ANOKA, Minn. (FOX 9) - Soldiers from the Minnesota National Guard took turns practicing bedside care on mannequins and each other Thursday in two Anoka Technical College classrooms, preparing for their deployment to severely short-staffed nursing homes to deal with the latest COVID-19 surge.
About 300 Guardsmen are participating in a week-long training spread out across 16 technical colleges in the state. Gov. Tim Walz activated them before Thanksgiving as hospitals were backing up because a lack of long-term care staff meant there was nowhere to discharge patients. Minnesota care facilities are some 23,000 staffers short, according to industry estimates.
At lightning speed, the soldiers are learning how to be certified nursing assistants under the guidance of nursing instructors, including two at Anoka Technical College who are teaching 60 skills to care for people who need help with daily living.
"I have to say, they're exceptional," instructor Cindy Oquist said in an interview inside her classroom. "We'll be lucky to have them care for us."
Minnesota reported its first confirmed case of the omicron COVID-19 variant on Thursday. The state is currently in the throes of a wave fueled by the delta variant, which has 1,549 Minnesotans hospitalized, near a 2021 high.
Walz activated the Guard just as the technical colleges meant to train the soldiers were preparing to go on Thanksgiving break. The schools reopened, and the soldiers started classes on Saturday.
Virtually none of the Guardsmen have prior experience in nursing. The National Guard didn't want to take its members who are health care workers away from their civilian jobs to put them in uniform, said Lt. Col. Brian Douty, the officer in charge of the COVID-19 response.
"This is very new to a lot of these soldiers and airmen," Douty said in an interview. "I have no doubt our soldiers are going to be ready once they get into these facilities to conduct the same level of care that the current staff is."
It's not clear how long the National Guard will be needed. Minnesota Adjutant General Shawn Manke has said there are plans in place if more than 300 soldiers are required.
The Walz administration is funneling $50 million in federal money into retention and hiring bonuses, training programs, and other measures designed to boost nursing home staffing.
Nursing homes were hotspots for the first COVID-19 outbreaks in 2020 before almost all residents were vaccinated. Citing burnout and low pay, significant numbers of staff have since left those workplaces.
Maj. Dan LaFontaine was among those training to be a certified nursing assistant. He said he was not fearful of contracting the virus in a nursing home once he's deployed next week.
"Of course, I'm a little bit nervous but the training here -- I think we'll be ready with the training here," he said.