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Minnesota scrambles to add hospital beds for COVID-19 surge

MINNEAPOLIS — Officials are scrambling to set up 2,750 more hospital beds across Minnesota to handle the anticipated surge in COVID-19 cases in the coming weeks.

It’s part of Gov. Tim Walz’s promise to Minnesotans not to waste the time he’s trying to buy with his stay-at-home order to allow the state’s health care system to gear up as the number of cases in Minnesota builds toward an expected peak.

Adding to the urgency, the Minnesota Department of Health reported two new deaths Tuesday, raising the state’s total to 12. The state had had 629 confirmed cases as of Tuesday, which was up 53 from Monday. Fifty-six people were hospitalized as of Tuesday, with 26 in intensive care units.

The number of occupied intensive care beds is a critical marker. The state had 235 adult ICU beds as of last week, and Walz has stressed that the goal of his stay-at-home order was to prevent the disease from overwhelming the ability of hospitals to treat the sickest patients. The state continues to track down supplies of ventilators and personal protective equipment to keep health care facilities and emergency services stocked.

A team of experts is identifying potential alternate care sites throughout the state that could be converted into hospitals for noncritical patients, Joe Kelly, the state’s emergency management director, told reporters Monday.

The immediate goal, he said, is to identify space for 2,750 beds, including 1,000 in the Twin Cities metropolitan area and 1,750 in greater Minnesota, on top of the additional capacity that hospitals are already developing. Minnesota hospitals already have more than 2,000 beds available, so the new beds would boost capacity to more than 5,000.

“We’re not ready to identify what sites we’re considering for these additional facilities yet because the team is early in the process, and at this point we’re just not sure where they’re going to end up,” Kelly said. Officials have previously said hotels and arenas were among the sites under consideration.

But Kelly confirmed that the team had evaluated the closed Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton in western Minnesota. Local officials, who have been stymied in their efforts to reopen the private prison under state control, are hoping to bring it out of mothballs as a regional care facility. Kelly gave no indication as to the chances of that happening.

The M Health Fairview system in the Twin Cities, which is connected with the University of Minnesota, has already boosted its capacity to deal with the pandemic by remaking Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul into a specialized center for COVID-19 patients, expanding it from 50 beds to 90. Thirty-five of those are ICU beds.

After 72 hours of round-the-clock conversion work that included replacing hard-to-clean carpet with linoleum, and moving 44 long-term care patients to other facilities, Bethesda accepted its first coronavirus patients last Thursday.

“We all felt this sense of urgency to get these patients in this setting,” Kristi Ball, vice president of hospital operations at Bethesda, said in a statement.