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Hospitals welcome Walz staffing plan

Minnesota's governor seeks $40 million in emergency aid to pay for contract health care workers to help with omicron surge.

ST PAUL, Minn. — Hospital executives and physicians Wednesday praised Governor Tim Walz for his plan to bring hundreds of nurses and other health care professionals to Minnesota to help battle the surge of the omicron variant.

The Democratic chief executive announced plans to spend $40 million in federal American Rescue Plan dollars to help ease the staffing crunch for hospitals that have been virtually overwhelmed with new COVID patients in the past few weeks.

"We’re going to have a pretty challenging couple of weeks here, that’s why we’re taking this extraordinary action," Walz told reporters at an outdoor news conference across the street from Regions Hospital in St. Paul.

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said her department is in negotiation with a national staffing firm, on a contract that would bring in 300 nurses who'd be available available to cover 60-hour work weeks for two months.

"That is going to help us bring in a significant number of staff from a very large staffing agency who’s had really good reviews from other states who’ve used them in a similar way," Commissioner Malcolm told reporters.

The commissioner also announced a series of executive actions to temporarily ease regulations for hospitals and nursing homes, allowing them to open more care beds without extra red tape and licensing fees.

The help couldn't come at a better time, according HealthPartners CEO Andrea Walsh.

"Our team is stretched. Our care teams have taken extra shifts. They’re working longer hours, going above and beyond month after month," Walsh remarked.

"We need additional staff. For instance, today at Regions alone we have 90 RN openings. So, this commitment of staffing agency support will make a material difference."

The CEO of the CentreCare Health Services, Kenneth Holmen, echoed those remarks. He said doctors, nurses and other staff have had to work overtime to cover 20,000 open shifts during the pandemic.

"What was announced today will provide much needed resources, help and the emotional lift to our staff who are significantly burdened."

At the same time new patients are heading to hospitals in droves, many health care workers have been temporarily sidelined by the virus or exposure to it. As of Wednesday, 1,000 of HealthPartners' workforce of 26,000, were out with COVID. 

It's likely many of them caught it in the community, where they are exposed to infected people who aren't wearing masks or social distancing.

"I received text messages from a colleague saying they can’t come in for their shift today," Dr. Benji Mathews, the chief of hospital medicine at Regions, said.

"And my response to that is I want to take care of them, make sure they’re better. But also, I need to think about backup staffing for our system."

Mathews said the many doctors and nurses from the HealthPartners system who normally don't work in hospital settings have come in to fill open shifts during the omicron surge.

As of Tuesday, the Minnesota Department of Health reported 1,508 people were hospitalized across the state for COVID, with 257 of those patients in intensive care beds. The state's test positivity rate was close to 20% Wednesday, another bellwether of the rapidly spreading variant that is hitting unvaccinated people much harder than others.

"We are hopeful it's a rapid rise and a rapid decline in terms of number of cases," Commissioner Malcolm explained. "But these next few weeks are going to be something we've not seen in Minnesota. Ever."

Dr. Mathews and the hospital executives said the best way average people can help health care workers is to avoid catching the virus. They urged Minnesotans to get vaccinated and get booster shots, and to wear masks indoors or in crowds outdoors.

CentreCare's Holmen made a special point to push back against the notion that his organization's vaccine mandate was responsible for the staff shortage.

"CentreCare has over 12,000 employees. We lost 120 employees to the vaccination requirement. Every one of them was a loss, but it's 120 folks. And 40 of them have come back."

Walsh said HealthPartners has lost 66 employees out 26,000 due to the vaccination requirement. She said the first approach to educate employees on the safety of the vaccines and level of protection they provide compared to going without them.

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