HIBBING — Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz has been requesting that cities across the state consider using ice arenas as backup facilities for hospitals to handle the potential rise in people seeking medical care due to COVID-19.

As communities scramble to increase the capacity of beds and ICU beds across the state, the Hibbing City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved spending about $40,025 to buy and install an 800A automatic transfer switch and rent a 500KW generator for the Hibbing Memorial Building. City officials considered the limited number of beds at Fairview Range Medical Center and found backup space in the 150-square-foot multi-purpose arena on 23rd Street as backup spacing.

“This will be used for overflow,” City Administrator Tom Dicklich said during the council meeting, in which elected officials dialed into a teleconference.

Earlier this week, Pete Hyduke, director of city services, addressed the city council in a letter saying that he had been “working closely” with Fairview Range Medical Center on using the Memorial Building as the “Civil Defense building for the City of Hibbing.” He continued, “We have met numerous times over the last two weeks and feel we have come up with a solid plan of attack to move forward.” The one obstacle: The Memorial Building “does not have standby backup power should we lose our power feed” from Hibbing Public Utilities — the local utility which has already suffered power outages this year.

In his letter, Hyduke wrote that the city could overcome the obstacle with the procurement of the portable generator and automatic transfer ensuring power to the building. “Time is of the essence because everyone in the state and country is looking for these same components,” he wrote. In that mindset, Hyduke explained that he already helped to secure the generator from the Minnesota-based construction company supplier named Ziegler and located the automatic transfer switch in Texas. The switch was shipped out this past Monday.

Hyduke noted that Fairview Range will coordinate all rentals, purchases and contract work for the project, and plans to seek out grants to offset costs. Other than the rental generator, all other electrical components will become the city’s property. “In the future we will now have the option to hook up to a temporary or permanent generator,” he wrote.

The local council’s approval of the project comes after the Minnesota Department of Health announced its officials are searching for 2,750 beds to add room for potentially infected people in a time when the state has about 2,000 beds available including 235 ICU beds. The added beds would boost statewide capacity to more than 5,000 in a state of 5.6 million residents. Officials have been seeking out extra space including the closed Prairie Correctional Facility in western Minnesota as the M Health Fairview system in the Twin Cities built out the Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul from 50 to 90 beds — including 35 ICU beds — in an effort to remake into a center for COVID-19 patients.

Like most rural regions statewide, the Iron Range has a limited number of beds. Fairview Range is licensed for an estimated 175 beds. Hospital staff have not publicly stated the capacity of general-use beds or ICU beds or how many are currently occupied.

City officials say that the hospital is set in Hibbing (Pop. 16,000), in the middle of smaller cities such as Chisholm (5,000) and Buhl (1,000) and so the procurement of the Memorial Building provides additional space for ICU beds and so-called surgical beds in case the coronavirus spreads across this portion of the Iron Range, a region with some of the highest rates per capita statewide of older adults and for people with underlying health conditions.

Data from Minnesota Compass, a social indicators project led by Wilder Research, shows that 17 percent of the 5.6 million Minnesotans are over the age of 65. The number of seniors living in the northern parts of the state increases as a large portion of the population here are part of the baby-boom generation, people born between 1946 and 1964. Data shows that 23.7 of the 327,939 living in the Northland are over the age of 65.

On March 13, the governor declared a Peacetime State of Emergency to authorize all necessary resources to be used in support of the COVID-19 response. Later that day, the City of Hibbing announced it would close all events at public buildings to help ‘flatten the curve’ among its 16,000 residents living in a town spanning 186-square-miles, the largest city by total area in the state. Local officials moved to shut down public use of government buildings, except City Hall.

After similar initiatives, Duluth Mayor Emily Larson on March 17 declared a local emergency for about 85,000 residents in the southern portion of St. Louis County. The following day, the County Board declared a state of emergency for all 200,000 residents spread across 6,860-square-miles, an area representing the largest county by total area in Minnesota. That evening, Hibbing Mayor Rick J. Cannata declared a local emergency and shut down all public use of government buildings, this time closing the doors on City Hall.

Two weeks after declaring the local emergency, Cannata on Wednesday touted the city’s approval of the use of the Memorial Building as room for overflow to further prepare for the coronavirus potentially affecting its residents.

“We were one of the first cities to close our buildings,” Cannata said, adding that city officials continue to be proactive in their preparation of COVID-19. “I think this can help our community.”

As of Thursday afternoon, the Minnesota Health Department reported that St. Louis County confirmed 13 cases of the coronavirus and 742 people tested positive statewide. Eighteen people have died. Seventy-five people are still hospitalized, with 38 in ICU. At least 373 people are now off isolation.

County officials have not detailed the exact whereabouts of the people infected with Covid-19 and maintain that citizens should act as if the coronavirus were already in the community. Officials maintain that people ought to abide by the governor’s recent issuance of a ‘stay at home’ order and continue to practice social distancing.

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