Seventy-two more people have died of COVID-19, Minnesota health officials reported Thursday, setting yet another grim daily record for fatalities in a pandemic that promises to only get worse.
Minnesota is averaging 33 deaths a day and has reached unseen death counts six days this month. November is on track to become the state’s deadliest month of the pandemic, with 625 fatalities in 19 days. That accounts for 20% of the 3,082 deaths so far. The entire month of May saw 696 die from COVID-19 complications.
“It pains me beyond belief to know, with almost certainty, that each day I am going to stand in front of you and tell you that we have another record number of deaths,” Gov. Tim Walz said at a Thursday afternoon news conference.
The number of new confirmed coronavirus cases in the state was the second-highest reported so far, with 7,877 additional infections, bringing the state’s total to 249,906.
The surge in cases and deaths is affecting the state’s hospitals and causing state health officials to question their approach to investigating and tracing the flood of illness that is sweeping across Minnesota.
As was predicted, the expanding pool of people infected with the new coronavirus has disrupted business as usual.
“As an emergency physician right now, this has been one of the hardest times in my life,” said Dr. Carolyn McClain, who is on the board of the Minnesota Medical Association.
She recently had to tell a patient who had shortness of breath that he had tested positive for COVID-19.
“When you do that to someone in their nineties, they know what that means,” she said, adding that the patient told her, “ ‘I don’t think I’ve been this scared since I fought in Korea.’ ”
Days later, he died.
“I am watching people die, and that is hard, and it has been going on for a long time,” she said.
McClain was among three health care professionals who spoke at Thursday’s news conference, asking state residents to follow pandemic safety guidelines, especially as hospitals scramble to cope with new patients.
“Don’t call health care workers heroes if you can’t put a piece of cloth or paper over your face to protect them,” said Dr. Cindy Firkins Smith, co-CEO of Carris Health, which serves west central and southwestern Minnesota.
Carris and its parent company, CentraCare, have 1,200 workers out due to either COVID-19 infection, quarantining because of a high-risk COVID-19 exposure or caring for a sick family member.
“Because the virus is so widespread in our communities, they are catching it just like anyone else,” said Smith.
Forty-two percent of the patients at the Carris Health Rice Memorial Hospital in Willmar are there because of COVID-19. The test positivity rate in the city is 30%.
For 10 of the first 11 days of November, the hospital diverted patients to other hospitals because there was no bed space.
“This is an historically unprecedented number,” said Smith.
Carris officials are shifting patients among hospitals to free up those beds that are needed for the most critical patients while still giving care to those who don’t have COVID-19.
“It’s musical hospital beds,” she said.
In one week, the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations statewide has shot up 25% to a record 1,751. Of those, 367 need intensive care to stay alive. About 80% of the state’s ICU beds are occupied, according to the state’s pandemic response dashboard.
With diversions, the system is handling most of the demand, but that might not last if COVID-19 cases continue to increase.
“We are perilously close to not even be able to collectively … take care of everybody that we need to take care of in this state,” said Dr. Penny Wheeler, chief executive of Allina Health, where 24% of its patients have COVID-19.
“We have over 800 [workers] out at Allina,” she said. “There’s no surge of other providers available.”
CentraCare, announced Thursday that each of its hospitals would serve a dedicated function to take pressure off its flagship hospital in St. Cloud.
“At St. Cloud Hospital, approximately 30 percent of our patients are positive with COVID-19. The additional resources needed to care for these patients is stretching this location,” said Dr. George Morris, CentraCare incident command physician.
While the St. Cloud location will continue to care for COVID-19 patients with the greatest needs, the Sauk Centre hospital will primarily care for COVID-positive patients who do not require ventilators or high-volume oxygen.
CentraCare’s Melrose and Long Prairie hospitals will shift to non-COVID care, while its Monticello hospital will expand COVID-19 capacity.
Bloomington-based HealthPartners said Thursday that 92% of its ICU beds were occupied, while 87% of its general medical/surgical beds were full. Patients with COVID-19 were using about 30.5% of all occupied beds, according to a HealthPartners spokesman, and about 48% of all ICU beds.
HealthPartners, which operates Regions Hospital in St. Paul and eight other hospitals, also imposed a no-visitor policy as other hospitals have done.
Most people who need hospital-level care have underlying health conditions, including hypertension, diabetes, obesity or congestive heart failure.
Many people who become infected with COVID-19 have mild symptoms or don’t experience any symptoms, but they still can be infectious to others. About 198,400 of those who were sickened are considered to be past the infectious stage and no longer need to be isolated.
Cases are growing so fast in some counties that investigations into new COVID-19 infections have been suspended.
“As we continue to witness record-setting increases, Olmsted County Public Health Services does not have the capacity to continue conducting case investigations and contact tracing for every individual who tests positive for COVID-19,” the southeastern Minnesota county said in a statement earlier this week.
Itasca County, in northern Minnesota, made a similar announcement last week.
“If you are in a group setting, just assume that someone has COVID,” said Kelly Chandler, department manager for Itasca County Public Health, which is focusing its efforts on protecting high-risk settings such as schools, child care facilities and long-term care.
Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said that her department is evaluating how it will handle contact tracing in order to put “resources into where they have the biggest impact.”
“The time when contact tracing works the best is when you are really able to focus on hot spots,” she said. “It is really hard to even find hot spots in the middle of a raging forest fire.”
Staff writer Christopher Snowbeck contributed to this report.