by CHRIS ROGERS
A wave of local COVID infections is already affecting Winona Health staffing levels, and if the trend continues, it could max out the hospital’s capacity, Winona Health leaders cautioned. Winona Health’s senior medical staff and CEO urged local residents to practice COVID safety to slow the spread and avoid that scenario. Their warnings echo similar statements from Gundersen Health System, Mayo Clinic Health System, and others across Minnesota and Wisconsin that COVID could overwhelm hospitals’ ability to care for patients if everyone doesn’t do their part to slow the virus.
For hospitals, the chief concern now is not a shortage of beds, but a shortage of staff. With so many infections going around the local community, nurses, doctors, therapists, and technicians are getting infected or exposed off work, while going about their daily lives. Whether actually sick or just exposed, that takes them off the job for two weeks or more. Because nearly every community in the Upper Midwest and much of the rest of the country is in a similar position, neighboring hospitals and states can’t come to the rescue.
“It is a serious deal,” Winona Health CEO Rachelle Schultz said in an interview on Monday. “All hospitals are experiencing this — all hospitals in our region, all hospitals in our state. So then as you get more people coming in, where do they go?” She added, “The good news is that most people [who get COVID] don’t need to be in the hospital. So that’s good news … But there are people who do, and we just want to make sure that capacity is available for them.”
Currently, isolation and quarantine is taking 40-45 Winona Health staff members — roughly four percent of the total workforce — off the job on any given day, Schultz reported. When it is administrative or support staff, that’s one thing, but when nurses, technicians, and other clinical staff can’t work, it’s a big deal, she said. “That’s where it becomes really tough and those are some of the areas where we’re hit hardest,” Schultz stated.
Winona Health has been cautious about asking its staff to take extra shifts, concerned for burn out, Schultz stated. As for the temp agencies the hospital would turn to in a normal staffing shortage, she noted, “Those are pretty tapped just because of the demands everywhere else.” At the moment, part-timers and reassigning staff from other departments have helped fill some of the gaps, she explained, praising her staff’s flexibility and hard work. Already, Winona Health has delayed some procedures to relieve the pressure, Schultz added.
The weekly number of new COVID infections in Winona County has quadrupled since late October, and it doesn’t show any sign of slowing down. Across the Upper Midwest, things are similarly bad. Medical leaders for Mayo Clinic and Gundersen Health System wrote earlier this month, “If everyone DOES NOT avoid large gatherings in the community, wear a mask, keep distance from others, wash hands, and stay home when ill, we risk: postponing or cancelling surgeries, procedures, and appointments; running out of beds to care for people who need immediate hospital care; not having enough staff to provide care to patients, COVID and non-COVID; and preventable deaths in our communities.”
“We’re in the same boat. I don’t believe there’s a question,” Schultz said when asked if rising COVID cases could also threaten Winona Health’s capacity to care for patients. “When you look at how rapidly that spreads and how pervasive it is — and, again, a lot of asymptomatic people moving around and not knowing that they’re vectors of this — I think overnight we can be in a position where everything is filled up,” she said. “That’s how quickly this can move.”
Winona Health Chief Medical Officer Dr. Michael Donnenwerth and Chief Nursing Officer Sara Gabrick joined leaders from over 150 hospitals and health systems across Minnesota in sounding the alarm the last week. “Hospitals, health systems and health care providers are watching with growing concern as COVID-19 cases quickly increase in Minnesota, fueled by broad community spread in all parts of the state,” their joint letter reads. “Demand for hospital care is increasing in both medical-surgical and intensive care units, and the percentage of beds occupied by patients with COVID-19 is growing. The high level of community transmission means that our health care heroes – including nurses, doctors, therapists, pharmacists, support services, housekeeping, technicians, advanced practice providers and many more – are contracting COVID-19 as they go about their daily lives in our communities. Reducing and preventing community spread is critical to helping keep our health care heroes healthy and able to care for patients.”
What can Winonans do to help? Follow all the COVID safety guidelines, Schultz answered. “Masking, number one — I know that’s probably the bane of everyone’s existence right now, but it works,” she said. “There have been a number of studies that have demonstrated the advantages.” She cited a Vanderbilt School of Medicine study from Tennessee — where mask mandates have been county-by-county — that found hospitals serving mostly no-mask-mandate counties saw a 200 percent increase in hospitalizations over four months while hospitals mostly serving mask-mandate counties saw only a minor change in hospitalization. Another study published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found masking and limits on businesses and gatherings helped reduced COVID cases by 75 percent in Arizona. “Masking doesn’t make it go away but it helps,” Schultz stated.
Masking, social distancing, and other precautions are crucial even for people who feel fine, health experts stress. Winona Health’s own experiences underscores that. At Winona Health’s nursing homes and assisted living facilities, staff have been tested twice a week for COVID, Schultz explained. A surprisingly large amount of seemingly healthy people tested positive. “It’s almost shocking,” she said of the number of symptom-less infections. “People have been perfectly fine and they’ve been working, and all sudden the tests come back and we have to pull you out,” Schultz stated. “People think, ‘I would know it if I had it,’” but that’s just not the case, she said.