Military team arrives to support beleaguered St. Cloud Hospital

A man in military camo uniform wears a mask.
Major General Jeffrey P. Van listens to a question about the Department of Defense collaboration with the St. Cloud Hospital Monday. The 23-member team of doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists will work alongside staff in areas where they are most needed.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

A military medical team has arrived at St. Cloud Hospital to provide help amid the latest COVID-19 surge.

The team will lend much-needed support to staff at central Minnesota’s largest hospital, where a rising number of coronavirus cases combined with a staffing shortage is taking a toll.

The 23-member team of doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists will work alongside staff in areas where they are most needed, including the intensive care unit, surgical wards and the emergency room.

“It's an extra 23 sets of hands, minds, eyes, and ears and talent and skills all together, which in a critical care setting is a really big thing,” said Dr. Kenneth Holmen, president and CEO of CentraCare, which operates St. Cloud and other hospitals in central Minnesota.

A man speaks behind a podium.
Dr. Kenneth Holmen, President and CEO of CentraCare, talks about the medical personnel assistance the St. Cloud Hospital will receive from the Department of Defense.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

St. Cloud was one of two Minnesota hospitals where Gov. Tim Walz requested help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Defense. Another team of military medical personnel arrived last week at Hennepin HealthCare in the Twin Cities.

The team arrived last Friday, and spent the last several days getting credentials, computer and security access and preparing to start work on Tuesday, said Lt. Col. Joseph Huseman, medical response team leader with the U.S. Air Force.

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“After that, we move into more or less a standard shift schedule, depending on where their needs are — whether you're looking at gaps in schedules, or where you need staff more in the evenings, mid shifts, days,” Huseman said. “So it's a balancing act to figure out where that is.”

The team is expected to stay for 30 days, although federal officials say that could be extended if needed.

Having the team available to reinforce weary hospital staff will have a “huge impact,” said Kathy Parsons, CentraCare’s vice president of population health.

“Everyone had been working very hard these last 20 months,” she said. “The volume of patients is not decreasing. Caregivers are exhausted physically and emotionally. And they and their families have given up so much to care for our communities.”

As of Monday, there were 136 patients with COVID in CentraCare hospitals, including 28 in the ICU at St. Cloud Hospital, said Dr. George Morris, critical incident commander of CentraCare's COVID-19 response. That’s left few beds available for patients with other critical care needs, he said.

Meanwhile, virus transmission is showing no signs of slowing in central Minnesota. Morris said the community's test positivity rate is nearly 18 percent, and case numbers are as high as November and December of 2020.

"Our staff are stretched. Our resources are thinning out,” he said. “And we continue to see the burden that it's playing — both within COVID-related conditions and diseases, and all the other routine medical things that people need."