‘We’re heartbroken. We’re overwhelmed.’ Hospital leaders urge public to help fight COVID-19

In a full-page advertisement in Minnesota newspapers, healthcare CEOs said their hospitals are filled. More than 40 states are seeing increases in COVID-19 hospitalizations.

The full-page advertisement appearing in Minnesota newspapers didn’t pull any punches in explaining the toll of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The message began with a blunt message: “We’re heartbroken. We’re overwhelmed.”

Minnesota hospitals are packed with COVID-19 patients. The leaders of nine Minnesota healthcare organizations signed a joint advertisement asking residents to do their part to turn the tide by getting vaccinated, wearing masks and engaging in social distancing.

James Hereford, president and CEO of Fairview Health Services, said it was a plea on behalf of the thousands of healthcare workers in Minnesota. He said he hopes it makes a difference in spurring some people to get vaccinated.

“We’re close to the highest level of COVID patients we’ve ever carried in our system,” Hereford said in a phone interview Monday.

The advertisement began appearing in news outlets across Minnesota starting Saturday.

“Our emergency departments are overfilled, and we have patients in every bed in our hospitals,” the ad states. “This pandemic has strained our operations and demoralized many people on our teams.”

“Care in our hospitals is safe but our ability to provide it is threatened,” the ad states.

More than 1,700 COVID-19 patients are being treated in Minnesota hospitals, according to the daily coronavirus tracker from The Washington Post. It’s the highest number of patients since December 2020. At the peak last winter, Minnesota had more than 2,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Minnesota is hardly alone in seeing an overwhelming numbers of coronavirus patients. As of Monday, 42 states have seen a rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations over the past 14 days, according to The New York Times.

The Minnesota ad challenged readers with a sober warning.

"Now, an ominous question looms: Will you be able to get care from your local community hospital without delay? Today, that's uncertain."

‘It’s more challenging’

The number of COVID-19 hospitalizations at Fairview hasn’t quite hit the peak of last winter, but that hasn’t made the situation any easier. Compared to last winter, “it’s more challenging,” Hereford said.

“Our overall volume is higher,” Hereford said. “We’re also seeing labor shortages in skilled and unskilled positions.”

While Fairview is seeing staff shortages in many departments, the shortage of nurses is the most challenging, Hereford said.

Hereford applauded the dedication of Fairview’s staff. But as the advertisement noted, healthcare workers are feeling the strain.

“They’re incredible professionals,” Hereford said. “It’s not just a job. It really is a cause. They came into healthcare to help people.

“It’s frustrating for many of them,” he said. “In many ways, this is a preventable disease.”

In Minnesota, 64% of the state’s adults are fully vaccinated, which is a bit above the national average (61%), according to The New York Times. But as in most states, vaccination rates across Minnesota vary significantly from county to county.

Fairview’s hospitals are treating more people with non-COVID illnesses. Like other healthcare systems, Fairview is seeing patients who delayed care during the pandemic and now can’t wait any longer.

“You can’t delay necessary care if you have a chronic disease without health consequences,” he said.

At times, Fairview’s emergency departments have gone on diversion status and temporarily advised that they can’t take more patients. But he said Fairview only puts out the diversion advisory for very brief periods of time.

“There’s nobody else in the region who has capacity,” Hereford said. “We’re all facing the same challenges.”

Military teams deployed

Some states in the Midwest and Northeast are seeing the worst of this new wave of COVID-19 patients. Michigan hit a pandemic high for hospitalizations in the past week and has the highest per capita rate for hospitalizations in the country. Ohio and Indiana are just behind Michigan in hospitalizations per 100,000 people.

Last week, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration ordered hospitals with capacity issues to delay non-urgent surgeries. Massachusetts also ordered hospitals to hold off on elective surgeries in late November. Pennsylvania is treating the largest number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals since January.

U.S. Army medical teams are assisting healthcare organizations in Michigan, Colorado and New Mexico.

While hospitals in many parts of the country are seeing another wave of coronavirus patients, healthcare systems are also seeing more patients with the flu or respiratory viruses. Some hospitals are admitting more patients who delayed care for other conditions due to the pandemic but now require treatment.

National Guard medical teams have provided assistance in Michigan, New York, Indiana and Maine over the past week, the Associated Press reported.

Nationwide, the 7-day average of COVID-19 hospitalizations has topped 54,000, up from around 40,000 in early November, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It remains well below the peak of about 124,000 in January 2021.