WILLMAR, Minn. — Health care providers are pleading with the public to try to help ease the flood of COVID-19 patients in area hospitals.

Hospital beds in the Carris Health system and in its parent system CentraCare are full, according to a news release issued Friday morning.

Carris Health operates Carris Health-Rice Memorial Hospital in Willmar and Carris Health-Redwood Hospital in Redwood Falls. CentraCare has hospitals in St. Cloud, Long Prairie, Melrose, Monticello, Paynesville and Sauk Centre.

It’s been an unrelenting crisis situation for the 20 months of the pandemic, said Dr. Cindy Firkins Smith, vice president of rural health for CentraCare and a Carris Health dermatologist.

“Our community spread numbers have not gone down, hospitalization rates have not gone down, and we’re continuing to fill up our hospitals,” Smith said.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

People who delayed care earlier in the pandemic are becoming ill and needing care, she added. With full hospitals, “if you go into the emergency room with a heart attack, stroke or sepsis, you are at risk for not getting care,” Smith said.

A March 2020 file photo of a Carris Health-Rice Memorial Hospital sign that points toward the Emergency Department entrance. 

Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune file photo
A March 2020 file photo of a Carris Health-Rice Memorial Hospital sign that points toward the Emergency Department entrance. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune file photo

The plea to the public comes in a few parts.

First of all, get vaccinated.

“When people say they’re scared of the vaccine, they’re not thinking about what they should really be scared about, which is COVID,” Smith said.

Many people believe they can avoid getting COVID-19 or that they won’t become ill if they do get it.

However, “it’s inevitable; no one will escape delta COVID,” Smith said. “If you are not vaccinated, this disease is simply too contagious.”

A previous case of COVID-19 may offer some protection but not indefinitely, she added. And there is no way of knowing who will become seriously ill. The CentraCare/Carris system has had critically ill patients of all ages, including people in their 20s.

“COVID is horrible,” she said. “If you are that one person who gets bad disease, it’s like trying to breathe through a thick terry towel that’s soaked in water, slapped on your face over your nose and mouth. It’s absolutely horrible.”

Second, continue social distancing, mask-wearing and hand-washing — things which were common a year ago “that people seem to have forgotten.” Those safety measures are still needed to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Cindy Firkins Smith, vice president of rural health for CentraCare and a Carris Health dermatologist, said Friday that the 20 months of the COVID-19 pandemic have been an unrelenting crisis situation. Providers are pleading with the public to get vaccinated and continue the other safety measures that were common a year ago — Smith is shown about one year ago on Nov. 19, 2020, in St. Paul during a news conference urging Minnesotans to heed calls to wear masks, social distance and wash their hands. (Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service file photo)
Cindy Firkins Smith, vice president of rural health for CentraCare and a Carris Health dermatologist, said Friday that the 20 months of the COVID-19 pandemic have been an unrelenting crisis situation. Providers are pleading with the public to get vaccinated and continue the other safety measures that were common a year ago — Smith is shown about one year ago on Nov. 19, 2020, in St. Paul during a news conference urging Minnesotans to heed calls to wear masks, social distance and wash their hands. (Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service file photo)

People in west central Minnesota are at a high risk of not being able to get the care they need if they have a medical emergency, she said — “The safest thing they can do is be careful, don’t get themselves in high-risk situations.”

Smith spoke about the “moral injury” health care workers experience every day.

“To go from work where you’re taking care of dying people into a grocery store where people act like COVID doesn’t exist, that’s moral injury,” she said.

In addition, “to have people who are unvaccinated come into the hospital and demand, sometimes angrily, cares that have been scientifically proven not to work in the treatment of COVID, that’s moral injury.”

Another example of moral injury are the laughing emojis often posted in reply to social media posts about the number of COVID-19 patients in its hospitals.

“And then they ask questions that call into question our data,” she said.

To those who seek the number of people hospitalized because of vaccine side effects, “There aren’t any,” she said. “They’re calling us liars, which is another example of moral injury.”

The effect those injuries have on staff members is “heartbreaking,” she said, and she is concerned about the effect on morale the pandemic has had and the long-term potential for post-traumatic stress.

One thing people can do to offer support to health care workers is to express gratitude, Smith said.

“Express gratitude and do your part. ... Don’t put laughing emojis on COVID posts, don’t argue with people who know what they're talking about — if you don't have that level of expertise, don’t argue with their knowledge base.”

Use the ER as a last resort

CentraCare/Carris Health asks that people who don’t have an emergency situation to use other options before visiting an overburdened emergency room.

These include:

  • Visit a CentraCare eClinic online at centracare.com/eclinic.

  • Schedule same-day appointments with your primary care provider.

  • Speak with a CentraCare Connect nurse by calling 320-200-3200.

  • Visit an urgent care site near you.

If you are experiencing a medical emergency, call 9-1-1, or visit the ER.