Sponsored By
An organization or individual has paid for the creation of this work but did not approve or review it.



Carris Health-Rice ER in Willmar on the front lines of COVID-19

The emergency room at Carris Health-Rice Memorial Hospital has been treating those who are very ill with COVID-19 along with continuing to provide emergency care for the general public. New procedures and an expanded ER have helped, along with the community support.

Dr. Eric Westberg, an emergency room physician at Carris Health - Rice Hospital, stands for a portrait outside of the hospital’s emergency entrance Friday in Willmar. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — When COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, first started showing up in the region, patient traffic in the emergency room at Carris Health-Rice Memorial Hospital decreased significantly.

"Initially there was a huge drop-off. Everybody was afraid to come to the emergency room or were told to stay home," said Dr. Eric Westberg, Rice Hospital emergency room physician.

Now, usage numbers are closer to normal, Westberg said, but unfortunately, those who are coming are sicker than he would normally expect.

"People are staying home too long now, people are coming in dangerously ill," Westberg said. "We are definitely seeing some very sick COVID patients," as well as those who are not infected with COVID-19, but still really ill.

While he understands the fear people might have regarding coming to a hospital, Westberg explained they don't need to be afraid, as Rice has put in many layers of protection.


"The facility has done an outstanding job of trying to make a safe place for those non-COVID patients, both in the emergency room setting and in the inpatient setting," Westberg said.

The ER has effectively been doubled, with a part of the surgical recovery area being turned into an emergency space for non-COVID-19 patients. Prior to entering the ER, patients will either be assessed in the ambulance or in the triage tent set up in front of Rice's ER entrance. There the decision will be made where a patient will be best treated.

The pandemic has also made changes in how the providers do their jobs. Most times there are two ER doctors working, one with COVID-19 patients, one with everyone else.

"So we don't cross-contaminate," Westberg said.

The doctor treating the COVID-19 patients is protected by multiple layers of protective equipment.

"You literally wear a gown, face shield, N95 mask all day long," exchanging it for clean supplies after every patient, Westberg said.

While the doctor working with the non-COVID-19 patients does not have to suit up as completely, they do wear a surgical mask and gown. The homemade fabric gowns from community members have been a great help, as they are more substantial than paper and can be washed every day.

"A huge shout out and thank you" to those who made those gowns, Westberg said. "That has allowed us to change gowns, to know that they are fresh."


On top of the physical stress patients are under, the pandemic has also caused an increase in mental strain, as patients have to navigate this new normal.

"There is definitely more counseling, listening," Westberg said. "It is only fair you have to address those things. It is literally on everyone's mind."

Westberg shared that he has treated patients with a cancer diagnosis, who then need a procedure and have to do it all alone. Because of the pandemic, most patients are not allowed to a family member with them.

"Suddenly they are given a diagnosis, whether it is COVID-related or not, and they are literally left to deal with it on their own. They are terrified, a terrible diagnosis and nobody to hold their hand from their family, nobody to walk them through it," Westberg said. "It is heartbreaking for them and heartbreaking for us. I feel just terrible."

The current situation has been challenging for the health care providers at Rice. They feel for their patients while they are also concerned about infecting their own families, whether it's elderly parents or young children.

Westberg is married to a paramedic who works in Alexandria, putting his household doubly at risk. He said his kids have adjusted, knowing they need to wait until Mom and Dad shower and get cleaned up before going in for a hug.

"That kind of thing is emotionally stressful," Westberg said.

He is grateful for all the community support he and fellow health care workers are receiving.


"This community has been outstanding in supporting us," Westberg said. "So many little things the community has done to show their support, they do get noticed."

At the time of the West Central Tribune interview with Dr. Westberg late last month, the number of COVID-19 cases had started to decrease at Rice, with fewer new cases coming in. However, the patients they were seeing were usually pretty ill.

Westberg has simple advice for the general public on how to help keep the numbers low and assist those workers on the front lines:

"Just wear the mask, please, wear the mask," Westberg said. "It is such a little thing to do. What is the risk, what is the harm?"

Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email slindrud@wctrib.com or direct 320-214-4373.

What To Read Next
Get Local