SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Some of North Dakota's major health systems are on the verge of running out of hospital beds amid the ongoing COVID-19 surge.

Representatives for the state's largest medical providers, including Sanford Health, Essential Health and Altru Health, say they still have room for coronavirus patients but are finding themselves squeezed by an onslaught of non-pandemic-related cases that are taxing hospital resources.

Essentia Health in Fargo has seen a high number of patients needing care at the facility in recent weeks, "resulting in our facility being at or near capacity," said Dr. Richard Vetter, Essentia's chief medical officer, and Nicole Christensen, chief nursing officer, in a joint emailed statement.

The COVID-19 surge continues to worsen in North Dakota. State health officials on Friday, Sept. 25, reported 3,562 residents known to be infected with the virus, marking the seventh day in the last eight where the state has set a new record in active cases. There are 89 North Dakotans hospitalized due to COVID-19, a total unchanged from Thursday, with 25 in intensive care.

Still, no health system has announced it will make substantive changes to its operations, such as postponing elective surgeries, to reduce the flow of incoming patients, and leaders insist they're able to the surge of new patients.

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"Like all hospitals across the state, we are experiencing high demand and have been for several weeks," said Dr. Doug Griffin, Sanford Health vice president and chief medical officer. "We routinely flex our scheduling as part of the normal course of business and have no concern about meeting the health care needs in our communities.”

Non-COVID-19 patients packing hospitals

The hospitals are likely grappling with a rising number of patients due to needed care put off during the onset of the pandemic earlier this year, said Blue Cross Blue Shield North Dakota executives in a meeting with The Forum Editorial Board on Wednesday, Sept. 23.

Dr. Greg Glassner, chief medical officer for Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota, estimated that outpatient activity for health systems around North Dakota has rebounded to 90% to 95% of its level before the pandemic struck in March, which caused outpatient and inpatient visits to plunge in March and April.

"The systems seem to be up and running," he said, in many cases running with leaner staffs due to cutbacks required by the sharp slump in revenues from the pandemic. He expects levels to fully return to normal during the first half of 2021.

Dan Conrad, the North Dakota Blues' president and CEO, said there is a lag between the time health providers deliver medical services and when they submit billings, so higher volumes might not yet be evident from claims processing. As a result, some providers might have surpassed the 90% to 95% levels.

Essentia Health-Fargo is seen Wednesday, April 8, at 3000 32nd Ave. S. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
Essentia Health-Fargo is seen Wednesday, April 8, at 3000 32nd Ave. S. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Essentia's Fargo hospital is licensed for 145 beds. Vetter and Christensen said the health system has surge plans in place, and the spike in inpatients hasn't affected the hospital's daily operations or the services it provides.

"While we have seen an uptick in COVID patients over the last week, we do not believe that is the sole reason for the increase in patient volumes," they said.

Hospitals report the number of available staffed beds daily to the North Dakota Department of Health. Tim Wiedrich, chief of the state health department's Health Preparedness & Response Section, said in an emailed statement that the department shares the concern of health care facilities facing a bed and staffing squeeze.

"COVID is not the only reason for increased hospitalizations.," he said. "Hospitalizations for trauma, stroke and other health emergencies have increased as well."

Add beds, look to COVID-19 patient age for relief

At Sanford Bismarck Medical Center, the facility's COVID-19 unit is nearly full as they continue to see a rise in inpatient admissions.

"Our COVID unit is certainly the busiest it’s been since the pandemic started. We can care for 25 patients in our COVID unit. Currently, we have 23 patients in our COVID unit," said Dr. Danielle Thurtle, interim chief medical officer at Sanford Health in Bismarck.

Thurtle noted the hospital has a plan to handle the surge and next week will announce plans to add hospital beds.

In the parking lot of Altru Hospital, located at 1200 S. Columbia Road, a Bundt-cake fundraiser will be held from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 25. The fundraiser will also be held, during those hours on Wednesday, Aug. 26, at the Altru Professional Center, 4440 S. Washington St.
In the parking lot of Altru Hospital, located at 1200 S. Columbia Road, a Bundt-cake fundraiser will be held from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 25. The fundraiser will also be held, during those hours on Wednesday, Aug. 26, at the Altru Professional Center, 4440 S. Washington St.

As of Thursday morning, Altru Health System reported eight inpatients with COVID-19 in its Grand Forks hospital, which has a 20-bed unit for patients with the coronavirus. But the local pandemic situation gives the health system a measure of comfort.

“Given the trend in age range of those testing positive in our community and what we know about how those in their 20s and 30s typically manage COVID, we don’t anticipate a high volume of related inpatients,” Kenneth Harvey, Altru spokesperson, said in a statement.

In Grand Forks County, nearly half of the county's 221 active cases on Thursday were made up of high school and college-aged individuals, with cases peaking Aug. 28 as students returned to the University of North Dakota campus. Still, cases among older populations are rising compared to earlier this month.

“We are working closely with public health to understand our COVID + patient population so we remain prepared to care for those who need testing, treatment or hospitalization," Harvey said.

CHI St. Alexius Health didn't respond by deadline to a request to comment.

Forum News Service reporters Patrick Springer, Sydney Mook and Jeremy Turley contributed to this article.