Walz activates 400 National Guard members to help staff nursing homes

Gov. Tim Walz said Monday he is activating the Minnesota National Guard to form "response teams" that will provide support to long-term care facilities facing severe staffing shortages amid the state's COVID-19 surge.

Over the next week, 400 National Guard members will start training as certified nursing assistants and temporary nursing aides, the governor said in a news release. National Guard teams will deploy for up to three weeks at a time to nursing homes that ask for help from the Minnesota Department of Health.

Guard members will also continue to be deployed at three hospital decompression sites in Shakopee, Brainerd and St. Paul to provide transitional care to patients who no longer need to be hospitalized.

Walz also said he will use $50 million in federal funding to help with employee hiring and retention at long-term care facilities. The facilities must use at least 90 percent of the emergency grants for hiring and retention bonuses. Nursing facilities can use the leftover funding to offset increased payroll taxes, workers' compensation premiums, and federal and state unemployment insurance associated with the bonuses.

The $50 million from the American Rescue Plan is under Walz's purview. Monday, the governor's administration submitted the spending plan to a legislative advisory commission for review.

Also on Monday, Minnesota Senate Republicans proposed a special session to approve a nursing home relief package of up to $200 million in federal funds. The money would create $1,500 bonuses for staff retention and sign-backs of former staff, and up to $2,000 training and sign-on bonuses for newly trained certified nursing assistants.

But, the Senate GOP was mum when asked if it would use the special session to vote to fire Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm. Some Republicans have called for Malcolm's job, and Walz has said he won't call a special session unless the GOP drops the threat.

Walz's deployment of the National Guard comes as two federal emergency medical teams are scheduled to arrive in Minnesota this week to support staff at the Hennepin County Medical Center and St. Cloud Hospital.

The state is dealing with the country's second-worst COVID-19 outbreak, behind only Michigan. Minnesota's seven-day average positivity rate was 9.7 percent, while 1,373 people were hospitalized--a 40% increase since the start of November.