Pandemic continues to stretch Mitchell area health care resources

Avera Queen of Peace officials urge vaccinations, prudence over holiday season

A general view of Avera Queen of Peace hospital in Mitchell. (Republic file photo)
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Avera Queen of Peace Hospital has been on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic for nearly two years, and officials with the local healthcare provider indicate that the battle will continue into 2022, even as the disease continues to stretch hospital resources and staff to the limit.

Dr. Hilary Rockwell, an emergency medicine physician at Avera, and Doug Ekeren, CEO of Avera Queen of Peace, told members of the media Tuesday afternoon that the public should remain vigilant, get vaccinated and continue to utilize caution and common sense as the holiday season prepares to kick off into full swing around the country.

The arrival of vaccines and an extended campaign promoting the avoidance of large public groups, masking and vaccinations have made a dent in the pandemic’s impact, but cases do continue to come in, with Rockwell saying that there were an average of 7 to 10 COVID-19 patients currently hospitalized at Avera Queen of Peace. In general, she said the hospital is seeing fewer hospitalizations, but those hospitalizations are lasting longer.

“We have had fewer COVID-19 hospitalizations this year, but they are lasting longer,” Rockwell said. “And we’re still projecting to see more cases over the next month or so. COVID-19 patients tend to stay in the hospital longer (than other patients), and we’re seeing a lot of our regular winter emergency room visits and hospitalizations.”

The continuous work needed to address the pandemic has been taking a toll on healthcare workers around the globe. Workers are stressed, tired and anxious after putting themselves at risk for the disease as they continue to work the frontlines of one of the most impactful public health crises in history.


“It’s definitely a marathon and it’s hard and long for everyone. It’s tough and our staff have been working hard picking up extra shifts and pulling together to take care of everyone,” Rockwell said.

Those workers are taking care of patients currently hospitalized in general or in the hospital intensive care unit, but Avera Queen of Peace, like other hospitals around the country, are seeing available beds swallowed up by COVID-19 patients who need vital care and treatment. The latest report from the South Dakota Department of Health indicates there were 595 new cases of the disease reported on Tuesday. There were 7,093 active cases of the disease and 239 currently hospitalized in South Dakota.

There have been 2,749 deaths in South Dakota since the outbreak began. Those numbers are all higher than Rockwell or Ekeren would like to see, and the numbers show the importance of keeping healthcare workers on the job and tending to patients. Avera has taken steps to encourage healthcare workers to stay on the job or join in the fight if they haven’t already.

“Staffing is a challenge across the system, and other industries as well,” Ekeren said. “Avera has made a big investment in our workforce trying to keep the people we have and to recruit others to join.”

Patients also need hospital beds, and they are scarce everywhere. Ekeren said the Avera system has been compensating for bed shortages by utilizing some of their smaller area hospitals to care for patients who may not need the facilities of a larger regional hospital, but health care systems in other states regularly contact Avera officials looking for relief for their own patients.

An administrator in Wisconsin recently called to inquire about bed availability in South Dakota. Ekeren said he had none to offer.

“We don’t have the ICU capacity in our footprint. Between Omaha to Denver to North Dakota to Wisconsin, at any given time you may not be able to find an ICU bed,” Ekeren said.

The best way to combat the problem is by continuing to follow advice from professional health care experts, they said. That starts with vaccinations. While the availability of vaccines has made an impact on the spread of the disease, Rockwell said they need more people to get the initial doses and boosters.


“We don’t have the ICU capacity in our footprint. Between Omaha to Denver to North Dakota to Wisconsin, at any given time you may not be able to find an ICU bed.”

—Doug Ekeren, CEO of Avera Queen of Peace Hospital

“People have to get vaccinated. If you haven’t gotten it yet, get your booster,” Rockwell said. “The best way to slow this down is to get vaccinated.”

She noted that 80% to 90% of COVID-19 hospitalizations in the ICU are unvaccinated patients. Unvaccinated patients otherwise hospitalized for the disease account for about 70% to 80% of those hospitalized. And the majority of ICU patients are COVID-19 patients, she said.

The other suggested steps, now a familiar refrain from health care experts, is to do all the other things that they have said mitigates the spread of COVID-19. That includes keeping family and public gatherings small, wearing masks, washing your hands, staying home when you’re sick and getting tested if you think you have contracted the disease.

These methods were effective throughout the early days of the pandemic, to the point where even flu infection and hospitalizations were low last year. Rockwell said Avera Queen of Peace has already seen more flu cases this year than it did throughout the entirety of the flu season last year.

That may be a sign that people aren’t as vigilant as they were in 2020, but Rockwell hopes people will take the advice seriously, especially with the arrival of the holiday season.

“All these things are important, and it’s about protecting yourself and your loved ones, so you have time in the future to spend with them,” Rockwell said. “It’s still about our community-wide problem. ... The hospital is full, workers are tired and working the best they can. We need to conserve our resources and the public can help with that. Keep your gatherings small, wear a mask, wash your hands."

There is obviously plenty left to fight against COVID-19. The arrival of the Delta and Omicron variants of the disease have kept researchers racing to keep up with the new strains, though Ekeren said there have been no confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in South Dakota at this time.


But it’s likely just a matter of time before it gets here, and any case of COVID-19, regardless of variant, is to be avoided if possible. The more the public works to help mitigate the spread, the better able entities like Avera will be able to deal with patients - both non-COVID-19 patients as well as those who need that specialized care so desperately.

That’s good for the general public and healthcare workers as well, Ekeren said.

“I expect that we’re going to stay busy with all patients, but for us, staffing and bed availability are all really big issues. We’re going to continue to get information out of the public so they can make decisions about their health and protect themselves and their neighbors,” Ekeren said. “(We will continue to) support our staff, because we need them to take care of our patients and residents, and they are tired and worn out.”

Ekeren added that anyone with a healthcare background, especially nurses, should approach Avera about joining the staff if they are so inclined.

“We’d be happy to visit with them because we need the help,” Ekeren said.

Rockwell agreed.

“I’m hoping that if we get things quieted down again and the population halts this, hopefully come spring and summer we can get back to things we like and also give our staff a break to get them back to their families and the things they enjoy,” Rockwell said.

Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at
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