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Omicron Variant Keeps GRHS Busy

By Melanie Stegner, originally published in the Pope County Tribune on 1/24/22

Kirk Stensrud, CEO of Glacial Ridge Health System (GRHS), was the guest speaker at the Glenwood Rotary Club meeting on Tuesday, January 18. Stensrud shared the state of COVID-19 locally during his time at the podium.

“With the prevalence of the Omicron variant, the number of positive COVID cases in our community has gone way up,” said Stensrud. “We are testing more people than before at GRHS and seeing a COVID positivity rate above 30%.” He added, “Omicron is ramping up in children, making children more likely to become hospitalized than they were with previous variants.

According to Stensrud, the virus can affect all organs. Additionally, “Losing taste and smell means there could be neurological ramifications that haven’t even been discussed yet.” GRHS currently sends 40 positive tests per week to the State of Minnesota for further testing. Stensrud stated, ”We hope that Omicron is the turning point of the virus, but that’s just a hope.”

MDH reports that Omicron is presently the predominant variant in Central Minnesota. “People don’t realize how at risk they are if they’re not vaccinated,” said Stensrud. “The vaccine is meant to keep people from getting sicker and hospitalized. Unfortunately, once you’re on a ventilator, there’s a very low chance for turn-around. We are holding patients on ventilators in ICU for several days who in the past would have been sent out on a helicopter within a couple of hours,” Stensrud said.

“At one time, we had eight COVID patients. Six of them had severe illness, and we had nowhere to send them. Bed availability is only part of the problem; it’s also the lack of staff to work with very sick patients. We were hit with a double whammy between the pandemic and what is referred to as the “great resignation”. One patient in the ICU requires two nurses and several support staff for just that patient. We have amazing staff, and they’re performing so well in these circumstances. They are just being challenged every day and it’s wearing,” explained Stensrud.

“Early on, the pandemic most adversely affected those 70 plus years of age who contracted COVID. Now the percentages are trending younger. In 2020, 81% of COVID deaths [from the Alpha strain] were adults over 65 years old. Since about August 2021, when the Delta variant hit, adults over 65 accounted for 69% of the deaths. As the state is reporting, with Omicron, death rates are increasing in the younger population, with 30-40% of deaths in people under 65 years old,” Stensrud shared.

The subject of vaccinations and the recent CMS mandate were addressed during the talk as well. Stensrud said, “Many people complained of slight illness from getting vaccinated and are hesitant to get the booster. The question is, ‘do you get a little sick now for a few days or a lot sicker later for longer?’ Many healthcare workers across the country were concerned about the mandate, but about one percent have left their jobs due to the mandate,” said Stensrud.

The government has been covering the costs of vaccines and testing supplies while insurance companies have footed the bill for the conducting of tests, but a new change is requiring insurance companies to cover the entire cost as early as this week.

“Monoclonal antibodies have been shown to work well against a COVID infection. However, the antibody treatment is no longer readily available due to the Delta variant and now Omicron. Presently, we are allocated nine infusions per week, and last week we didn’t get our allocation. Minnesota is stretched thin with the treatment option,” stated Stensrud.

* Due to the fluid nature of the COVID-19 situation and continued scientific understanding of Omicron, guidelines and recommendations may have changed since the posting date.