Defense Department will help relieve 2 Minnesota hospitals

Hennepin County Medical Center
HCMC is one of the hospitals getting relief from the Department of Defense.
Lorna Benson | MPR News 2014

Updated: Nov. 18, 3:10 p.m. | Posted: Nov. 17, 12:21 p.m.

The Department of Defense will send medical teams to two major Minnesota hospitals to relieve doctors and nurses who've been swamped by a growing wave of COVID-19 patients, Gov. Tim Walz announced Wednesday.

The teams, with 22 people each, will arrive at HCMC and St. Cloud Hospital next week and begin treating patients immediately, Walz said in a conference call from the Finnish capital of Helsinki — the latest stop on his European trade mission.

Minnesota has become one of the country's worst hotspots for new COVID-19 infections. Hospital beds are filling up with unvaccinated people, and staffs are being worn down by the surge. As of Tuesday, 1,382 people are hospitalized in the state with COVID, which is the highest that number has been all year. Ninety-six percent of the state’s ICU beds are currently in use.

Officials at CentraCare, which operates St. Cloud Hospital, say they're eagerly anticipating the extra help in central Minnesota.

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“We have been inundated with patients needing high level of care whether they’re COVID or whether they’re in there for other critical reasons,” said Kathy Parsons, vice president of population for CentraCare. “There’s a high demand and limited resources.”

She says the 22-member federal team will include physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists and administrative staff and will allow CentraCare to take care of more — and sicker — patients.

The team will likely work in the ICU, emergency room or in progressive care units for very sick patients who need a high level of care. Parsons says CentraCare has already taken steps to alleviate the staffing shortage such as hiring traveling nurses, calling in retired workers and redeploying staff from other units.

State government response

Walz said he has no plans right now to declare another peacetime emergency to get a handle on the surge. He said he is exhausting other options first, including a continued push to get Minnesotans vaccinated. 

“I think we know what the things are that need to get done here,” Walz said. “Minnesotans know what this is. And I think using those tools and effectively asking Minnesotans to implement them is our surest way to breaking the back on this current surge.”

Walz also doesn’t want to give Senate Republicans an opportunity to follow through on their threat to fire his health commissioner, Jan Malcolm. A peacetime emergency would assure such a showdown.

“I need my team in place. I need the thousands of decisions that my health team is making every day. And I don’t want to do anything that jeopardizes having the people in place at this critical time.”

Walz also criticized Senate Republicans for not taking action on a list of requests from hospitals and long-term care facilities several weeks ago to help them through the surge they saw coming.

“I would still really encourage the Legislature to try and lift a hand. But I’m not so hopeful on that.”

Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, responded in a written statement.

“We remain ready to come back for a special session to address front-line worker bonus pay, drought relief and immediate COVID needs,” Miller wrote. “The governor is the only person who can call a special session, and we look forward to continuing discussions with the governor when he gets back from his trade mission.” 

In comments to MPR News earlier this week, Miller said that he sees Walz as the main obstacle to negotiating a bill to take up in a possible special session.

“I thought we were getting close to an agreement,” Miller said. “But it seems like each time we get close, the governor comes back with more requests.”

Malcolm, who was also on the governor’s call, said she is glad for the outside help from the Defense Department. 

“We would love to get more,” Malcolm said. “But that would be a question of how many teams are available at the federal level.”

Malcolm said Tuesday that she’s ready to expand access to booster vaccines to all adults by the end of the week if the federal government doesn’t act first.

The governor also announced that a third skilled-nursing facility has agreed to serve as a "hospital decompression" site for patients who no longer need acute hospital care but aren't ready to go home. Cerenity Senior Care-Marian of St. Paul will accept up to 27 patients from Twin Cities hospitals that are close to capacity.

Ten nurses from the federal Public Health Service and 15 nursing assistants from the Minnesota National Guard and private vendors will provide transitional care. Similar sites have already been set up at nursing homes in Brainerd and Shakopee to create additional transitional care beds, which are in short supply.