Coronavirus concern halts elective health care, disrupting other patients in pain

Twin Cities Pioneer Press

March 19, 2020

Laurie Howard slipped on a patch of ice while walking her dog in late February, suffering a concussion and injuries to her neck, mouth and nose. The Minneapolis tattoo artist has been trying to regain her life’s balance since then.

But Howard said Wednesday her recovery was halted when Allina Heath called off her scheduled visit as the health system braces for an expected influx of COVID-19 patients.

Gov. Tim Walz signed an executive order Thursday for health care providers to postpone elective surgeries and procedures to focus hospital bed capacity and equipment on responding to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier this week, Allina, HealthPartners, M Health Fairview and Mayo Clinic were among Minnesota providers that suspended “elective” care during the coronavirus outbreak.

“I understand why everyone is taking precautions,” Howard, 37, said. “I get it, but I think the way everything has been implemented is so haphazard because they are leaving people out in the cold that do need serious medical care.”

The Minnesota Department of Heath has been fielding calls from Howard and others concerned about their care. One employee told the Pioneer Press, “it’s definitely a problem.”

“We understand how frustrating it must be for Minnesotans who can’t have their regular medical appointments because of the pressing need for providers to see COVID-19 patients,” the Minnesota Department of Health said in a statement. “But everyone needs to understand that this is a unique, unprecedented national public health crisis that we are experiencing and we must deal with it as best we can.”

Howard, 37, suffers from memory lapses, migraines and dizziness. It’s her second concussion in the last 10 years, and it limited the amount of time she could work at The Ink Lab on Lake Street. The nine-hour shifts were cut in half and ceased all together with Walz’s directive for tattoo parlors to also close amid the pandemic.

“I’m just in a lot of pain, and I need care,” she said.

Howard also needs dental work to replace a crown she injured in the fall, but Walz’s order also includes non-emergency or elective dental care also postponed.

Laurie Howard applies a tattoo to a customer at The Ink Lab in Minneapolis in this undated courtesy photo. Howard suffered a concussion and face and neck injuries in a fall in February and she said appointments to deal with those ailments have been postponed by Allina Health as the health-care system prepares to deal with an influx of COVID-19 patients. (Courtesy of Laurie Howard)
Howard said her primary care doctor was communicating with her this week, something she was appreciative of, but no follow-up appointments or solutions were shared. She said attempts to set up a “virtual visits” also didn’t work out.

“They canceled it as a non-urgent treatment, and they didn’t even reschedule any point in time,” Howard said.

Dr. Monte Johnson, Vice President of Medical Affairs for St. Francis Hospital in the Allina system, said in a statement: “We know that COVID-19 is not the only illness out in our community, and other health concerns continue to require care and we are committed to providing the right care to those who need it most during the COVID-19 pandemic. We have instituted processes to be sure patients who need our help during this time can access care in a variety of ways, including online and in-person visits.”

Howard’s friend David Dettloff has reached out to U.S. Sen. Tina Smith and other elected officials on Howard’s behalf.

“Medical providers who are determined to be non-essential can choose if they would like to continue to see patients,” a constituent services representative emailed Dettloff on Wednesday.

Walz’s order, which is based on the guidance of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is to conserve health care resources and reduce contact between patients and providers.

“The greatest risk we face during the COVID-19 pandemic is overwhelming our health care systems and limiting their ability to respond to emerging cases,” Walz said in a statement. “This executive order keeps more health care resources open and prioritizes life-saving intervention for COVID-19 patients and other emergency care.”

Dr. Rahul Koranne, president and CEO of the Minnesota Hospitals Association, said having enough space for COVID-19 patients is among his organization’s top worries, along with adequate supplies and the health of caregivers.

“The most important reason to cancel elective surgeries is actually to preserve and conserve equipment (for) COVID-19 patients, especially if we have a surge,” Koranne said. “That is one main reason why a majority of the large health care systems across the state are pausing elective or non-urgent surgeries.”

Koranne said the current capacity of Intensive Care Units (ICUs) is exacerbated by patients with serious cases of the seasonal flu occupying beds.

“It’s unfortunate that the COVID-19 pandemic is happening at the same time that we are seeing a lot of seasonal flu patients in our health care systems,” Koranne said, “So unfortunately that is definitely a problem we are closely tracking through the Minnesota Department of Health.”

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