For the past two weeks or more, Community Memorial Hospital administrator Rick Breuer has worked to prepare Cloquet’s only hospital for an anticipated surge in patients as the coronavirus pandemic spreads.

“I compare it to something more familiar to those on the coasts,” Breuer said. “It’s like a hurricane is coming. People sometimes have several days or even a week to prepare.”

Breuer said he and the CMH staff are constantly following the news for new cases, the direction the disease is spreading and trends in other areas of the U.S. where the outbreak has infected thousands.

Instead of boarding up houses and evacuating people from low lying areas as happens during hurricanes, Breuer is working with other health care providers in the area to ensure that his facility and others in northeastern Minnesota are ready when the surge arrives.

“We know how to take care of people, and we know how to take care of infectious people,” Breuer said. “In that way, this isn’t foreign to us, we just need to set up the resources so that we have the beds, the equipment and we can mobilize that.”

One of the things Breuer and the staff at CMH are doing is “surge capacity planning” or calculating the actual capacity for critical care beds is at the hospital. Currently, the hospital has a maximum of 25 critical care beds under current regulations. The state government is lifting restrictions for hospitals with a demonstrated need. However, without any documented cases in Carlton County, CMH can’t get a waiver to raise the number of beds yet.

In the meantime, they are searching the CMH and Raiter Clinic campuses for any space they can find.

“We have a team looking at every nook and cranny in our facilities to figure out what spaces could reasonably be changed into intensive care,” Breuer said. “Today, I don’t have a hard maximum number, but we are in the process of determining it. Either way, we also need the staff and the supplies for all of that and that is part of the planning of that as well. We need the nurses and the physicians.”

While the Cloquet community has enough physicians to serve double or even triple the number of current patients, what Breuer wants to know is what the ceiling for CMH is.

The CMH team has been working with its patients to postpone or reschedule some elective procedures as the COVID-19 threat has spread, but they are also working to provide alternate ways of delivering care to patients without coming into the hospital or Raiter. For some time, Breuer said, there has been a nurse triage phone line for patients to call. Nurses lead patients through a series of questions to determine if they need to come down to the hospital or clinic.

CMH was also planning to roll out “e-care” options over the course of this year, and the COVID-19 crisis has only accelerated the process. One physician was testing the system Tuesday, March 24, and once they have a system that is user-friendly and easy to navigate, CMH and Raiter will begin helping patients access it.

“I happen to believe that there was already a shift going on where a certain percentage wants to be getting some of their care that way,” Breuer said. “There will always be brick and mortar where people want to come in, but we’ll see a greater use of e-care options as a result of this.”

The Minnesota Department of Health recommends the same precautions for avoiding COVID-19 as it does for colds and the flu, such as thoroughly washing hands with soap and water, staying home when sick and covering coughs. Symptoms of COVID-19 include a fever, cough and shortness of breath. MDH also recommends avoiding large gatherings of up to 50 people or even smaller gatherings where social distancing of at least 6 feet between people is not possible.

As a result of a shortage of lab testing supplies, MDH does not recommend physicians order tests for people who are not showing symptoms of the illness. The state recommends priority for testing be given to people who are hospitalized, health care workers and nursing home residents.

While the government and hospitals around the state are doing all they can to prepare for a surge in patients, Breuer said he thinks the more important factor in preparing for the virus is nothing a hospital does, but what the community does.

“Staying at home, the social distancing, that will reduce the number of people that get infected and will allow the health care system to properly care for those folks," he said. "I’m hoping that by the time cases are getting here now, folks are already taking it seriously.”

CMH visitation policy during the COVID-19 pandemic

  • Visitors are restricted to one per patient unless they are hospice or end-of-life.

  • Pediatric patients are allowed to have two guardians with them.

  • Absolutely no children are allowed to visit, with the exception of hospice or end-of-life care.

  • There are no visitors to SHCC unless they are hospice or end-of-life.

24-hour nurse hotline: 218-499-6799

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