FARGO — A top Sanford Health executive warned that if current coronavirus infection trends aren’t flattened soon, the strain on hospitals will alter the kind of health care North Dakotans are accustomed to receiving.

Hospitals are struggling to care for patients who not only are sick with COVID-19, but also trauma cases and other illnesses that require hospital care — a segment of patients that has ballooned because patients delayed care earlier in the pandemic, Bryan Nermoe, the president of Sanford Fargo, told The Fargo Forum Editorial Board on Wednesday, Nov. 18.

Hospitals that are at capacity are frantically calling other hospitals around the region, and patients are traveling hundreds of miles for a bed or treatment.

Some patients are placed in beds only after as many as seven calls have been made. Even patients who don't require hospitalization are affected. As an example, a kidney dialysis patient recently had to drive 700 miles to Fargo for treatment, Nermoe said.

Projections show cases of COVID-19 will increase sharply, putting additional strains on hospitals. The three Sanford campuses in Fargo routinely have a combined census of more than 500 patients, with new records set frequently.

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The census of adult patients at Sanford hospitals in Fargo recently has been running around 300 to 330 — a volume that could skyrocket to 400 or 450, according to model projections for the coronavirus pandemic, Nermoe said.

“The good news is around North Dakota we believe there’s enough capacity,” he said. "The issue is staffing.”

Sanford’s volume is increasing even though it is postponing 30% of its scheduled surgeries to keep beds open. To accommodate the volume, Sanford is reassigning staff from its clinics and other areas as well as hiring contract registered nurses.

People need to get serious about wearing masks, avoiding large gatherings and maintaining safe distances to help flatten the curve — and they need to act immediately to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed, Nermoe said.

“When you look at the horizon we need to hit this hard and we need to hit it now to turn this around,” Nermoe said.

Sanford Health has added 172 beds by opening unused space in its Broadway Medical Center in downtown Fargo, where adult COVID-19 patients are cared for. Forum file photo
Sanford Health has added 172 beds by opening unused space in its Broadway Medical Center in downtown Fargo, where adult COVID-19 patients are cared for. Forum file photo

Sanford has been able to add 172 beds by opening unused space in its Broadway Medical Center in downtown Fargo, where adult COVID-19 patients are cared for, an option most hospitals don’t have.

As a result, Sanford likely has the beds it needs — but maintaining staff is an ongoing challenge as hospitals all over the country are bidding for traveling nurses who are in high demand, as well as offering incentives for staff who are working extra shifts.

“It’s not too late to flatten that curve and change that runway,” if people take precautions, Nermoe said. “How can we change human behavior? How can we work together to get that done?”

With effective vaccines in development, with shipments expected to begin later this year, “We can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” if people don’t succumb to “pandemic fatigue,” he said.

The shortage of hospital beds is affecting all patients, and COVID-19 patients are only part of the reason for the surge in admissions, Nermoe said. “Regardless of whether you believe in COVID, do you believe in heart attacks? Do you believe in strokes? Do you believe in trauma?”

In fact, Nermoe said, hospital administrators and state health officials believe North Dakota will have enough beds — provided that people do what they can to curb the spread of the virus.

But, he added, “If we don’t bend the curve, North Dakotans will not receive the health care they’re used to.”

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