ST. CLOUD — As the number of inpatients being treated for COVID-19 ticks up at St. Cloud Hospital, federal help arrived Monday to support the depleted staff.

"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," said Kathy Parsons, vice president of population health for CentraCare. "Having this team join us to reinforce our caregiver teams [will have] a huge impact on our communities."

The federal help comes in the form of a 23-member medical team that will serve in St. Cloud Hospital's intensive care unit, emergency room, medical units and surgical units for at least the next 30 days, after which the stay could be extended.

The team comes at the request of Gov. Tim Walz, who in mid-November announced CentraCare and HCMC in Minneapolis would receive emergency medical workers from the Department of Defense.

HCMC is using the influx of federal health care workers to open a new inpatient unit. In St. Cloud, it's helping fill the gaps.

As of lunchtime Monday, the number of patients being treated for COVID-19 at CentraCare facilities was 136, a count that's more than doubled in the past three months. And it's expected to continue to rise in the coming days and weeks, according to Dr. Ken Holmen, president and chief executive of CentraCare.

"The pandemic is not going away soon. We have an 18% positivity rate in the broader community," Holmen said Monday at a press conference at St. Cloud Hospital. "That means a lot of folks are still going to get sick."

During last year's statewide pandemic peak in late November, the number of hospitalized patients was 1,864; CentraCare's inpatient peak was about 180, according to Dr. George Morris, incident commander for CentraCare's COVID-19 response team.

"We're seeing numbers now that we haven't seen since the last surge in November [and] December of 2020," Morris said.

COVID-19 hospitalizations increased in Minnesota to a 2021 record of 1,467 on Friday, and included 340 people receiving intensive care.

On Monday, St. Cloud Hospital had about 28 patients in its intensive care unit. Of those, about 25 were on a ventilator. And nearly 80% of ICU patients landed there because of COVID-19, Morris said.

CentraCare is a health care system with eight hospitals and more than 30 clinics in central Minnesota, as well as Carris Health facilities in west-central and southwest Minnesota. The health care system is requiring COVID-19 vaccines for all staff by mid-December but CentraCare leaders did not attribute the staffing shortage to the mandate.

"We have had a staffing issue since pre-COVID. It's always been a challenge to get all the staff that we need, given the growth that we've had and the needs of our community," Parsons said.

St. Cloud Hospital is the 18th site hosting medical response teams; as of Monday, it's one of 10 sites set up in six states, said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Van, commanding general for Joint Task Force Civil Support, which is based in Virginia.

"The team consists of doctors, nurses [and] respiratory therapists and brings an abundance of medical experience and knowledge," he said.

The majority of COVID-19 hospitalizations are among unvaccinated Minnesotans. The St. Cloud area has lagged behind the state in its COVID-19 vaccination rate and, at times, has had the lowest percentage of vaccinated residents. As of Monday, about 50% of residents ages 5 and up in the tri-county area were fully vaccinated; statewide, the rate is about 64%.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Benton, Sherburne and Stearns counties have seen more than 60,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases. The area's COVID death toll is 527.

Parsons encouraged community members to get vaccinated, wear masks and socially distance to help limit the spread of COVID-19.

"As military folks are deployed across the world ... we always want to get our troops home," Parsons said. "Well, we want to work towards getting this team that we're so grateful to have back home, as well, which means it's our job in our community to not only take care of the people who are so sick they are in the hospital, but to prevent it."

The state's rate of new infections over the past seven days is the highest in the nation, despite ranking second among U.S. states for its rate of booster doses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Having the strike team join us creates additional capacity that is desperately needed and a lift in our spirits," Holmen said. "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."

Reporter Jeremy Olson contributed to this report.