Federal medical teams will arrive in Minnesota next week to provide much needed staffing support at two state hospitals hit hard by the ever-growing COVID-19 surge.
HCMC and CentraCare, including St. Cloud Hospital, each will receive 22 emergency medical workers from the Department of Defense after a request from Gov. Tim Walz.
"Every day, our doctors and nurses are treating Minnesotans sick with COVID-19 or suffering other emergencies," Walz said. "But they are under water, and they need all the help we can give them. I'm grateful the Biden administration heeded our request and is sending in reinforcements."
Walz also announced Wednesday that Cerenity Senior Care Marian in St. Paul will become the third long-term care facility in the state to open its beds to hospitalized patients, helping relieve the pressure as COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to climb.
Although nursing homes and assisted-living facilities historically have taken in temporary residents from hospitals who still need help before they can go home, state officials have made arrangements so far with three facilities to set aside dozens of beds to ease the backlog at hospitals, where some patients have long waits in emergency departments before they can be admitted.
"Our current reality is that our demand is exceeding the capacity of all hospitals and health systems across the state of Minnesota," said Jennifer DeCubellis, CEO at Hennepin Healthcare, which operates HCMC in downtown Minneapolis. "The volumes are higher than we have seen across the state of Minnesota in general, both COVID and non-COVID."
HCMC will use the influx of federal health care workers to open a new inpatient unit
"This will create additional capacity to get individuals in the emergency department into inpatient treatment so our emergency department remains open for our crisis responses," she said. "These federal resources are helping us make sure that we stay open for trauma … and medical emergencies."
Only 47 intensive care beds were available in the state Tuesday, according to health officials. Minnesota hospitals were caring for a 2021 high of 1,382 COVID-19 patients, including 320 in intensive care.
Twelve of the state's hospitals reported that they were at 100% capacity for the week that ended Nov. 11, according to federal data analyzed by the University of Minnesota hospitalization tracking project.
These included some of the state's largest hospitals, such as Mercy in Coon Rapids and Regions and United in St. Paul, as well as smaller hospitals such as Regina in Hastings, Owatonna Hospital and CentraCare's hospital in Monticello.
Another 22 hospitals reported average daily capacity levels of 90 to 99%.
Allina Health said its COVID-19 patient load continues to mostly be the unvaccinated. Of 328 coronavirus patients it was caring for on Monday, 72% were not vaccinated. Patients with serious COVID-19 complications were nearly all unvaccinated, including 92% of intensive care patients and 94% of those on ventilators.
A shortage of health care workers in hospitals and long-term care facilities has made it difficult to respond to both COVID-19 and health care needs caused by other diseases and trauma.
Cerenity Senior Care Marian will accept up to 27 patients who no longer need to be in the hospital but require ongoing monitoring. Ten nurses from the federal government and 15 nursing assistants from the Minnesota National Guard and private companies will help the facility care for the new residents.
Good Samaritan Society-Bethany in Brainerd has provided 34 beds and Benedictine St. Gertrude's in Shakopee has set aside 27 beds.
Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said the state has asked the federal government for more emergency medical teams, but she said many states are asking for similar help.
"There are additional hospitals that would love that help," she said. "We are hopeful that there might be additional federal support for hospitals."
Although Minnesota hospitals faced staffing shortages during the COVID-19 surge late last year, most of that was because of workers getting sick themselves or needing to care for infected family members. The shortfalls now are the result of nurses and other health workers leaving the profession altogether.
"The situation is different now," Malcolm said. "Staffing shortages are much more structural, much more permanent."
Another 3,457 COVID-19 cases and 46 deaths were reported by the Minnesota Department of Health on Wednesday, bringing the pandemic totals to 861,235 infections and 9,093 fatalities.
The testing positivity rate has increased to 10.5%, a level that state health officials categorize as high risk.
"We are alarmed by the numbers we have seen in the last week," Malcolm said. "It seems in recent days that the pace of growth is picking up."
To help stem the tide of new cases caused by the highly contagious delta variant, Minnesota health officials Tuesday said they would open up eligibility for booster doses to all adults if the federal government does not change the criteria soon. On Wednesday, Vermont, Maine, Rhode Island and Kansas were among the states to expand eligibility, joining several others that made the move this week.
It is unclear when Minnesota will make its announcement, but Malcolm said it would happen this week.
"We have signaled our intent and communicated that to our federal partners," she said. "We intend to go ahead by the end of the week, but we are hoping very much that that is a federal standard."
Federal guidelines recommend boosters for elderly, long-term care residents, those with underlying health conditions and workers in high-risk occupations.
As of Monday, more than 740,000 booster shots and third doses had been given to those who have immune systems that are weak because of organ transplants, cancer treatment or other medical conditions.
Boosters and shots for children ages 5-11 have helped increase the number of COVID-19 immunizations. Last week there were 203,000 shots administered, up significantly from the 97,000 given the week of Oct. 17.
Nearly 71% of Minnesotans 12 and older are fully vaccinated.
Health officials said increasing the vaccination rate and safety measures, such as wearing masks indoors and social distancing, are the keys to stopping the spread and preventing serious illness.
"We can't rely on these federal resources to be here forever," DeCubellis said.