See more of the story

A revised dashboard with a daily count of COVID-19 hospitalizations in Minnesota was unveiled Thursday to inform hospital leaders about bed availability and the public about the spread of the coronavirus behind the pandemic.

The dashboard showed on Thursday that 139 patients with COVID-19 were in intensive care units in Minnesota hospitals and another 939 patients with non-COVID medical problems were in ICU beds in the state. Another 318 patients with COVID-19 are in non-ICU beds in Minnesota hospitals and 6,639 patients are admitted to such beds for other medical needs.

Hospital leaders said they were blindsided last month when the Minnesota Department of Health removed similar data from its COVID-19 situation page, which they used to assess local beds and staffing needs. They welcomed the new dashboard information.

“It is important that we have a line of sight into what is occurring throughout the state, regionally and on a daily basis from these metrics,” said Dr. Rahul Koranne of the Minnesota Hospital Association.

The updated dashboard also has revised Minnesota’s available ICU bed capacity, indicating that the state has 1,476 beds immediately available and another 408 that could be readied in 72 hours. That means that 73% of the state’s immediately available ICU beds are in use. On Wednesday, the dashboard showed only 1,222 ICU beds immediately available, but another 936 in reserve.

As part of the new dashboard, the state also started listing the number of general medical beds available, a total of 9,947. That process resulted in a more precise accounting of actual ICU beds vs. general medical beds that could be converted in emergencies, said Kris Ehresmann, state infectious disease director.

The Health Department on Thursday reported eight COVID-19 deaths and 1,276 infections, bringing the state’s totals to 2,107 deaths and 107,922 known infections.

It also reported at least 85 admissions of Minnesotans with COVID-19 to hospitals on Oct. 5 — the highest total since May 19, when the state’s first wave of viral activity was peaking. Ehresmann said the continued increase in infections inevitably was going to increase hospitalizations.

“We’re seeing kind of what we said was going to happen,” she said.

The state nonetheless on Thursday revised restaurant and bar restrictions, allowing groups of 10 to sit together instead of a maximum of six.

Tables must remain spread out for adequate social distancing, and establishments still can’t host more than 250 people, but the change offers flexibility to a hard-hit industry that tends to see larger groups during the holidays, said Steve Grove, state employment and economic development commissioner.

“In an effort to have a balanced approach, it could help industry and not affect meaningful growth of the virus,” he said.

Hospitalizations are a key metric for the severity of the pandemic, because infection numbers don’t differentiate between mild or severe illnesses and can be influenced by changes in the number of tests performed.

The Health Department switched last month from reporting the total number of Minnesotans hospitalized with COVID-19 in any state on its situation page to only the number of new admissions each day.

Ehresmann said neither number is good for local hospital leaders to use in planning, because they included Minnesotans admitted to hospitals in any state.

She added that the department always planned to add new data to the state’s separate pandemic dashboard, indicating how many hospital beds in Minnesota were filled with COVID and non-COVID patients.

In the delay before Thursday’s reveal of the new data, the Health Department faced criticism from the public, hospital leaders and a group of Republican lawmakers earlier this week who urged that the old data be restored.

Ehresmann said the changes align two state COVID-19 tracking websites around separate goals. The situation page is focused on the epidemiological tracking of the infectious disease among Minnesotans. The dashboard assesses the effectiveness of Minnesota’s response to the pandemic.

The new dashboard is more reliable for assessing hospital capacity because it is based on hospital reports rather than state health care workers checking the status of Minnesotans hospitalized for COVID-19, said Pinar Karaca-Mandic, a researcher at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. She maintains a website tracking COVID-19 hospitalizations.

“This kind of reporting … is a better approach,” she said. “It’s sort of isolated from that additional layer of tracking and figuring out: Did this person die? Did this person get discharged? Or did this person transfer from an ICU bed to a non-ICU bed, and vice versa?”

Staff writer Christopher Snowbeck contributed to this report.