By Liz Collin

ST. CLOUD, Minn. (WCCO) — Air Force nurses and doctors began their work Monday at St. Cloud Hospital, in an area of central Minnesota that has struggled with climbing COVID-19 cases and hospital capacity.

In Stearns County, where St. Cloud is located, the positivity rate is nearly at 18%, among the highest in the state. A sense of frustration and burn-out led to a call for federal help.

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Twenty-three members of the federal joint task force — U.S. Air Force doctors, nurses, and respiratory therapists — spent their Thanksgiving weekend training for what’s ahead in St. Cloud. From the emergency room to surgical units, the team will work alongside CentraCare staff.

“The damage that COVID is causing is continuing to grow,” said Dr. George Morris, CentraCare’s incident commander for COVID-19 response. “We’re seeing numbers now that we haven’t seen since the last surge in November and December of 2020.”

This time last year, CentraCare’s hospitals saw 175 COVID-19 patients — 40 fewer than they were seeing now.

St. Cloud is the 18th site and the sixth state that the task force team has served since the pandemic began. It’s an area that’s been more resistant to the vaccine than other parts of Minnesota.

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“I just wish more people would get vaccinated,” said Kathi Seitz, of St. Cloud. “Because the medical facilities are doing all that they can do.”

Job vacancies in the CentraCare system remain at an all-time high with some 1,700 positions open — three times the rate of a typical year.

The federal medical team is on a 30-day deployment for this mission, although that could be extended.

Currently, 77% of CentraCare’s ICU capacity is filled with COVID-19 patients. Of the 28 people with the virus in the ICU, 24 of them are on ventilators.

CentraCare’s vaccine mandate does not go into effect until mid-December. It’s yet unclear what effect that’ll have on staffing issues.

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Liz Collin