DULUTH — While emergency rooms and ICUs in Minnesota continue to feel the strain of the COVID-19 pandemic — particularly the effects from the most recent surge said to be brought on by the Delta variant — it’s not all bad news on the medical frontlines.

That was one of a number of messages put forward by a handful of officials from Essentia Health and St. Luke’s during a virtual news conference Tuesday morning meant to provide the public with a COVID-19 update.

“The care in our hospitals has advanced and people are doing better because of it. I feel like we are in a better place than we were a year ago so that’s a lot to be thankful for,” Dr. Nicholas Van Deelen, Co-President and CEO, along with Chief Medical Officer at St. Luke’s, said during the half hour conference call.

Van Deelen said the various treatments available now compared to last year have been very successful.

“If you look at our COVID hospitalizations or certainly deaths related to COVID and ICU hospitalizations in this surge compared to our highest surge last fall, it’s a totally different environment. We are definitely seeing a surge, we are all feeling that in our hospitals, but it really is a credit to the advances that have been made in treatment and the availability,” he said. “Remember, early on we were limited in who could get the vaccine and we really didn’t have any options for treatment. And we really have good options now. Our monoclonal antibody clinic has been really busy and that’s great because people are getting treated early in their illness which keeps them from progressing.”

Tuesday’s most repeated message from medical officials was simple and to the point: Vaccines and masks make a difference.

“The number one tool is the vaccine. It’s available. It’s safe. It’s effective,” Van Deelen said.

While nationwide numbers indicate a downslide of the current surge, the same can’t be said for Minnesota, which according to Dr. Jonathon Shultz, an emergency medicine specialist with St. Luke’s in Duluth, is currently one of the top-five states seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases.

“Why that is, is a great question. I don’t think we fully know the answer to that. In part, it’s just the nature of the way a virus will make its way through the community. As we’ve already seen through this pandemic these different variants will kind of burn through the community in waves and we’re currently kind of in the midst of our wave and in other parts of the country, they kind of hit that peak of that wave a little bit earlier,” Shultz said.

Statewide there are about 961 patients in ICUs with COVID-19, which is just over 30 percent of all ICU patients, Shultz said.

Dr. Anne Stephen, pediatrician and chief medical officer at Essentia Health East, said there are currently 129 patients hospitalized with COVID throughout the Essentia system with 59 hospitalized at St. Mary’s Hospital in Duluth.

“This is the highest (number) of COVID patients we’ve had at St. Mary’s since last winter,” Stephen said, adding that it is putting a strain on the system.

“While much of the country experiences a decrease in COVID transmission following the latest peak, there’s more uncertainty here in St. Louis County,” Stephen said. “We are regularly adding more than 100, sometimes close to 200, new cases every day and we haven’t witnessed numbers that high since last December.”

Her advice echoed the others: “Getting vaccinated is the surest and safest defense against COVID,” Stephen said. “If you don’t want to do it for yourself, do it to protect a vulnerable friend, who has a compromised immune system, a child that’s not eligible for vaccination.”

Stephen said across the Essentia system, approximately 25 people are in an ICU situation and of those cases, five were vaccinated individuals. There are 19 COVID patients on ventilators, and of those, four were vaccinated.

Some of the ICU patients are not in the hospital because they have COVID, Stephen added, they have been hospitalized for something else and just happen to have tested COVID positive.

She said that the number of people seeking care for various issues, combined with COVID, is leading to “unsustainable hospital volume.”

One of the consequences of the pandemic, she added, is that many people have delayed care for chronic conditions like hypertension and diabetes, and as a result they now need a higher level of care and more resources.

Van Deelen echoed that sentiment, saying that there are a number of factors contributing to inpatient volumes including the fact that patients who delayed care during the pandemic are coming in sicker than they would have been had they sought care when they first had symptoms.

“Don’t delay,” care, Van Deelen said.

Also, skilled nursing facilities as well as local clinics and hospitals are facing staffing issues.

“We’ve also been facing some staffing challenges… and we know that our partners throughout the region are also experiencing this,” Van Deelen said. “Some may wonder if our COVID vaccine policy contributed to that. The fact is, it really didn’t. We had less than one percent of our employees leave because of our vaccine policy.”

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