Walz puts National Guard on alert, expands rapid testing options as Minnesota's COVID cases rise

Gov. Tim Walz laid out a new COVID-19 action plan Friday putting the Minnesota National Guard on alert and increasing rapid testing opportunities as the state’s surge in infections continues to strain health care resources.

Walz said he is taking the following steps to free up capacity at Minnesota’s long-term care facilities in order to relieve hospital capacity:

  • Putting the National Guard on alert to provide staffing support at Minnesota’s long-term care facilities
  • Expanding access to the COVID-19 Emergency Staffing Pool, which allows long-term care facilities to request short-term emergency temporary staffing if they’re experiencing a staffing shortage due to an outbreak of COVID-19 at their facility
  • Directing the Department of Human Services to free up capacity at state long-term care facilities

The National Guard says 75 soldiers and airmen are preparing to start assisting with the state’s COVID-19 response effort starting Monday. Walz said those National Guard members will need to be vaccinated.

Unlike last fall when medical staffing shortages were more temporary, help from Guard members could be needed for a lot longer. 

"God help any one of us if we have a family member who need to get in and there’s not capacity," Walz said at a news conference Friday. 

Touring the ICU unit at North Memorial Health Hospital, Walz and Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm spoke with staff and saw patients.

Statewide, there are more people on ventilators right now than at any other point in the pandemic.

"I can’t stress this enough Minnesotans, don’t end up in the hospital if you can help it," Walz said.

With COVID hospitalizations creeping past a thousand this week, the bed shortage is at a breaking point,

"A very typical thing is you come here from an accident, COVID or a scheduled surgery hip replacement. You have that done, you get out of the danger zone the first few days and you are stepped down to where your rehabilitation starts," Walz said. "There is no ability to step down now because there’s no capacity in those facilities."

By bringing in the National Guard to help at long term care facilities, expanding the state’s COVID-19 staffing pool and directing the state’s Department of Human Services to free up capacity at state long-term care locations, Walz said more than 400 beds could be made available.

National Guard helping expand rapid testing

Walz is taking the following steps to expand rapid testing for COVID-19 across Minnesota:

  • Activating the National Guard to help stand up a new Community Rapid Testing Program, launching free rapid testing next week at community sites in Stillwater, Hutchinson, and Crookston, and at least three additional sites the following week. The sites will administer antigen tests that provide results within minutes
  • Offering rapid tests at some of the existing Community Testing Program locations around Minnesota. A list of community testing locations can be found here.
  • Providing rapid tests to 16 local public health agencies across the state, some of which will be used at community testing clinics, while others will be used for targeted testing efforts

More details about the new rapid testing options will be announced next week. 

After closing many of the state’s community testing sites earlier this year, the Walz administration has been steadily opening them back up to tackle the Delta variant. Since August, state has opened new community testing sites in Bloomington, Lino Lakes, Minneapolis, St. Paul and Morris and added additional testing days at the sites in Duluth, Mankato, St. Paul, Moorhead and Winona sites. 

Walz pleads with lawmakers to pass legislation for front line workers 

But Walz wants to do more, making another plea to the state Legislature.

"Do your job and pass some legislation that eases the trauma," he said.

Malcolm echoed another plea to stop the poor treatment of healthcare workers on the front lines.

"What we heard upstairs is people are afraid to go outside in their scrubs because stuff gets thrown at them. I’m just done with not talking about stories like that. It is just so incredibly offensive.

In response to all this, Senate 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, but the only person with the power to call a special session is the governor.