Minneapolis hospitals juggle rising cases, staff shortages amid omicron wave


Minneapolis hospitals are managing an onslaught of coronavirus cases while juggling staff shortages as the omicron variant rampages across the U.S. In Hennepin County, the 14-day case rate—number of residents per 10,000 people testing positive for COVID-19 in a two-week period—is the highest it’s been since July of 2020. 

John Smyrski, physician and vice president of medical affairs at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, said the current spike is partly fueled by holiday get-togethers. He said case numbers typically start trending upward 10 days to two weeks after large gatherings. 

While data show that the omicron variant may be less likely to cause severe illness than other versions of the virus, Smyrski warns that increased transmissibility of the new variant could make it just as dangerous on a large scale. 

“Even if a smaller percentage of the total cases are severe, the absolute number of cases that are severe is going up,” he said. 

Lorena Garcia, epidemiologist, and professor at the Department of Public Health Sciences at the University of California, Davis, said omicron’s high transmissibility may be a result of its viral load. 

“The viral load is much higher in omicron, which means that someone infected with the omicron variant is more infectious than someone infected with the delta variant,” Garcia said. The Centers for Disease Control estimated in early January that the omicron variant now accounts for about 95% of all coronavirus cases across the country. 

But vaccines, although less effective against the omicron variant, are largely keeping Minnesotans who got the jab out of intensive care units. By late December, about 85% of those in intensive care and positive for coronavirus across Allina Health’s 12 hospitals were unvaccinated. 

Most patients on ventilators during that time were also unvaccinated. Statewide, 67% of Minnesotans aged five and up are fully vaccinated. 

The demand for care is so high, Smyrski said patients are waiting in emergency departments for inpatient beds to open up. “As soon as a patient discharges, another one is ready to go into that bed as soon as we can clean it,” he said. 

Hospitals in the healthcare system are combating staff shortages while facing the wave of cases. “We’ve got staff that are working additional hours. They’re pulling second shifts. They’re coming in on their days off to work,” Smyrski said.

Some staff members are frustrated to see unvaccinated patients become critically ill or die of a “potentially preventable” coronavirus infection, he said. 

Finding trained nurses and respiratory therapists, and other health care workers to help fill the gap in need isn’t easy, Smyrski said. The shortage of nurses is a national issue. The American Association of International Healthcare Recruitment reported in September that more than 5,000 international nurses are awaiting final visa approval to work in the U.S. 

Cases in children are also on the rise in Minneapolis, said Joe Kurland, vaccine specialist, and infection preventionist at Children’s Minnesota. The hospital couldn’t provide data about the share of cases caused by the omicron variant, but Kurland predicts the rate is likely in line with the CDC’s nationwide estimate.

Most kids are still faring pretty well amid the latest wave, Kurland said, but “there is still the occasional child that will come in and require oxygen support and other levels of care.” He said he’s seen the age of kids impacted by the virus trend younger. “What this might be is, as we have more older kids getting vaccinated, the ages of susceptible kids are a little younger,” Kurland said. 

Children aged five and older are eligible to receive Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine. Kurland predicts cases in kids will spike even more in the weeks after students return from winter break. As cases continue to rise, schools across the country pivoted back to online learning at the start of the new year.

Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Ed Graff recently wrote a letter to parents urging them to keep children with symptoms home and warning that some schools in the district may switch to online learning if cases rise.

Hennepin Healthcare wrote in a statement to the MSR that some services may be delayed or have longer wait times over the next several weeks. “Like other health care organizations, Hennepin Healthcare is managing operations during a difficult period of staffing challenges due to a variety of reasons, including COVID-19 (exposures, caring for children with the virus, etc.) as well as other influenza-like illnesses,” the statement said. 

“We will not speculate on the months ahead, but we will stay apprised of the situation to ensure that we are able to continue to respond to the healthcare needs of our community as efficiently as possible.”