As respiratory viruses rise, health care systems ask Minnesotans to ease strain on providers

Health care providers in Minnesota are asking patients to help ease the strain as rising cases of flu and RSV cause delays at some facilities in the state.

At a news conference Monday at Hennepin Healthcare in Minneapolis, providers from across the state — including Allina Health, CentraCare, M Health Fairview, HealthPartners and Children’s Minnesota — talked about how the rapid influx of patients has put some providers at or above capacity.

“Our pediatric intensive care units at Children’s [Minnesota] have been working at capacity — actually over capacity — for the past few weeks,” said Dr. Robert Sicoli, Children’s Minnesota’s system medical director of emergency services.

“There have been days where we’ve had 30 to 40 kids waiting in our emergency rooms waiting for an inpatient bed. This is unprecedented. This supports the care of all the other children.”

The state’s latest flu report shows that flu hospitalizations, which represent some of the worst cases of the disease, continue to rise. In the week ending Nov. 12, there were 243 hospitalizations for the flu, more than double the previous week, with the majority among people aged 5 to 24 and those over 65.

“This is earlier than we usually see this spike,” Melissa McMahon, a senior state health epidemiologist who specializes in influenza surveillance, told MPR News. “The level of increase is not necessarily something we haven’t seen before. But that’s a solid month earlier than we typically see, at least according to pre-pandemic models.”

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McMahon said it’s unclear if the flu will peak early because the season peaks earlier. In a typical year, she said, it tends to pick up after the holidays. But since COVID, the season has become more difficult to predict.

“In our emergency rooms, in our outpatient clinics, we’re seeing numbers that are equivalent to the middle of winter, bad midwinter,” Sicoli said. “So there are days in both of our emergency departments we see over 200 patients a day on both campuses. Which is a lot.”

At the same time, ongoing staffing problems, as well as shortages of beds and essential drugs such as amoxicillin, add to the challenges. To reduce the strain on health care facilities, providers recommend the use of telehealth and care for minor illnesses at home if possible.

Providers say part of the challenge is that some parents have never seen their child this sick before — potentially in part because of COVID mitigation efforts — and are taking their children to facilities when they don’t need to.

“It’s out of fear, you know, a lot of people haven’t seen these diseases in their children. And it’s not that the kids don’t look sick – they do. It’s the extent of the disease and the symptoms you’re bringing them in for,” said Dr. Andrea Singh, chair of pediatrics at Park Nicolett.

Singh said signs of more severe illness include a persistent fever that does not go down, signs of dehydration and shortness of breath where the child’s ribs are visible, or causing an inflammation of the nose. In these cases, you will probably want to contact your healthcare provider.

“It’s not that we don’t want to see your kids, but we also want to allow capacity for those kids who really need a higher level of care to get that,” Singh said.

As we enter the holiday season, when more people are gathering together and indoors, providers also recommend taking steps to prevent getting sick in the first place. This includes washing your hands regularly, wearing a mask, staying home if you’re sick, and making sure you’re up to date with your COVID booster shot and flu shot.

Even if you haven’t gotten your flu shot yet, it’s not too late, experts say.

“Your highest level of protection will be about two weeks after the shot, but your body will build up its immunity as soon as you get it,” McMahon said. “So for people who say, ‘oh, it’s too late for me to get it before Thanksgiving,’ it really isn’t. Any level of protection will be beneficial.”

Finally, vendors are asking people to be patient with them during this difficult time.

“Please have mercy on us,” said Dr. Ashley Stroble, an emergency physician at Hennepin Healthcare. “We work very hard and do our best. We are parents just like you. We are Minnesotans just like you and we want to take care of you.

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