Local COVID-19 experts are again stressing the importance of wearing masks, social distancing and avoiding indoor crowds.

During a Thursday Zoom news conference, doctors at Essential Health and St. Luke’s in Duluth  said the latest surge in COVID cases has populated hospitals to near capacity, in part because they’re also busy serving patients who delayed procedures earlier this year when medical professionals feared mixing the two groups.

“We’ve learned a lot about how to treat COVID,” said Dr. John Prior, president of Essentia Health’s east market. One lesson that was learned: They can safely treat COVID patients while also providing non-COVID services. He and Dr. Nick VanDeelen, chief medical officer at St. Luke’s, stressed the need to take COVID-19 seriously. 

“If we don’t, it’s going to linger and continue to affect people’s lives,” Prior said.

Quite likely, VanDeelen said, this winter will be similar, if not worse, than last spring. 

“Hang in there. Our hospitals and clinics are safe,” he said, urging people to get a flu shot.

Prior suggested staying away from indoor spaces crowded with people. Even buying groceries, he said, should be done quickly to limit exposure to others who might be infected.  

“When you go to a grocery store, get in and out as soon as possible,” he said. 

Despite talk on national television about herd immunity, the local doctors said it’s not a viable solution. 

“Millions would die,” warned Dr. Andrew Thompson of St. Luke’s.