Long-term care confronts the omicron wave

Minnesota's Governor speaks at podium
Gov. Tim Walz (center) and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan speak with the media at the Maplewood Care Center where a team of Minnesota National Guard members are working to help back-fill staffing needs. As of Tuesday, there were 14 Guard teams around the state working in long-term care facilities.
Peter Cox

With omicron becoming the dominant COVID-19 variant and cases again spiking, some in the long-term care industry are worried what another surge might mean for staffing at nursing homes.

At the Homestead at Maplewood long-term care campus northeast of the Twin Cities, Zachary Schmitz has dealt with several rounds of staffing difficulties throughout the pandemic.

“It's been just a consistently week by week staffing challenge ... And that's kind of how it's always been,” said the administrator at the senior and assisted living campus.

The Homestead at Maplewood has had help over the last several weeks from a team of Minnesota National Guard members trained to serve in long-term care facilities across the state. Schmitz said they “were a great relief, especially over the holidays.”

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Teams of guard members are backfilling at a total of 14 long-term care facilities statewide.

Gov. Tim Walz and other state officials visited Schmitz’s facility Tuesday to see the Guard members at work.

Walz says his administration has encouraged anyone to apply to train for free to work in the field. The DFL governor said “1,000 folks are being trained.”

“The goal is to try and have them done by the end of January. Because this is a temporary triage solution to a much longer [term] problem.”

In the short term, Walz says projections show a tightening of hospital capacity.

“I think we are going to approach those peak numbers we saw last November in terms of bed space,” Walz said. “And the reason this is so much more concerning is we still had a full complement of the healthcare workforce last November as opposed to now, where we’ve seen it’s down for different reasons.”

Long-term care facilities have been affected by COVID in multiple ways. Prior to vaccines, residents in long-term care facilities accounted for about two-thirds of all the COVID deaths in the state. That ratio has dropped significantly since vaccinations.

While residents are more protected from COVID-19, they still need care. And staffing, an issue before the pandemic, is too low in many places.

Nursing homes have had to call for emergency backup workers when COVID infections forced workers out on quarantine before. Since mid-summer, the number of resignations in the industry has left many care homes unable to take on new residents.

Kari Thurlow, president and CEO of LeadingAge Minnesota, which represents long-term care facilities across the state, said they’ve struggled when the delta variant swept through. Now omicron may be having an effect.

“Anecdotally, we are hearing acute staffing shortages, where staff are either contracting COVID and have to isolate or they've been exposed and have to isolate. And that is putting a tremendous strain on senior care providers at a time where we were already experiencing staffing shortages, even before this latest surge,” Thurlow said.

Schmitz said when staffing shortages happen, they have to leave beds empty that might otherwise be filled with people rehabbing from surgeries.

Dr. Rahul Koranne, the president and CEO of the Minnesota Hospital Association said that has an upstream effect on hospitals, which depend on nursing homes to free hospital beds.

“It is one of the pieces that is causing the crisis. So if we could get these patients discharged safely to the nursing homes, we could definitely serve more patients with either strokes, heart attacks, motor vehicle accidents, COVID, or those Minnesotans that have deferred their surgeries.”