ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) – Minnesota will spend $40 million in federal pandemic relief funds to hire more health care workers to help hospitals challenged by staffing as the Omicron variant spreads rapidly, Gov. Tim Walz announced Wednesday.

Walz said the state is looking to bring up to 350 more workers, mostly nurses, to work 60-hour weeks for the next two months. The state is working on a contract with a national staffing firm to bring in the new employees, who will be placed at different hospitals across the state based on need.

“These next few weeks are going to be something that we’ve not seen before in Minnesota ever and in most of our entire careers—this degree of capacity challenge in our healthcare system,” said Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm.

There are more than 1,500 patients sick in the hospital with COVID-19, and thousands more are seeking treatment for other conditions, according to state data. Hospital officials who joined the governor for a news conference on Wednesday stressed that a highly infectious variant is impacting their workforce, too, on top of individuals leaving the profession due to burn out.

HealthPartners CEO Andrea Walsh said its system currently has 1,000 sick with coronavirus. At CentraCare, it’s 800, said CEO Kenneth Holmen, who added there have been 20,000 open shifts in the last year.

“We welcome the announcement as an important step in helping us meet the immediate and critical healthcare staffing needs that we see across the state,” said Walsh. “I would say from our vantage point, 300 nurses that we can get on board in our hospitals within the next couple of days, the next week or so, will make a material difference.”

She said teams are stretched, taking on extra shifts and working longer hours in a way that “isn’t sustainable.”

Malcolm, in her capacity as the state’s top health official, has certain authority to cut regulatory red tape, a move she is taking to free up more beds in hospitals and nursing homes to free up more beds.

“The extraordinary nature of both the hospital capacity and this Omicron surge that is affecting literally the entire country at the same time makes this different than prior surges and it’s going to feel different,” said Malcolm. “The fact that this is happening everywhere sort of simultaneously just puts further pressure on capacity.”

Holmen with CentraCare made a point to push back on what he called “false memes” circulating that vaccine requirements for employees are to blame for shortages.

CentraCare lost 120 employees out of 12,000 employees to the mandate, and 40 returned to work later on, he said.

“In other words, there’s a remarkable consensus amongst healthcare providers in our state that this is the right thing to do,” said Holmen.

Senate GOP says it is ready to pass more measures in legislature

Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, met with hospital leaders this week to hear their concerns, according to a letter to other legislative leaders and staff shared by a GOP spokeswoman.

He urged a special session before the regular session begins in three weeks on January 31 to immediately pass two proposals: A multi-state nurse licensure compact to allow licensing for out-of-state nurses who hold active licenses from other states in the agreement to work in Minnesota immediately; and streamlining select regulatory requirements for those pending hire in medical facilities.

“These two proposals have been identified as immediate and valuable tools to relieve the pressure hospitals and care facilities face,” he wrote in the letter. “These will help provide immediate care for their patients by increasing the available pool of workers for highly skilled and trained positions.”

Walz on Wednesday said he had not seen the proposal; but staff responded later in the afternoon asking that the Legislative COVID Response Commission sign off on the governor’s request for spending $40 million for health care worker hires.

State data shows positivity rate continues ascent

Health officials on Wednesday reported the average positivity rate’s record high mark continues to climb. It’s now reported at 19.8%.

The Minnesota Department of Health also reported 10,719 new cases and 49 more deaths from the virus. One of the dead was a Hennepin County resident in their late 20s.

The total case count now stands at 1,115,198, including 23,163 reinfections. The virus has contributed to the deaths of 10,887 Minnesotans.

The state’s daily new cases per 100,000 residents is at 138.9, another record-high metric. Officials draw the line for high risk at 10.

As of Tuesday, 257 COVID-19 patients were occupying intensive care unit beds in Minnesota, along with 1,251 non-ICU beds. Staffed ICU beds are in short supply statewide, with less than 1% available in the metro area. There are only 16 staffed pediatric beds available in Minnesota.

Of the state’s 5-and-older population, 72.6% have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Nearly 97% of the state’s senior population has a dose. In total, the state has administered more than 8.9 million doses, including nearly 1.9 million boosters.

Caroline Cummings