Emergency care exceeding HCMC's capacity, military begin training in to help

the governor speaks with men in military uniform inside a building
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz chats with U.S. Air Force Lt. Col Brandon Shealey (left) who's supervising 23 military medical staffers on temporary assignment at HCMC.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

Nearly four dozen doctors, nurses, and respiratory therapists from the U.S. military are on the ground in Minnesota to ease the strain on the state’s health care system. On Thursday, they'll start providing patient care.

Gov. Tim Walz asked the Defense Department for help because hospitals across the state are beyond capacity caring for COVID-19 patients. Despite high rates of vaccination and booster shots, Minnesota led the nation last week in new per-capita COVID-19 infections. Hospitals are full as they care for the most serious patients.

Two medical response teams of mostly Air Force personnel are shadowing staff at CentraCare Hospital in St. Cloud and HCMC in Minneapolis before they start providing patient care.

A medical professional helps put a large face mask on a soldier.
Kit Bielenberg, an occupational health nurse at HCMC, helps U.S. Air Force medical staff fit their N95 masks on Tuesday.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

Lt. Col. Brandon Shealey, who’s based in Nebraska, is a health care administrator with the Air Force and is supervising the group at HCMC. They’re planning to be there for about a month, but that could be extended.

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“Right now we’re tracking on 30 days, but if we need to be here longer, so be it,” Shealey said.

Hennepin Healthcare CEO Jennifer DeCubellis says she’s happy to have them.

“Minnesotans need to hear us say, demand for emergency and lifesaving care has exceeded our capacity.”

About 9 percent of HCMC’s patients are being treated for COVID-19. But because every other hospital in Minnesota is full, people needing the highest levels of care are transferred to Minneapolis.

“We serve the entire state of Minnesota,” DeCubellis said. “So rural Minnesota, when they have a trauma that happens, and they need a helicopter to get them here, this is where individuals come.”

A woman speaks into a microphone
Hennepin Healthcare CEO Jennifer DeCubellis speaks at a news conference at HCMC on Tuesday.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

The crunch at HCMC doesn’t mean that patients are turned away, but it does mean that it can take longer to bring in a car crash or hunting accident victim from a rural Minnesota hospital. It takes longer for patients to get out of the ER too.

On any given shift DeCubelllis said 20 patients are waiting for space elsewhere in the hospital to open up. The extra hands from the military mean that HCMC is able to open an admitting unit near the emergency department so patients don’t have to wait in the hallway. The hospital also is opening up a half dozen intermediate-level care beds for patients leaving the intensive care unit.

“God forbid you’re in an auto accident and you need to have this care, we can’t do it because we’re clogged up,” said Walz during a visit Wednesday to the hospital. “And that is something that we saw and talked about months ago, and the need to be prepared, and the need to do those things, of vaccination, testing and protecting this hospital capacity.”

This week, the governor also activated 400 Minnesota National Guard members who are training as certified nursing assistants and temporary nursing aides at long-term care facilities.

DeCubellis said adding staff at those facilities will also help free up resources at HCMC, where around 40 patients are awaiting discharge to a lower level of care in the community.