Military doctors land in Minneapolis to take on hospital surge

HCMC emergency entrance
Hennepin Healthcare will use the federal medical help to set up a 10-bed transition unit that will help clear out the hospital’s emergency department.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News 2015

Two dozen military medical personnel are flying and driving into the Twin Cities today, kicking off a 30-day stint as relief for beleaguered staff at Hennepin Healthcare, where they’re turning away some of the state’s sickest patients because they don’t have any more beds. 

The help comes after Minnesota led the nation in per-capital COVID infections last week.  

Hennepin Healthcare doctors said that even after adding around 40 beds from last year, they’re turning down as many as 50 transfer requests a day from hospitals around Minnesota looking for more advanced care for their patients. 

Serious trauma patients, people with serious burns, acute carbon monoxide poisoning and patients that need extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machines often wind up getting transferred to Minneapolis, says Dr. Dan Hoody, medical director at Hennepin Healthcare.  

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“What should be happening, is that when someone is identified as needing a higher level of care ... We get the patient transferred as quickly as possible, and we get them the best timely care,” said Hoody, speaking at a press conference Monday. “What’s happening today is not this.” 

A request by Gov. Tim Walz to federal authorities earlier this month is bringing in two so-called Medical Response Teams from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Defense. 

“They are doctors and nurses back home at their local (military) medical facilities,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Bob Harlan, who talked about the response today. “They are coming here to support the public.” 

They’re expected to start work in the hospital on Thanksgiving Day. The other team will be arriving in St. Cloud this week. Their initial response is scheduled to last for 30 days, although federal officials said that could be extended an additional 30 days. 

Hennepin Healthcare said they would be using the extra help to set up a 10-bed transition unit that will help clear out the hospital’s emergency department — where there were five people stuck getting ventilator care just on Monday. Doctors said they don’t typically do any ongoing ventilator care in the emergency department. 

That, in turn, will free emergency department beds from the hospital’s ambulance dock, helicopter pad, triage unit and from other hospitals that have sicker patients. 

“We hope this is short term, because we want this surge to go down,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who helped expedite the miliary medical aid. Similar teams have been working in Washington state, Montana, Louisiana, Colorado and other places around the country. 

Speaking at the Hennepin Healthcare specialty center this morning, Klobuchar said the situation is rapidly becoming a crisis as the strain of the pandemic is taking its toll on medical personnel. 

"We have one of the best medical communities — if not the best doctors and nurses in the country — but right now Minnesota has 400 less medical staffed beds than we did at Thanksgiving last year,” Klobuchar said.  

She also urged people to get vaccinated. “I can’t tell you how important this moment in time it is for Minnesota right now,” she said. “We are here to tell you: You have to get your boosters. You have to get it for your family. You have to get it for these doctors and nurses.”