Health and Science

'Unprecedented' Covid spread puts health-care workers at risk, says Minnesota hospital CEO

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Key Points
  • The rise in community spread of the coronavirus is causing more infections among health-care workers, Dr. Penny Wheeler of Minneapolis-based Allina Health told CNBC.
  • The general public adhering to public health strategies will help minimize risk for doctors and nurses, the chief executive said.
  • "You cannot manufacture a talented and compassionate caregiver," Wheeler said.
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The sharp uptick in coronavirus cases across the Midwest is increasing health-care workers' risk of getting infected, jeopardizing staffing levels needed to care for other Covid-19 patients, according to the CEO of a Minnesota hospital system.

Dr. Penny Wheeler, who leads Minneapolis-based Allina Health, told CNBC on Monday that the not-for-profit health network has more personal protective equipment, ventilators and available beds to care for Covid-19 patients than it had during the initial outbreak in the spring. Nurses and doctors, however, are harder to come by, she said.

"You cannot manufacture a talented and compassionate caregiver," Wheeler said in a "Squawk on the Street" interview. "And that's where we're having trouble with now, especially with so many of them being affected or their family members being affected by community spread in our organization and in the community."

Wheeler said for that reason, it is imperative people take seriously the public health strategies that can reduce the chain of coronavirus transmission in the community. Doing so reduces the likelihood that hospital workers become sick, she said.

"The need for masking, physical distancing and washing of hands, all those things — I know people are fatigued but so are the health-care workers, and you can keep our health-care workers healthier and able to care for you if you do those things," Wheeler said. "These are incredibly skilled people, and you can't replace them."

Minnesota is one of 25 states seeing record-high hospitalizations for Covid-19 patients, based on a seven-day average, according to a CNBC analysis of data from the COVID Tracking Project, which is run by journalists at The Atlantic. Minnesota also is one of eight states where daily deaths from Covid-19 are at all-time highs, with 48 people on average dying per day in the last week, according to CNBC's analysis of Johns Hopkins University data.

At least 3,297 people in Minnesota have died from Covid-19 during the pandemic, Hopkins data shows.

Wheeler's concerns about staffing are shared elsewhere across the country, especially in some of Minnesota's nearby states, which have been hit hard by the fall coronavirus spike. "Our geography in the Midwest, upper Midwest, has been seeing unprecedented numbers of infections and case growth," she said.

Earlier this month, the head of the University of Wisconsin's health network told CNBC its seven-hospital system was "short of staff all times, either because they have Covid or they have some other illness and we need to rule out Covid before we bring them back to work."

"There is no surplus staff to deploy to other hospitals to help each other out, so we're trying to equal the load. We're all trying to keep patients local," UW Health CEO Dr. Alan Kaplan said then.

The U.S. has continued to experience a worsening of its coronavirus outbreak in recent weeks, with daily average new cases setting a series of record highs. While Wheeler said a series of positive developments around Covid-19 vaccines are a "wonderful ray of hope," the widespread availability is still some time away.

"We just have to hold on ... so let's take what is in our control — mask up, physical distance, wash your hands," Wheeler said. "We can take that, and then we can bridge that to a time where there's greater hope in the vaccines in the offing, then we'll be doing a great service and we'll have more lives here than lost."

CNBC's Nate Rattner contributed to this report.

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