BISMARCK — North Dakota's largest hospitals are facing a severe shortage of available beds as COVID-19 hospitalizations converge with strains on health care staffing and high non-coronavirus admissions.

There are just 12 available intensive care beds in the entire state, according to the latest figures reported by the North Dakota Department of Health. Most of the 195 open inpatient beds in the state are in rural hospitals, which often don't have the capability to care for patients with serious ailments.

Dr. Jeffrey Sather, the chief of staff at Trinity Hospital in Minot, put the problem in stark terms.

"We North Dakotans are in crisis," Sather said at a Tuesday, Nov. 3, news conference.

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Sather said Trinity had no room to admit patients the night before and larger hospitals turned down the Minot medical center's request to transfer patients, citing their own shortage of available beds. The result was patients, some with life-threatening illnesses, waiting in the emergency room for a bed to open up, Sather said.

"Being at capacity is a reality — not just here in Minot but across the state," Sather said. "The general population doesn't realize the struggles that health systems are going through unless you or your family is one of those patients getting transferred across the state ... or laying on an ER gurney rather than a hospital bed for 24 hours or more."

Sather said medical professionals at his hospital have told him they have to "watch someone suffocate to death every day and sometimes several times a day." He noted that nurses and doctors fear for their own mental health and that of their co-workers as the dismal conditions bear down on them.

The doctor echoed other hospital administrators in saying that the crunch at medical centers is due to staff shortages, rather than a lack of physical beds.

Like many other states, North Dakota had a lack of nurses and other workers before the pandemic, and the issue has only been exacerbated in recent months. Trinity spokeswoman Karim Tripodina confirmed that about 140 staff members at the hospital had been in quarantine as of the end of last week, though she was unsure how many staff members are currently on the sidelines.

A similarly dire situation has been well documented in Bismarck, where the two hospitals recently reported having only two available ICU beds and six inpatient beds between them.

Fargo's three hospitals are struggling too, with a combined three open ICU beds and eight inpatient beds. Grand Forks' Altru hospital reported having one ICU bed and 10 inpatient beds.

Dr. Casmiar Nwaigwe, who practices at Trinity, said the strain on hospitals and their staffing is caused primarily by the COVID-19 outbreak, which has shown no signs of letting up. Sather said half of the patients at Trinity on some days are positive for the virus, compared to a rate of about 20% statewide.

Nwaigwe and Sather pleaded with residents to take the virus more seriously and heed basic public health measures like mask-wearing and social distancing.

North Dakota reports 12 COVID-19 deaths

The North Dakota Health Department on Wednesday, Nov. 4, reported 12 deaths from COVID-19 and a record-high number of active cases.

The deaths came from all over the state, including two from Walsh County and one each from Barnes, Cass, Dickey, Logan, McHenry, Nelson, Pembina, Pierce, Ransom and Towner counties. All of the victims were at least 70 years old.

The department says 567 North Dakotans have succumbed to the illness since March, and deaths have been climbing at a rapid pace over the last three months. The state has averaged more than eight COVID-19 deaths per day in October and November.

At least 342 of the state's deaths have come in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. Seven facilities have more than 15 active cases in residents, including Trinity Homes in Minot, which has 58 infected residents.

There are now a record 8,571 North Dakotans known to be infected with the virus.

North Dakota has reported the most COVID-19 cases and deaths per capita in the nation over the last week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The whole region is experiencing a surge in cases, with South Dakota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Montana and Minnesota all seeing increasing cases.

The number of hospitalized residents due to the illness rose to 220. Another 132 patients were initially hospitalized with some other ailment but later tested positive for COVID-19. Fifty-four residents with the virus are in intensive care.

The Health Department reported 1,116 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday. All but seven of the state's 53 counties reported at least one new case.

Cass County, which includes Fargo, reported 262 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday. The state's most populous county has 1,323 infected residents.

Burleigh County, which encompasses Bismarck, reported 134 new cases Wednesday. The county has the second most active cases in the state with 1,222. Morton County, which sits just west of Burleigh County and includes Mandan, reported 41 new cases and has 431 active cases.

Grand Forks County reported 67 new cases, bringing its active case count up to 1,056.

Ward, Walsh and Stutsman counties each reported at least 70 new cases.

About 14.2% of the 7,886 residents tested as part of the latest batch received a positive result, but 23.5% of residents tested for the first time got a positive result.

North Dakota does not report a seven-day rolling average for positivity rate, but Forum News Service calculated the rate to be 14% for all residents tested and 24.4% for tests taken on previously untested residents. Both rates are the highest since Forum News Service started tracking the figures at the beginning of August.

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