FARGO — Sanford Health estimates that up to 3,600 people could be infected within 60 days by the coronavirus among a potential service area population of 500,000 in the Fargo region that could seek treatment at its metro medical centers here.

Under that "worst-case scenario," using calculations by Minnesota health officials that draw upon the outbreak in China, 80% would be able to recover at home, 15% would need some level of hospital care and 5% would require intensive care, Dr. Doug Griffin, Sanford's chief medical officer in Fargo, said at a briefing Wednesday, March 18.

The estimates were part of a briefing by local government leaders, public health officials and health providers who reiterated calls for people to limit their contacts to try to prevent the spread of the virus now circulating in the region while reassuring residents that the community is prepared to handle the epidemic.

Sanford's "best-case scenario" projected six cases, a number already equaled in North Dakota that clearly will be exceeded, while a mid-range scenario suggests about 550 people from a service area population of 500,000 would be infected within 60 days, which is much broader than the metro area, Griffin said.

“The vast majority will be able to recover at home,” Griffin said.

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The current estimated mortality rate for COVID-19, the disease caused by the contagious virus, ranges from 2% to 3%, which could mean 72 to 108 deaths under the "worst-case scenario" from the epidemic among the service area population, according to Sanford's projections.

But government and health officials urge people to do their utmost to limit their unnecessary contact with others to slow the spread of the infection, which will allow the sickest patients to receive hospital treatment — precautions that can save lives.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending people refrain from gathering in groups of 10 or more and for people to stay 6 feet apart to prevent spreading the virus.

“The bottom line is if we all follow the CDC guidelines, we can flatten that curve,” greatly reducing the peak number of people infected, Griffin said.

Sanford's top administrator in Fargo expressed confidence that, based upon those scenarios, Sanford has the means to handle the patients that could be coming to its medical centers for treatment.

"Our modeling indicates we have the asset capacity to provide treatment under several scenarios," said Bryan Nermoe, president of Sanford Health in Fargo. "I think that's important."

Sanford and Essentia have been sending their specimens to state health labs in North Dakota and Minnesota, with a turnabout time of three to five days. Sanford now is also working with a private testing lab and is preparing to conduct its own testing, with the capability of testing several hundred samples per day.

The goal is to have that in-house testing capability ready within seven to 10 days, Sanford administrators said.

Meanwhile, administrators at Sanford and Essentia Health stressed that people who suspect they might be infected by the coronavirus should first contact their primary care physician, or call a hotline that each health system has available, to determine whether it would be appropriate for them to be tested.

Sanford patients can call 701-234-5000 or go online to www.sanfordhealth.org. Essentia patients can call 833-207-2880 or go online to www.essentia health.org.

“In many cases a test is not indicated,” said Dr. Richard Vetter, Essentia’s chief medical officer in Fargo, who noted that we still are in peak flu season, which has symptoms similar to COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses that are circulating.

Eventually, as testing capability ramps up, “The ultimate goal is to test everybody,” said Dr. Avish Nagpal, Sanford’s medical director of infectious disease. “That’s easier said than done.”

Testing capacity has improved and will keep improving, Nagpal said. Both Sanford and Essentia representatives said they now have an adequate supply of supplies, including test kits, although Vetter said there are concerns about future supplies.

“Supplies are a daily look at where they’re at, but it’s a very fluid situation,” Nermoe said.

Also, screening guidance from the CDC changes as more information becomes available. “The screening guidelines are very fluid,” he said.

For those who are approved for testing, Sanford has several locations where patients can show up by appointment to provide a specimen, with results typically available in three to five days. Essentia is working on quick specimen collection sites that should be ready next week, Vetter said.

Essentia has suspended routine clinic appointments and elective procedures to avoid spreading the infection. Sanford is continuing to see patients for clinic visits, but all patients will be screened when they arrive. Visitation is restricted at both providers’ hospitals.

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