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The daily coronavirus update: Health care systems face dire staff shortages as Minnesota sets new death record

“We could have piles of PPE and hundreds of beds and none of that matters if we don’t have people to care for our patients,” a hospital official said.

Photo: CDC/Alissa Eckert

MinnPost provides updates on coronavirus in Minnesota Sunday through Friday. The information is published following a press phone call with members of the Walz administration or after the release of daily COVID-19 figures by the Minnesota Department of Health.

Here are the latest updates from November 19, 2020:

249,906 cases; 3,082 deaths

Seventy-two more Minnesotans have died of COVID-19, the Minnesota Department of Health said Thursday, a single-day record for deaths in the pandemic. There have been 3,082 deaths throughout the pandemic, including 625 so far in November.

Of the people whose deaths were announced Thursday, 27 were in their 90s, 19 were in their 80s, 15 were in their 70s, nine were in their 60s, one was in their 40s and one was in their 30s. Fifty-one of the 72 people whose deaths announced Thursday were residents of long-term care facilities.

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The deaths came across 30 counties. Over the last week, 175 people in Greater Minnesota were killed by COVID-19 and 114 people in the seven-county Twin Cities metro area died of the disease. The week prior, 134 people died in Greater Minnesota and 104 died in the metro.

MDH also said Thursday there have been 249,906 total cases of COVID-19 in Minnesota. That number is up 7,863 from the total announced on Wednesday and is based on 56,820 new tests. You can find the seven-day positive case average here.

The most recent data available show 367 Minnesotans are hospitalized in intensive care with COVID-19, and 1,384 are in the hospital with COVID-19 not in intensive care. You can find more information about Minnesota’s current ICU usage and capacity here.

More information on cases can be found here.

Health leaders say the hospitals systems risk overload

In an emotional press conference at the Capitol on Thursday, medical officials said their hospital systems were dealing with severe staffing shortages and were at risk of being overwhelmed.

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Dr. Penny Wheeler, president and CEO of Allina Health, said her organization has more than 800 people out because they are sick or have been exposed to the virus. Dr. Cindy Firkins Smith, president and Co-CEO at Carris Health in Willmar, said the CentraCare system they are part of recently had more than 10 percent of its 12,000 person staff out sick with coronavirus, quarantining or helping loved ones who are sick. With the virus raging across the country, Smith said they can’t call for backup staff from hospitals in other areas.

As a result, the system has taken measures to adapt its hospitals to respond, but hospitals are struggling to handle the number of patients needing help. Smith said they have been forced to limit surgeries at some hospitals and refuse patients. At her hospital, Smith said they have not been able to accept new patients 10 times in 11 days, which she called “historically unprecedented.” Those patients must be sent elsewhere and face a risky or even deadly delay in care.

Smith said staff are generally not getting sick in the hospital, but rather out in public where they’re catching the virus “just like everyone else.” Space to treat patients is not the issue, she said. “We could have piles of PPE and hundreds of beds and none of that matters if we don’t have people to care for our patients,” she said.

Smith and Wheeler urged people to wear masks and follow health guidance on physical distancing. They said people should not gather for Thanksgiving. “Don’t call health workers heroes if you can’t put a piece of cloth or paper over your face to protect them,” Smith said.

Said Wheeler: “If I could get down on my knees and you could still see me above the podium I would do so. We need your help, terribly.”

Walz says he probably should have put regulations in place earlier

Gov. Tim Walz said, in retrospect, he “perhaps” should have implemented tougher limits on things like bars, restaurants and social gatherings earlier. The DFL governor put some new restrictions on those businesses and activities last week, but took a far tougher line on them in his latest executive order Wednesday.

Walz said he was struggling to get “buy in” from Minnesotans and political opponents and said he was also holding out because the federal government has not passed a new stimulus package. After lockdowns began in March, Congress passed a massive $2.2 trillion CARES Act that boosted unemployment payments, sent cash to most Americans and offered money to businesses, plus state and local governments.

With Minnesota’s share of that stimulus package nearly gone, Walz said lockdowns can cause huge economic damage. The governor’s restrictions on public life have been fairly weak compared to measures taken in some cities and states with milder outbreaks.

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The feds still haven’t agreed on a relief package, but Walz said the growth in cases and deaths prompted him to move anyway.

Wheeler, of Allina Health, also said the restrictions came too late given “exponential spread” was underway. “But the next best time to start is now,” she said. “We can make a difference starting now.”

Walz urged people to view measures requiring distancing and masks as apolitical public health rules from medical officials and asked people to not try to evade rules in his executive order to prove a point about “granular” flaws or inconsistencies. The governor’s four-week limits on gatherings and in-house service at bars and restaurants begins 11:59 p.m Friday.

“I get people (asking), ‘Well what happens if I’m doing this at 11:58 tomorrow night, what are you going to do?’” Walz said. “Probably not a damn thing, because I don’t want to be out there having to do that. If it’s not the right thing to do for health care workers, don’t do it.”

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MDH’s coronavirus website:

MDH’s phone line for COVID-19 questions, Mon.-Fri. 9 a.m. to 4 p.m: 651-297-1304