MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Two Minnesota hospitals still dealing with an influx in patients with COVID-19 and other needs say assistance from military medical teams has been critical over last month’s surge. St. Cloud Hospital and Hennepin County Medical Center welcome a 30-day extension of that aid.

The two teams of 22 members of the military, mostly of the U.S. Air Force, began their work on around Thanksgiving Day, stayed through Christmas and now will be here through the end of January. M Health Fairview Southdale also received assistance in early December.

“We were able to manage these last 30 days with a little less strain on our staff and a great deal of boost to the morale of our staff,” said Dr. David Hilden, vice president of medical affairs at Hennepin Healthcare, which received one team at Hennepin County Medical Center. “It felt like the cavalry came into help.”

The surge of patients with COVID and other needs due to trauma and delayed care came in July and just “never left”—unlike other ebbs and flows in the pandemic, Hilden said.

That’s been extremely difficult on staff and the aid from the military was a lifeline, the impact of its presence felt immediately.

Kathy Parsons, vice president of population health at CentraCare—of which St. Cloud Hospital is a part—said the service men and women have provided a much-needed boost to morale and worked a cumulative 3,700 clinical hours since they arrived in late November.

“People know and feel like help has come and that’s been really food for them,” she said.

State data show more than 1,300 are battling COVID-19 illness in the hospital on top of thousands more getting other treatment. Nearly all ICU beds are full in the state with just 20 available, according to numbers tracked by the state.

President Joe Biden on Monday held a COVID-19 briefing with some U.S. governors including, Gov. Tim Walz, telling state leaders that if they need federal assistance in the fight against COVID and the latest surge with Omicron to seek it out.

“My message to the governors is simple: if you need something, say something,” he said.

Walz successfully petitioned the Biden administration for the military aid and an extension of their mission. When asked what hospitals here need long-term, Parsons said staffing woes are an ongoing problem as the pandemic rages on.

Even with the extra help for an extra month, “we are still overwhelmed,” she said. “We are still full.”

For Hilden, he hopes state and federal partners can find solutions to coordinate health care across all systems, citing experiences of personally answering calls from other doctors inquiring about bed availability.

“I was on call over the Christmas holiday and I took half a dozen calls every single day with a doctor in a hospital in the state of Minnesota or even in other states essentially pleading for a bed,” he said.

Caroline Cummings