Fearing an overwhelming surge of COVID-19 patients, health care professionals from across the region are pleading with people to do everything they can to stop the virus from spreading.

With hospital beds filling and intensive care units reaching capacity, it’s clear that the situation is now extremely serious, according to a community letter signed by seven health industry leaders: Chuck Hofius, CEO of Perham Health; Danielle Lesmeister, CEO of Prairie Ridge Healthcare, based in Elbow Lake; Kent Mattson, CEO of Lake Region Healthcare in Fergus Falls; Joel Beiswenger, CEO and president of Tri-County Health Care in Wadena; Anne Stehn, administrator of Horizon Public Health, which covers Douglas, Pope, Grants, Stevens and Traverse counties; Cindy Pederson, director of Wadena Public Health; and Jody Lien, director of Otter Tail County Public Health.

“Throughout the summer, our region remained close to a 5 percent positivity rate, which means one in every 20 patients tested came back positive,” the leaders said in their letter. “A rate of over 5 percent is considered widespread community transmission and poor control of the virus. Today, we see 33 percent, or one out of every three tests coming back positive. That rate is alarming!”

The rise in the number of cases has a significant impact on hospitals: It overloads resources like availability of beds, supplies, medications and staff. “When community spread is this wide, our workforces are inevitably affected due to exposure or illness,” the letter says.

Staffing and bed shortages also affect patient care. When a local patient needs critical care that exceeds what can be provided in smaller hospitals, they are transferred to larger hospitals for higher-level care. But those regional hospitals are now nearing capacity, which limits access to those urgent medical needs.

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“This virus is especially harmful to our elder and vulnerable populations. We all have older family members and know people with chronic diseases. We all want them to be safe and able to seek the care they need, should the need arise,” the letter says.

“We need all our communities to come together to slow the spread of COVID-19. In addition to protecting our most vulnerable, we can help area businesses and schools stay open. That is why we advise using the tools we have to limit the spread of the virus.”

Those tools include washing or sanitizing hands frequently, avoiding gatherings, maintaining social distancing, staying home when you’re sick and wearing a mask. With flu season here, it’s also recommended to get a flu shot.

“With the holidays approaching, we know it may be tempting to congregate with family and celebrate,” the health leaders wrote. “However, these gatherings can be a significant source of spread and risk the lives of family members and friends. It may not be easy, but try to find safe alternatives to these gatherings.”

Until a safe and effective vaccine is approved and available in the area, health workers have limited tools to stop the spread of COVID-19.

“We know everyone is exhausted, but it is imperative that we join together to slow the currently rampant rate of spread of this virus,” the letter says. “We must decrease the positivity rate to keep our health care workers healthy, hospital beds and healthcare resources available, kids in school and local businesses open. The time to act is now, and we need everyone’s help.”