ST. CLOUD, Minn. (WCCO) — Doctors in central Minnesota say they have seen COVID-19 cases spike 250% in recent weeks. Now, the health care workers are making a desperate plea to policy-makers.

It’s a new strategy to avoid what they are calling a “sick-down” instead of a shutdown.

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Heath Warnert’s COVID story started around Thanksgiving. The 48-year-old construction worker spent nearly 20 days at St. Cloud Hospital. Six of those days were spent on a ventilator.

“Typically, the people that were in my condition, once they went on a ventilator, they didn’t come off the ventilator,” he said.

Warnert wasn’t vaccinated. It’s a decision he now regrets.

“I’m laying in the hospital, feeling guilty for taking away beds,” he said.

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As the positivity rate climbed last week to nearly 50% in central Minnesota, CentraCare Family physician Dr. Kim Tjaden decided to take what she called a “crisis situation” to city and county meetings. She urged community leaders to act.

“We want a mask mandate again in our community,” she said.

She believes a mask mandate would be the only thing that could make a difference in the short term amid the Omicron surge, since vaccines would take weeks to work.

“There’s lots of great things on the horizon with antivirals and antibodies, but these things are in very, very short supply,” Tjaden said. “We can’t get that to the people who need them during the surge right now.”

While she still encourages people to get vaccinated, the “urgent request” right now is for masking.

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Health experts says that due to the highly-contagious nature of the Omicron variant, people should ditch their cloth masks for a surgical mask or an N95.

Liz Collin