St. Luke’s and Essentia Health are facing extremely high volumes of patients needing hospitalization, which is causing backups and a strain on resources, health care experts said in a Tuesday morning news conference.

Anne Stephen, chief medical officer of Essentia Health’s East Market, described the situation as "critical." She said Essentia has 129 COVID-19 patients, 59 of which are at St. Mary’s Medical Center. COVID-19 patients make up about 25% of Essentia’s hospital patients. Jonathan Shultz, an emergency medicine physician at St. Luke’s, said about 30% of the state’s intensive care unit beds are taken by COVID-19 patients.

“This crisis that we’re in right now — and it truly is a crisis — is really particularly unfortunate given that it is an avoidable crisis,” Shultz said. “Much of what we’re seeing right now could've been avoided with higher vaccination rates when those vaccines first became available.”

The physicians at the news conference said patients infected with the delta variant of the coronavirus are bringing in-patient bed demand to a tipping point, because COVID-19 patients are filling beds already in high demand by other patients in need of emergency medical care. Many patients have delayed routine care throughout the pandemic, leading them to now need emergency treatment for more serious conditions.

In addition to a large volume of patients needing hospitalization, there are also staff shortages across health systems. Nick Van Deelen, St. Luke’s co-president/chief executive officer and chief medical officer, said while some people believe mandating the COVID-19 vaccine may have contributed to that shortage, that is not the case. St. Luke's had fewer than 1% of its employees resign in response to the mandate. He said retirement has been a larger contributor to staff leaving.

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Essentia and St. Luke’s hospitals, which take in patients from smaller hospitals in the region for critical care, have struggled to admit patients while keeping up with the influx. Shultz said across Minnesota, hospitals have been boarding patients, which means they must keep patients in the emergency department for longer than would usually be necessary because of the lack of in-patient beds. Christina Bastin de Jong, a critical care physician at Essentia, said they work to get the most critically ill patients to Duluth as soon as possible.

In a handful of instances, Northland patients have been diverted out of the region to other hospitals with more space.

“When patients have to be transported well beyond our region for care, that’s scary, especially when time is critical,” Stephen said.

Van Deelen said a low, single-digit percentage of St. Luke’s patients have been diverted out of the region for care. Bastin de Jong said the number of diverted Essentia patients was similar. Neither had specific data available.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, the Northeastern Minnesota region had five ICU beds available Tuesday, which is less than 5% of the total capacity. There were 56 non-ICU beds available, about 8% of the region’s total capacity.

Bastin de Jong said a large majority of hospitalized COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated, which includes children younger than age 12, who are not yet eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. Many coronavirus patients at local hospitals are much younger than those hospitalized in previous surges, and were relatively healthy before their infection.

“So many of our beds are filled with patients who are eligible for vaccination but have not received one,” Bastin de Jong said. “One of the most common things we hear from these patients is, ‘I wish I would’ve gotten the vaccine.’”

Van Deelen said while this surge is causing critical conditions, health systems are better equipped to treat the virus because more is known about COVID-19 compared to last year. Early treatment of coronavirus infection with monoclonal antibodies has been shown to be effective. However, Stephen and Bastin de Jong said the most effective way to prevent COVID-19 and any need for hospitalization is to get vaccinated.

Shultz said people experiencing medical emergencies should still seek necessary treatment at a hospital. However, any conditions that could be treated by a primary care physician or at an urgent care clinic should seek those avenues. COVID-19 testing is not an emergency situation, he said, and people seeking testing should visit the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, pharmacies or other testing sites — not emergency rooms.