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'The worst it's been': Cloquet physician urges residents to get vaccinated as cases spike

Dr. Charles Kendall, chief of staff at Community Memorial Hospital, said hospitals in Minnesota and neighboring states had no ICU beds available when he tried to transfer a patient recently.

A model of the novel coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China in late 2019. U.S. health officials have stated that COVID-19 is expected to become a significant public health concern in the United States. (Illustration courtesy of Centers for Disease Control)
Contributed / Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

With more people testing positive for COVID-19 and no beds in intensive care units available, Dr. Charles Kendall said this is the worst the COVID-19 pandemic has been since it started.

He came to that realization recently when he tried to transfer a patient from Cloquet's Community Memorial Hospital who needed a higher level of care. Kendall is a family physician who currently serves as chief of staff for CMH. He also leads the hospital's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Source: Minnesota Department of Health

"This past month is the worst it’s been throughout this whole pandemic ... I called every hospital and hospital system in the state and in the four surrounding states and no one would take this person," he told the Pine Journal this week.

Cases in Carlton County have been rising steadily since August. As of Tuesday, Nov. 30, Carlton County has had a total of 5,434 positive cases of COVID-19. The figure rose 279 cases from Nov. 22, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Health.

In addition, a total of 74 Carlton County residents have died from complications related to COVID-19 since the pandemic began, MDH data shows .


Staff shortages elsewhere felt in Cloquet

A shortage of nurses, specifically in ICUs in bigger cities, trickles down to places like Cloquet, Kendall said.

" We have been unable to transfer our most critically ill people to bigger hospitals. That’s been a struggle, as you can imagine," he said.

When health care officials can't transfer someone and the person is too ill to go home, officials have to keep them in their emergency rooms until space opens up in their hospital or another one.

He doesn't remember the situation being so dire.

"I t was never this bad," he said. "Last November and December we were busy and … we always could find a place, maybe down in the (Twin Cities), to transfer somebody — now you can’t," he said.

Staff levels at CMH are tight, and thankfully, Kendall said the number of nurses at CMH hasn't dropped because of people leaving the profession early. The hospital has had a few nurses retire who were planning to do so.

And even while the hospital has avoided nurses quitting because of burnout, Kendall said burnout is a problem many are facing, including himself.

The physician said he had to reframe his thinking to keep burnout at bay after he tried unsuccessfully to transfer the patient mentioned above.


"Everything right now it truly is day-to-day. ... That’s the mindset I’ve adopted just to get through this," he said.

Unvaccinated account for majority of cases

Jenny Barta, public health nurse specialist with Carlton County, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has pegged the county at a high rate of transmission since August. A high rate of transmission means more than 100 new cases per 100,000 residents have been reported in the past seven days, according to the CDC . The agency's data shows Carlton County has a case rate of 482.28 per 100,000 residents.

People in nearly every age group have been contracting the virus at increasing rates, Barta said.

" We’ve seen a lot of cases in young people, in school-age people, but we’ve also seen a lot of cases in pretty much every age group. The only age group we hadn’t seen a lot of cases in was in the 65 (and over). They are our highest vaccination rate group," she said.

Carlton County public health nurse specialist Jenny Barta (right) administers a first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to Aletha Leveille on Friday, March 5, 2021, at Community Memorial Hospital in Cloquet. Tyler Schank / File / Duluth News Tribune
Tyler Schank

Among adults in Carlton County, 75% have completed the vaccine series, according to MDH figures . When factoring in children over age 5, 64.4% of the county's population is considered fully vaccinated, the data showed.


But the majority of people who are testing positive for COVID-19 are not vaccinated, according to Barta and Kendall.

Kendall was frank with his thoughts about how people can relieve the pressure on local health care workers.

"They can get their vaccines," he said. "I’m no longer sympathetic. I don’t care what people’s reasons are.

"Just like you hear in the news, our sick people — 90% are unvaccinated right now. The few we’ve had that were vaccinated and got hospitalized either weren’t that sick; or were not in the hospital with COVID, they just happened to have it at the time; or there were significant underlying health issues that made them at greater risk of suffering from a COVID infection. Otherwise 90% of these critically ill people we’ve taken care of recently — and even all of our admissions — they’re unvaccinated, so people need to get their vaccines," he said.

MDH is tracking international reports of the new omicron variant, Barta said, and until scientists learn more about how the variant will react to vaccines, she said vaccines are still the best way to avoid the virus.

"We know that the more individuals who are vaccinated, the less likely these variants are going to come about and be transmitted from person-to-person," she said.

In addition to getting vaccinated, Barta said people should wear a mask indoors if they cannot physically distance from others. Adults who have been fully vaccinated should get booster shots, as well, she said.

People should also wash their hands often and get their flu shots, she said.


To get a COVID-19 or flu vaccine, Barta said people should contact their pharmacy or health care provider to schedule an appointment.

Community Memorial Hospital is hosting a COVID-19 booster clinic on Dec. 10 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The Pfizer BioNTech COVID-19 booster shot will be available to anyone 18 years and older, as long as it has been six months since the person's second dose of Moderna or Pfizer or two months since their dose of Johnson & Johnson. Please call (218) 879-1271 to register. The clinic will not be taking walk-ins.

Jen Zettel-Vandenhouten is the regional editor for Duluth Media Group, overseeing the Cloquet Pine Journal and the Superior Telegram.
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