DETROIT LAKES, Minn. COVID-19 cases have been surging in North Dakota, and Cass County (where Fargo is the county seat) is one of the hot spots. With 145 staffed beds, Essentia Health hospital in Fargo is at about 95% of capacity, up from its normal level of about 70% of capacity, said Dr. Richard Vetter, the chief medical officer for the Essentia West area, which includes Detroit Lakes, Minn., and Fargo.

Health professionals keep a wary eye on hospital capacity because bad things can happen when all the beds are full: The death rate spiked when hospitals were overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases in New York City earlier this year.

But Essentia has had three COVID-19 planning levels in place since this spring conventional level, contingency level and crisis level and it remains at the basic, conventional level, Vetter said.

The Fargo hospital has accepted some patients from western North Dakota, mostly non-COVID-19 cases, he said. And it has transferred a half-dozen recovering non-COVID-19 patients to Essentia hospitals in Fosston and Ada. “It’s always done in consultation with the family,” he said in an online video interview.

“We haven’t had to ship anybody to Minneapolis or Mayo (Clinic in Rochester)," he said. “It is an option if necessary.”

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Dr. Richard Vetter
Dr. Richard Vetter

CentraCare hospital in St. Cloud is also available to take COVID-19 patients if necessary, he added. “There are conversations among hospitals,” to prepare for contingencies, he said. It’s unlikely that COVID-19 patients would move from a larger hospital in Fargo to a smaller Essentia hospital in Detroit Lakes, he said. Patients usually move in the other direction.

Even with hospital beds available, COVID-19 deaths have been spiking in North Dakota, from 41 in August to 120 in September, with 120 deaths already this month as of Oct. 15, according to the North Dakota Department of Health.

North Dakota has employed an aggressive testing regime, Vetter said. “North Dakota has been first or second per capita in the nation for testing the last few months,” he said.

“Testing in general is more available than it was when the pandemic first started,” he added. “Back then, testing guidelines changed every week. Now the governors of North Dakota and Minnesota say ‘test people if they need to be tested.’”

It may seem counterintuitive, but one of the best things people can do to help the battle against COVID-19 is to get a flu shot, Vetter said. “Flu shots have been modified this year,” Vetter said, to better match the dominant strains in the southern hemisphere this summer, since they move north in the cold weather months.

The flu vaccine helps prevent serious cases of influenza that send people to the hospital or even kill them, Vetter said. “It’s important to mitigate flu patients, especially high-risk patients, to keep beds available for covid cases,” he said. “So get your flu shot.”