Family Medical Center

The new entrance to the Family Medical Center attached to CHI St. Gabriel’s Hospital in Little Falls.

CHI St. Gabriel’s Hospital in Little Falls is feeling the stress of surging cases of COVID-19 in Central Minnesota.

Like hospitals throughout the state, the increased rate of cases is felt in all areas, from the number of beds to how many staff members are available to work.

“It’s starting to impact our staff — our nursing staff and our frontline staff — as we’re starting to see more patients coming into the hospital,” said Steve Smith, CHI St. Gabriel’s president and CFO.

“Right now, about half of our inpatient cases are people who are COVID positive. That puts stress on everything that we’re trying to do,” he said.

Smith said from April until August, CHI St. Gabriel’s saw only 54 patients who were COVID positive. That number climbed to 89 in September and to 300 in October. So far in November (Nov. 19), the hospital has seen 374 COVID patients. The hospital is seeing a positivity rate of 35%.

Smith said CHI St. Gabriel’s — a 25-bed, critical access hospital — has recently had a rate of about 15 – 20 people needing inpatient care per day, with about 10 of those being admitted because of COVID-19.

“We need the community to understand the seriousness of this,” Smith said.

CHI St. Gabriel’s Emergency Management Director Chuck Hartsfield, said the hospital has the physical space to expand services. It also has triple the ventilators on hand that it did prior to the pandemic, but the biggest concern is with staffing.

“We can expand our ER space to handle an increased number of patients, but where we can’t increase is the number of staff when some of them are COVID positive or have family members who are COVID positive,” he said.

Staff members are cross-trained so that they’re able to help in the intensive care unit even if they normally work in the emergency room, for example. That has allowed the hospital to keep pace with the increase of COVID patients, but it also means less staff available for other areas of the hospital.

“It’s a daily task to get everything scheduled and make sure we have enough staff in the areas we need them,” Hartsfield said. “We meet daily to do that. Our biggest priority is to make sure we keep both our staff and our patients safe.”

As a way to mitigate staffing issues, the hospital has put a hold on non-emergency — commonly referred to as “elective” — procedures. Rescheduling those helps keep the emergency room open for emergency surgeries such as those stemming from car accidents, heart attacks or having room available for childbirth.

In the CHI St. Gabriel’s clinics, well visits and physicals are being put on hold so patients presenting symptoms of COVID-19 can get immediate care.

“The problem with that is, what was elective might be an emergency a week from now,” Smith said.

“We’re taking a ‘wait and see’ approach on if we need do more rescheduling of those types of procedures going forward. We want to make sure we’re evaluating what we can do all the time, because we know that has a big impact on our patients.”

As the cases continue to surge and the hospital’s limits continue to be stressed, so does that of surrounding hospitals. Both Smith and Hartsfield said the 50% COVID rate for inpatient beds is on par with other facilities both in Central Minnesota and throughout the state.

Systems are in place across the state network of hospitals for patient transfers if one patient reaches its critical capacity. CHI St. Gabriel’s has been able to send patients out for care at other facilities as well as take in patients from elsewhere during the pandemic. But as the number of cases continues to increase statewide, each hospital deals with issues in how many patients it can safely accept from other facilities.

As these problems continue to present themselves, Smith and Hartsfield said there are ways the community can help health care providers fight back against COVID-19’s impact. Primarily, it can do so by taking the steps necessary to minimize community spread both to potential patients and health care providers.

The key steps are those medical professionals have been touting since the beginning of the pandemic: wear a mask, social distance, wash your hands and avoid large gatherings.

“There are a lot of people who are feeling fatigue in this; and I get it,” Smith said. “People have been hearing all of this for nine months now. But we need to be able to help each other out. We need to help our health care workers, our educators and our business owners. That is what we can do as a community.”

Hartsfield added that he knows there are some who are skeptical about the efficacy of masks, but he is proof that they work.

“I’ve been exposed to over 100 COVID positive patients and, so far, knock on wood, I have been OK,” he said. “Every time I’ve been wearing a mask. I believe wearing a mask makes a difference.”

Smith and Hartsfield said it takes everyone doing their part in order to get a handle on the virus. But, for those who do get sick, the hospital will not overextend itself and will always be able to provide the care patients have come to expect.

“Our patients will always be safe,” Hartsfield said. “We won’t ever have a case where you see one nurse trying to take care of a whole floor like you see on TV. Patient safety is our number one priority. That is incredibly important for people to know.”

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