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Sanford moves some patients to overflow as Fargo hospitals near capacity

Continued high patient volumes are resulting in delays for elective surgeries, longer waits in emergency rooms and urgent care clinics, and longer waits for clinic appointments.

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Sanford Medical Center Fargo is seen Monday, Aug. 2, 2021, at 5225 23rd Ave. S. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

FARGO — Sanford Health’s three medical campuses remain near capacity as demand for hospital services continues to strain hospitals in the region amid the added pressure from the delta surge.

Because of persistent high admissions, Sanford is adding 32 more beds at Sanford Medical Center — but will run out of empty space once that unit opens, likely in February, Dr. Doug Griffin, a Sanford vice president and medical director, said Wednesday, Sept. 22.

“We are looking at increasing capacity,” Griffin said.

As of Wednesday, Sanford’s three medical campuses were caring for 544 hospital patients.

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“That’s an extremely high number for us,” Griffin said. “Basically we have all the beds full,” with some patients in overflow areas, such as the emergency department.

Clinic volumes also are running high. For patients, the high volumes mean longer waits in the emergency room or urgent care, or longer waits to get in for an appointment.

Elective surgery cases — those that don’t have to be done immediately — have been reduced by 30%, resulting in longer waits for surgery, often an additional one or two weeks or sometimes more, Griffin said.

Staffing remains a key limitation on hospital capacity, as caregivers continue to work extra shifts and longer hours to maintain round-the-clock care as recruiting efforts continue along with incentives for overtime, he said.

“Staffing remains critical,” Griffin said, adding that some traveling nurses will augment staffing beginning in October. “We’re hoping that number continues to increase.” Doctors and other caregivers also are being shifted from clinical or administrative roles to hospital wards, he said.

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Sanford had 35 patients with active COVID-19 Wednesday, a number that has remained stable thus far during the delta surge. But another 25 patients, many in intensive care, no longer require isolation due to their coronavirus infections, Griffin said.

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That means the total burden from COVID-19 is 60 patients, or 11% of patients admitted. COVID-19 patients whose illness is severe enough to require hospitalization have long hospital stays and require a higher level of staffing, he said.

Of the 35 active COVID-19 patients, 10 are in intensive care, including eight on ventilators.

It’s not clear how many of the patients seeking hospital care delayed care for illnesses or conditions that surfaced earlier in the pandemic, Griffin said, but that is likely compounding the demand for beds.

Sanford’s Broadway Medical Center, where it cares for most COVID-19 patients, now has two ICUs, one for patients with active COVID-19 and one on a separate floor for other patients.

Sanford planners are looking into the possibility of expanding hospital capacity in Fargo, but that would require significant capital investments for new construction, Griffin said. Sanford doesn’t yet have a timeline for making that determination, he said.

The coronavirus isn’t the only respiratory virus sending people to the hospital. Respiratory syncytial virus has been circulating since this summer, and flu season will be ramping up, he said.

Last year, because of widespread mask usage, influenza cases were at very low levels, which helped to keep hospital beds available. That’s unlikely to be the case now that mask wearing and social distancing are much less common, Griffin said.

Many other hospitals are facing similar pressures. Hospitals within a 400- to 600-mile radius of Fargo also are full, Griffin said. Sanford is fielding calls from hospitals in western North Dakota and throughout Minnesota as well as Wisconsin inquiring about whether they can transfer patients.

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Vaccination remains the best way to avoid getting infected by the coronavirus, especially with a case severe enough to require hospital care, Griffin said, renewing pleas for people to get the shot.

On Wednesday, the Sanford system, which includes 22 hospitals, had 159 inpatients with COVID-19, 143 unvaccinated and 16 vaccinated. Forty-five COVID-19 patients were in ICUs, 43 unvaccinated, and 34 were on ventilators, 33 unvaccinated.

Hospital bed capacity also is strained at Essentia Health in Fargo. "We're at capacity just about every day, similar to other hospitals in the region," said spokesman Louis St. George.

On Wednesday, Essentia was treating 20 patients with COVID-19, including seven in intensive care, he said.

Valley City woman reunites with doctor who saved her life from COVID-19
Medical staff treat a patient inside the COVID-19 unit at Fargo's Sanford Medical Center. WDAY

Valley City woman reunites with doctor who saved her life from COVID-19
Medical staff treat a patient inside the COVID-19 unit at Fargo's Sanford Medical Center. WDAY

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