. It doesn’t just come flying in and attack us. It’s transmitting from person to person.”
Which is entirely why health officials are urging the public, in their daily lives and during the upcoming holidays, to take precautions.
“We are social creatures, but until we get a good handle on (COVID-19) and there’s a vaccine available, it’s a time that truly if you love your loved ones, it might be a time to have different plans for celebrating your holidays,” Sorenson said.
Both Sorenson and Deere emphasize the importance of frequent handwashing, social distancing, mask wearing and simply staying home if you are ill. Community spread is truly the biggest problem.
“Try to maintain a small social circle,” Deere said. “Understanding we all need some sort of social interaction, being creative with interactions is good. Being aware of wearing a mask. Social distance. All the stuff that we’ve talked about and heard on TV since April. I think it all still fits today.”

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