Feds sending emergency medical teams to Minnesota to deal with COVID outbreak

The federal government is sending two U.S. Department of Defense emergency medical teams to two Minnesota hospitals with the state in the grips of one of the country's worst COVID-19 outbreaks.

The two teams, each made up of 22 members, will arrive at Hennepin County Medical Center and St. Cloud Hospital next week and start helping doctors and nurses there immediately, Gov. Tim Walz said.

The federal assistance lays bare the staffing shortages at Minnesota hospitals and the sharp spike in COVID-positive patients. Other Minnesota hospitals have also asked for emergency federal help, but federal teams are in short supply, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said.

"We would love to get more but that would be a question of how many teams are available," she told reporters on a Wednesday morning conference call.

Minnesota hospitals are almost at capacity. COVID hospitalizations have shot up this month, from 979 on Nov. 1 to 1,382 currently. This week, Minnesota's COVID outbreak was behind only Michigan's in terms of its severity, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

The Minnesota Nurses Association criticized the federal relief as a "Band-Aid" and said the problem was hospitals that maintained inadequate staffing levels.

"There is no shortage of Minnesota nurses who want to work at the bedside and care for patients. There is a shortage of nurses willing to work under the unsafe and unsustainable conditions hospitals have created," said Mary Turner, president of the nurses' union.

The Minnesota Hospitals Association did not respond to a request for comment about the federal relief.

Walz, speaking to reporters from Finland where he is on a trade mission, said he had no plans to call another state of emergency because of the political fallout, including the possibility that Republicans who control the Minnesota Senate would fire Malcolm during a special session over the emergency declaration.

Walz said a state of emergency is "just not as effective of a tool right now" because hospitals are already limiting some surgeries on their own and some people wouldn't wear a mask even if he required it.

"This is not about holding back and saying, if the governor would just call a state of emergency, the death rates would go down. That is demonstrably false at this point in time – especially if people did not follow (the orders)," he said.

He said he thought his previous March 2020-June 2021 emergency saved lives because it came before vaccines were widely available.

Walz's staff ended the news conference before all members of the Minnesota press corps could ask their questions.

The Minnesota Medical Association, which represents thousands of physicians, medical students and residents, urged people to get vaccinated and wear masks to slow the virus's spread. Some health care professionals also said the situation requires renewed mandates from the state.

"Obviously the political climate makes it difficult," said Dr. Randy Rice, the association's president. "We have the tools at hand for people to protect themselves, but we still need people to step up and do that." 

Staff burnout and heavily burdened hospitals is "doubly frustrating for most of us because we really have the tools to put this to bed," he said.

In addition to bringing in the federal emergency staffing teams, Minnesota is opening a third hospital decompression site. 

Cerenity Senior Care-Marian of St. Paul will have 27 beds available for patients who are released from Twin Cities-area hospitals but can't immediately go to long-term care settings because of staffing and bed shortages.

The other sites are in Brainerd and Shakopee. Federally staffed nurses work with nursing assistants from the Minnesota National Guard and private facilities at the sites.