HIBBING — After a surge in regional hospitalizations due to COVID-19, the inpatient volumes at Fairview Range Medical Center “has been steadily decreasing to pre-COVID surge levels, significantly reducing the stress on staffing outpatient and inpatient departments,” Dr. Pete Olsen, emergency physician and vice president of medical affairs at the Hibbing-based hospital, wrote in an email on Thursday.

In response to questions from the Mesabi Tribune, Olsen, who is among the front-line physicians and nurses in the largest medical facility on the Iron Range, noted that the staff was “thankful to see a negative growth rate for COVID cases in Minnesota, meaning that there are fewer cases of COVID occurring.”

“It is likely that the effect of appropriate masking, frequent handwashing and social distancing has been contributing to this decrease,” he wrote. “We also look forward to closely monitoring the effect of the vaccine over the coming months.”

Reduction in cases, hospitalizations statewide

Olsen’s comments came as the Minnesota Health Department this week reported signs of improvement statewide after two months of an increased number of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

Active cases statewide fell this week to about 13,000, a significant drop from the statewide peak of 50,000 in late November, according to Minnesota Public Radio. Hospitalization trends also improved in recent weeks. As of Thursday, 895 people were in the hospital with COVID-19 in Minnesota, with 196 of those patients needing intensive care. The numbers were down by about half from their late November peaks.

State officials, in part, attributed the drop in cases due to Gov. Tim Walz’s extension of his four-week executive order that restricts service at bars and restaurants meant to curb the spread of the virus. Officials announced they were planning for the second wave of COVID-19 vaccinations, as doses are being distributed to emergency workers and older adults across the state and in cities on the Range.

Still, more than 2,800 Minnesotans have died from COVID-19 complications during the months of November and December. That’s more than half of all pandemic deaths in the state, with December the deadliest month by far, MPR reported. State and health officials are now warning that the improvements can shift if Minnesotans don’t stay vigilant and they continue to implore people to wear masks in indoor gathering spaces, socially distance and take other measures to help stem the spread of COVID-19.

Northern Minnesota bed availability

In northeastern Minnesota, 107 people were hospitalized on Thursday, with 16 of those needing intensive care, according to data tracked by the Governor’s COVID response team. The figures were down from the 130 people hospitalized and 50 of those needing intensive care in late November.

Despite the improvements, the number of beds remain limited in the northeastern counties of the state. As of Thursday, only 16 ICU beds (15.7 percent of total) and 101 non-ICU beds (14.7 percent) were available to patients in the area.

Olsen said in his statement that Fairview is now “fully staffed” to handle hospitalized patients. “Many healthcare workers across the state who have recovered from COVID are now safely returning to work following their quarantine period per CDC guidelines,” he added.

To further counteract the limitations, clinics and hospitals in the rural region have maintained the practice of transferring patients to larger facilities across Minnesota, including M Health Fairview. “We continue to transfer patients to our referral centers for specialty care that is not available at Fairview Range, including interventional cardiology as well as patients requiring a higher level of trauma care,” Olsen wrote.

The local physician also noted that the Minnesota Statewide Critical Care Coordination Center has been available to hospitals, emergency departments and transfer centers since it opened in May. The center offers “help facilitating transfers, monitoring ICU bed availability and acuity, providing support for level-loading of critical care patients, identifying need for countermeasures, and connecting sites with critical care advice and support when required,” he wrote. He added, “Our community can feel assured knowing this resource exists for hospitals in Minnesota, including Fairview Range.”

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