ST. PAUL — Health care and hospital officials on Thursday, April 2, urged state officials to prioritize health care staff as they prepare for a peak in coronavirus cases in Minnesota.

Leaders of various health care groups told Minnesota senators that the state hadn't yet taken the appropriate steps to ready medical teams needed to combat COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and asked lawmakers and Gov. Tim Walz to take steps that could allow more health care workers to come onto the frontlines to fight the illness's spread.

State health and emergency leaders have moved to track and stockpile personal protective equipment in recent weeks to help protect health care workers on the frontlines. And those working in hospitals have begun treating stronger masks and other equipment "like gold" in recent days, limiting who can use a limited number of N95 respirators to those in emergency rooms and working directly with patients suspected of having or confirmed to have contracted COVID-19.

Doctors, nurses, first responders and others dealing directly with patients sickened with COVID-19 or suspected to be sickened told lawmakers that they needed more protective equipment to keep themselves healthy. And they said they'd resorted to reusing masks, face shields and other supplies to make them last.

"We are at war, we are the nurses and we are on the frontline," Mary Turner, Minnesota Nursing Association president and a nurse working in a COVID-19 unit, told lawmakers over a video conference call with lawmakers as she started to cry. "We head into the hospitals every day with what little PPE we have and that's our armor. We are ready to battle on this virus."

But without replenishments in those supplies, they said they would struggle to keep themselves and their families safe amid the pandemic. State officials, as well as the state's congressional delegation, have pressed the Trump administration for more supplies but said they'd not yet seen them come through.

Mary Krinkie, vice president of the Minnesota Hospital Association, said the state should expand its focus to bringing in additional medical providers by waiving licensing requirements, allowing physicians assistants to work independently and allowing medical students to come into health care settings to help treat patients.

Krinkie also suggested that retired nurses and doctors be asked to come back to work and operate additional telehealth services. And she said more needed to be done to protect health care officials and first responders dealing with the virus.

"If we lose the battle on keeping our workforce safe, we've lost a lot of effort in this fight," Krinkie said. "Staffing is going to be crucial in this."

A 'storm is coming'

After seeing the impact to health care workers in other states already hit hard by the pandemic, Corey Brown, a spokesman for Sanford Health and the Good Samaritan Society, said the state should enact an emergency management assistance compact, allowing health care workers licensed in other states to operate in Minnesota during the pandemic.

“This is the calm before the storm. Much like a hurricane, we know that the full impact of that storm is coming and it will come very soon,” Brown said. “The local options to replace the workforce are simply not enough.”

Walz said that he was considering an executive order to address allowing more physicians and nurses to work in Minnesota.

“We will explore this licensing issue," Walz told reporters, "whatever it takes to make sure we have the right staff in the hospitals at the right time”

Republican lawmakers had urged the governor to act to open up the option as the state sees additional COVID-19 cases tick upward. And they told health care workers in their working group meeting Thursday that they'd work to get them needed supplies and supports.

"We just need to make sure the resources are there if there is the surge we anticipate there will be," Gazelka said.

The Minnesota Department of Health on Thursday reported that the number of COVID-19 cases in the state had grown to 742 and 18 people died from the illness or of complications. So far, 22,934 Minnesotans have been tested for the disease. State heath officials say reported cases likely significantly undercount the total number of those infected with COVID-19 in Minnesota.

Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 hotline: 651-201-3920.

School and childcare hotline: 651-297-1304 or 800-657-3504.

MDH COVID-19 website: Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) website.