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Walz to deploy National Guard to help ease COVID-19 surge

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announces measures on Friday, Oct. 15, 2021, to use the Minnesota National Guard to alleviate staffing shortages at health care facilities that have been hit hard by the COVID-19 surge. The governor spoke outside North Memorial Health Hospital in the Minneapolis suburb of Robbinsdale. (AP Photo/Grant Schulte)

ROBBINSDALE, Minn. (AP) — Gov. Tim Walz said Friday he’ll use the Minnesota National Guard to help alleviate staffing shortages at care facilities that are struggling to cope with the surge in COVID-19 cases among unvaccinated Minnesotans.

“These folks need respite care. They’re at a breaking point. They can’t go anymore,” Walz said.

The governor went to North Memorial Health Hospital to announce plans for relieving overstretched staffs at long-term care facilities that prevent hospitals from discharging patients into transitional care centers. More than 400 Minnesota hospital patients are currently waiting for beds to open up are taking up space needed for incoming patients, he said.

Walz said the number of soldiers who will provide that relief and their exact roles have yet to be determined, but said it would be a “fairly large contingent.”

“We’re not going to send untrained National Guard into an ICU unit, but we can give them the training necessary to provide … the long-term care for the other folks,” he said.

Hospitals across Minnesota are at or near capacity. They’re currently treating just over 1,000 COVID-19 patients. But officials say the problem is not just due to the coronavirus, but also other conditions such as heart attacks, strokes, trauma, scheduled surgeries and a backlog of procedures that began building up earlier in the pandemic.

The governor also reactivated an emergency staffing pool that operated earlier in the pandemic to help care centers that suddenly found themselves with too few workers. And he announced plans to expand the availability of rapid testing with at least six more community sites to make it easier for people with symptoms to get results back in minutes. The Guard said 75 members would support the testing push, a role the Guard also filled earlier in the pandemic.

Dr. Kevin Croston, CEO of the North Memorial Health system, said the “roller coaster” that his employees are enduring is happening all over Minnesota.

“Our teams are now more stressed than they’ve ever been,” Croston said. “And we have critical staffing shortages layered on top of that that we didn’t have a year ago.”

Andy Cochrane, chief hospital officer at North Memorial Health, said the average age of hospitalized patients is going down with each wave. He said 96% of intensive care patients at North Memorial’s hospitals in Robbinsdale and Maple Grove who test positive are unvaccinated, while 77% testing positive in their medical-surgical units haven’t been immunized.

Walz and Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said they were heartbroken to hear from caregivers that they’ve become afraid to go out in public in their scrubs because they’re increasingly getting abused by people who somehow blame them for the pandemic, or still deny that COVID-19 is real.

“That is just so incredibly offensive that these people who are literally putting their lives on the line to save ours are not being treated today with the same kind of respect that they were treated with when this began,” Malcolm said.

Walz called on the Legislature once again to pass a emergency waivers and other measures he proposed earlier to ease the pressure on care facilities.

But plans remain stalemated for a special session to deal with that proposal and others. Republican Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, of Winona, sent Walz a letter Friday indicating his caucus is still unwilling to guarantee they won’t use the special session to fire Malcolm, which is one of the governor’s conditions for calling them back to St. Paul. Walz urged lawmakers to put aside their differences and get something done.

“This should have been over. The economy could be stronger. We could have more people alive,” Walz said. “The idea that we’re losing 25 Minnesotans a day to a preventable disease that is almost 99-plus percent preventable if you get a vaccine is unconscionable. We’re better than this.”