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Walz putting National Guard on alert, expanding COVID testing options

Governor Walz says he is putting the National Guard "on alert" to offer staffing support in long-term care facilities around Minnesota.

ROBBINSDALE, Minn. — On Friday, Governor Tim Walz announced that he is taking several steps to respond to the rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations around Minnesota. 

As hospitalizations from the virus have risen in recent weeks, capacity at hospitals around the state has become strained. To help the situation, Walz said he is putting the National Guard "on alert" to help with staffing at long-term care facilities. Walz is also expanding access to the COVID-19 Emergency Staffing Pool, which will let long-term care facilities request short-term emergency temporary staffing if they're dealing with a worker shortage due to a COVID outbreak.

The Department of Human Services has been directed to free up capacity at state long-term care facilities, so these locations can take patients that are currently in hospitals and free up more beds.

After touring North Memorial Hospital in Robbinsdale on Friday morning, Governor Tim Walz and health care leaders addressed the media about these new steps. During the press conference, Walz said the staffing support efforts should help open up hospital capacity.

"Those will be some things that should be able to do that cascading effect of moving about 400-some patients out of the hospital setting, move them to the lower level of care that they need, provide respite care to a very, very stressed workforce in long-term care and the hospitals, and relieve some of that pressure," he said.

The National Guard was also activated to help with a new Community Rapid Testing Program at the state-run testing sites in Stillwater, Hutchinson and Crookston. These locations will offer antigen tests that deliver results in a few minutes to Minnesotans currently experiencing COVID symptoms.

In a press release, the National Guard said that 75 soldiers and airmen are ready to support COVID response efforts starting Monday.

“The Minnesota National Guard’s motto is ‘Always Ready, Always There’ and demonstrates our commitment to support Minnesota citizens,” said Army Major General Shawn Manke, Minnesota National Guard’s Adjutant General, in the release. “We have supported public health activities since March 2020 with varying levels of personnel and activities and are prepared to do so, again.”

The state is also taking steps to meet higher testing demand by partnering with local public health agencies across Minnesota to get more rapid tests to community testing clinics and other locations. According to a press release from the governor's office, more details on new rapid testing options will be released next week.

During Friday's press conference, health care leaders also urged Minnesotans to get vaccinated to help address the dire hospital situation.

Walz and North Memorial Health CEO Dr. Kevin Croston spoke emotionally of the toll the uptick in COVID hospitalizations is taking on frontline medical staff, who are working extra days and hours to keep up with the flood of patients. 

"We continue to hear about the loss of health care workers because of the stress that goes into this," Walz said. "It's real, these are folks who are committed to doing this, but there's only so much they can go through."

Croston said that the surge of hospitalizations the state is seeing is similar to last fall, but with "critical staffing shortages" health care systems are experiencing right now, the situation is exacerbated. 

"This is all avoidable," Croston said. "Please get vaccinated. And even if you are vaccinated, right now, wear a mask, practice hand hygiene, and stay socially distant." 

Chief Hospital Officer at North Memorial Health, Andy Cochrane, said that of the hospital's patients with COVID, 96% in the ICU are unvaccinated, and 77% in general wards are unvaccinated.

"This surge of hospitalizations, both COVID and other, continues to be avoidable," he said. 

Mary Turner, the head of the Minnesota Nurses Association and an ICU nurse herself at North Memorial, applauded the governor for using the National Guard to solve staffing challenges at long-term care facilities. She said she hopes it will indeed ease the burden on hospital workers.

"It's kind of like all hands on deck, as far as being able to free up our hospital beds," Turner said in an interview. "Because there is no room. There is no room whatsoever. And less staff." 

Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said that the way health care workers are being treated amid this surge is also troubling.

During the group's tour of North Memorial, she said they heard stories from workers who are afraid to go outside in their scrubs because they have things thrown at them.

"I'm done not talking about stories like that," Malcom said. "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. And again, the heartbreak of knowing that this is all preventable by us, by the people of Minnesota and the individual decisions we make and the community decisions we make.”

She added that the staffing challenges health care systems are experiencing are "deeply systemic." Last year, many hospitals saw doctors and nurses taking short-term absences because they were sick with COVID, quarantining due to an exposure or taking care of a family member. 

But now, Malcolm said, "this staff is gone."

"They have left the field," she said. "In some cases, they have gone to part-time to try and manage the unbearable long-term stress they've been under."

Malcolm also emphasized that tightened capacity due to these staffing shortages and heightened COVID hospitalizations impacts care for everyone, not just COVID patients.

"As that capacity is so tight, it means care is threatened," Malcolm said. "For heart attacks, strokes, trauma, everything that people depend on the health care system to be there for them immediately. And that's just not something we can take for granted. We have to work to keep that capacity open." 

But Gov. Walz said the state needs more help on the crisis. At the news conference on Friday, he offered forceful words to the legislature, pleading with lawmakers to "please be partners" and "do your job and pass some legislation." Specifically, Walz and Commissioner Malcolm said that it would be helpful for the legislature to consider waivers, allowing for more flexibility on hospital staffing and bed use.

In response, Senate Republican Majority Leader Jeremy Miller said, "Senate Republicans are prepared to come back for a special session to support frontline workers and farmers in need of drought relief. Governor Walz is the only person who can call a special session, and he alone is choosing to find reasons not to do so." 

The governor and Republican leaders in the Senate have been engaged in an ongoing political back-and-forth over a possible special session. Earlier Friday, Senator Miller sent a letter to Walz, outlining concerns "about the vaccination mandates recently imposed on Minnesota workers, the availability of personal medical information, and reforms to peacetime emergency powers." 

Walz said on Friday he would call a special session only for narrower purposes, to offer relief on COVID and the drought. 

The governor, who said he only became aware of the letter on his way to touring the hospital, lashed out at Republicans, who have also suggested they may use a special session to assess the job status of Walz's cabinet. 

"My patience level is gone," Walz said. "Go stand up there (in the hospital), and listen to what they said and look at that person in that bed, and tell me you're talking about some fake emergency powers thing because you think it has a political payoff for you. I don't have time for it. I definitely know that emergency room physician doesn't have time for it. And Minnesotans don't."