Federal Strike Team Begins at St. Cloud Hospital Amid Rise in COVID and Staff Shortage
ST. CLOUD – As the number of inpatients treated for COVID-19 increases at St. Cloud Hospital, federal aid arrived Monday to support exhausted staff.
“The number of patients is not decreasing. Caregivers are physically and emotionally exhausted and they and their families have given up so much on caring for our communities, ”said Kathy Parsons, Vice President of Population Health for CentraCare. “Having this team join us to strengthen our healthcare teams [will have] a huge impact on our communities.
Federal aid comes in the form of a 23-member medical team that will serve in the intensive care unit, emergency room, medical units and surgical units at St. Cloud Hospital for at least the next 30 days, after which the stay may be extended.
The team comes at the behest of Governor Tim Walz, who in mid-November announced that CentraCare and HCMC in Minneapolis would receive emergency medical workers from the Department of Defense.
HCMC is using the influx of federal healthcare workers to open a new inpatient unit. At St. Cloud, this helps fill in the gaps.
By lunchtime Monday, the number of patients being treated for COVID-19 at CentraCare facilities was 136, a number that has more than doubled in the past three months. And it is expected to continue to rise in the days and weeks to come, according to Dr. Ken Holmen, President and CEO of CentraCare.
“The pandemic is not going to go away anytime soon. We have an 18% positivity rate across the community,” Holmen said Monday at a press conference at St. Cloud Hospital. “It means a lot of people are going to get sick again.”
During last year’s pandemic peak at the end of November, the number of hospitalized patients was 1,864; CentraCare’s peak hospitalization was around 180, according to Dr. George Morris, incident commander for CentraCare’s COVID-19 response team.
“We are now seeing numbers we haven’t seen since the last increase in November [and] December 2020, ”Morris said.
COVID-19-related hospitalizations on Friday rose in Minnesota to a record 1,467 in 2021, and included 340 people in intensive care.
As of Monday, St. Cloud Hospital had about 28 patients in its intensive care unit. Of these, about 25 were on a ventilator. And nearly 80% of intensive care patients landed there because of COVID-19, Morris said.
CentraCare is a healthcare system with eight hospitals and over 30 clinics in central Minnesota, as well as Carris Health facilities in west-central and southwestern Minnesota. The healthcare system is demanding COVID-19 vaccines for all staff by mid-December, but CentraCare executives have not attributed the staff shortage to the mandate.
“We’ve had a staffing issue since pre-COVID. It’s always been a challenge to get all the staff we need, given the growth we’ve seen and the needs of our community,” Parsons said.
St. Cloud Hospital is the 18th site hosting medical response teams; It is one of 10 sites in six states on Monday, said Major General Jeffrey Van, commanding general of the Joint Civil Support Task Force, based in Virginia.
“The team is made up of doctors, nurses [and] respiratory therapists and brings an abundance of medical knowledge and experience, ”he said.
The majority of hospitalizations related to COVID-19 involve unvaccinated Minnesotans. The St. Cloud area has fallen behind the state in its COVID-19 vaccination rate and, at times, has had the lowest percentage of residents vaccinated. As of Monday, about 50% of residents aged 5 and over in the tri-county area were fully immunized; statewide, the rate is approximately 64%.
Since the start of the pandemic, Benton, Sherburne and Stearns counties have recorded more than 60,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. The death toll from COVID in the region is 527.
Parsons encouraged community members to get vaccinated, wear masks and socially distance themselves to help limit the spread of COVID-19.
“As military personnel are deployed around the world … we always want to bring our troops home,” Parsons said. “Well, we want to work to get this team that we’re so grateful to have around the house as well, which means it’s our job in our community not just to take care of the people who are so sick that they are in the hospital, but to prevent it. “
The state’s rate of new infections in the past seven days is the highest in the country, although it ranks second among US states for its booster dose rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention .
“Having the response team joining us creates additional capacity that is desperately needed and lifts our spirits,” said Holmen. “That’s 23 more sets of hands, minds, eyes and ears, talent and skill all together, which in a critical care setting is a very big thing.”
Journalist Jeremy Olson contributed to this report.