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Hospitals Continue To Grapple With Surge In Patients And Worry About Omicron

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Health care workers continue to treat an influx of patients in Minnesota hospitals that's overwhelming the health care system, with more than 1,400 having COVID and thousands more seeking other care.

"There have been no breaks with how busy it's been," said emergency medicine Dr. Andrea Rowland-Fisher, who works at Hennepin County Medical Center.

State data show there are just 21 ICU beds available statewide; 55 hospitals have not a single ICU bed available.

The capacity crisis is impacting doctors' and nurses' ability to care for people who need it, doctors say. On Thanksgiving, U.S. Department of Defense medical teams began working in Minnesota to provide some relief.

By Christmas Eve, they are still working in Hennepin County Medical Center.

The situation can be especially dire for people in rural areas, Rowland-Fisher said, who need to be sent to trauma centers in the Twin Cities.

"They will likely go to their hospital and maybe stay in the emergency department without a place to go for days," she said. "Because we're so busy and hospitals in the Twin Cities are overwhelmed and unable to take new patients because we're bursting at our seams already."

Now with vaccines and boosters widely available, health care workers are pleading for people to get their shots and mask up to try to ease some of the burden.

Vaccination provides strong protection against serious illness and death.

"It is painful," said Dr. Steve Biko Onyambu, who works in the ICU at Abbott Northwestern hospital. "We obviously help everyone – vaccinated or not – but it's really painful to know this maybe could've been avoided."

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Experts urge taking precautions if gathering tonight or on Christmas, especially as Omicron is fueling a surge of new infections. The new variant is highly transmissible and public health experts are still learning about its severity, though some studies indicate patients face a lower risk of hospitalization. 

Even if cases are mild, the sheer number of infections can put a strain on the health care system, said Dr. Andrew Olson, director of COVID hospital medicine at M Health Fairview.

"We can couple that potential decreased risk of hospitalization with a really increased risk of infectivity. And so a small proportion of a very large number on is still a large number," he said. "So I think it's too early to know."

Hospitals worry about what the next few weeks will bring, especially since the health care system is already at the brink. Olson pointed out that it's the Delta variant that's contributing to the current surge in hospitals.

Onyambu said Abbott Northwestern is "constantly at capacity" and with a shortage of nurses, the hospital has to come up with ways to maximize care with limited resources.

At Hennepin County Medical Center, winter is usually slower than other parts of the year, Rowland-Fisher noted, but now it's experiencing "unprecedented" patient volumes.

"The system is already overwhelmed and if we get a huge wave of COVID, unfortunately there's going to be a point where we don't have room to take care of everyone and none of us want to get to that point," she said.

If you're trying to get tested ahead of holiday gathers, state community testing sites are closed beginning Christmas Eve through the weekend. Check a list of providers here.

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