MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — An emergency military medical team is on the ground in Minneapolis in a battle against COVID-19, which is surging in Minnesota and fueling a crisis of critical care access in hospitals across the state.

Two deployments from the U.S. Department of Defense are providing relief at Hennepin County Medical Center and St. Cloud Hospital. The aid comes as hospitals are at or near capacity as they grapple with the virus sickening patients and others with critical care needs.

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The way Hennepin County Medical Center measures acuity of care, known as the “case mix index,” is the highest it’s ever been at the hospital, said Jennifer DeCubellis, CEO of Hennepin Healthcare.

“It’s consistent, which tells us that the individuals within our walls are individuals that are incredibly sick and require larger teams often to care for them,” DeCubellis said.

The teams of 23 will be operational by Thanksgiving Day; in Minneapolis, that’s four doctors, 14 nurses, two respiratory therapists and three administrators. Most of them are in the U.S. Air Force.

The additional staff will allow HCMC to set up an additional 10-bed admitting unit for emergency care and six step-down beds to make room in the intensive care unit. The hospital is the largest Level I trauma center in Minnesota, and often receives transfers for patients who need special care for treatment.

The reality is HCMC can’t accommodate the needs as they come.

“We have 20 on any given shift waiting in our emergency department trying to get upstairs into inpatient care because they need ongoing medical care,” DeCubellis said. “This is an organization that is not used to ever saying no. And over the past couple months, we’ve had to do that over 400 times.”

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Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm called this moment “critical” in the pandemic, urging Minnesotans ahead of the holidays to continue to take precautions to keep themselves and others safe. She said other hospitals requested federal help, but there are only so many teams available, and they are assisting other states, too.

“Just about every hospital in the state is in tough shape in terms of how stretched thin they are,” Malcolm said.

Some 400 Minnesota National Guard troops are training to become certified nursing assistants. They will help nursing homes, which are also facing staffing shortages.

Gov. Tim Walz will also send $50 million in federal funding to long-term care facilities to help with hiring and retention of staff.

Lt. Colonel Brandon Shealey said the team stands ready to remain in Minnesota as long as it’s needed.

“To be honest there’s a lot worse places to deploy, so to come to Minneapolis and help the lovely people here—we enjoy it and we’re happy to do it,” said Shealey, who is leading the team at Hennepin County Medical Center.

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Caroline Cummings