ROBBINSDALE, Minn. — Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and health officials on Friday, Oct. 15, announced that the state would shift some patients to long-term care facilities to relieve the strain on hospitals.

The news came as the state continued to see a surge in new infections, hospitalizations and deaths from the illness as the delta variant took hold in Minnesota. The bulk of new cases and severe infections were reported among unvaccinated people, health officials said. More than 1,000 Minnesotans were hospitalized to treat severe COVID-19 infections as of Friday, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said.

As part of the effort to move less sick or less severely injured people from Minnesota hospital beds, Walz said the state would bring in National Guard members to help staff long-term care facilities, grow the state's emergency staffing pool and direct the Department of Human Services to free up space in the long-term care facilities.

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Long-term care centers have faced severe staffing shortages due to the pandemic and worker burnout that had prevented 70% of nursing homes from bringing in new residents and patients.

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"With the moves we are making today we are trying to remove some of the stress, this will not fix it. The way we fix it is to continue to get the vaccine, continue to test and isolate, continue to care for your neighbors," Walz told reporters.

At North Memorial Hospital in Robbinsdale, health care leaders said the move could help direct patients in transitional care out of overwhelmed hospitals. And that could free up space for those sick with COVID-19 or other serious conditions.

"Our hospital capacity is at risk right now and being able to deflate that and move people through will make a significant difference to those in this state that need hospital care," North Memorial Health CEO Dr. Kevin Croston said.

Croston and Andy Cochrane, North Memorial's chief hospital officer, said the hospital was running out of space to open up additional beds to accommodate patients critically ill with COVID-19 and other illnesses or those who are seriously injured. They also called on lawmakers to approve waivers to let them temporarily open more care beds and let long-term care facilities ready temporary beds as well.

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The Minnesota Medical Association echoed that sentiment and said the strike team staffing to long-term care facilities would help hospitals manage the intensifying "stress test" of COVID-19. A coalition of Minnesota long-term care organizations said the staffing relief would help stave off severe shortages of caregivers around the state. But they urged lawmakers to approve funding to incentivize the recruitment and retention of new workers to nursing homes and care centers around the state.

Walz also announced Friday that the state would open new COVID-19 rapid testing sites in Stillwater, Hutchinson, and Crookston next week. Three more would come online the following week, he said. Additional rapid testing sites would also become available through local health authorities in the coming weeks, the governor said.

Walz, GOP leader spar over COVID-19 relief

The governor again urged state lawmakers to work with him to approve waivers for hospitals related to COVID-19, strike a deal on front-line worker hero pay and agree not to terminate state agency heads as part of a special legislative session.

Legislative leaders and the governor have met to discuss the terms of a special session, but Senate GOP leaders have refused to agree not to take up commissioner confirmation hearings. Republican members of the panel tasked with deciding how to send $250 million out to frontline workers have also split with Democratic members of the group about which workers should be eligible for the money.

A visibly frustrated Walz told reporters that legislators should prioritize the changes to improve flexibility for health care facilities rather than holding hearings to probe the state's vaccine or testing requirement. The governor has said he won't call lawmakers back unless they can agree to a list of priorities they would take up in St. Paul and he said he wouldn't set a special session unless Republicans agreed not to terminate his commissioners.

"Instead of holding hearings to put out false information about vaccines, do your job and pass some legislation that eases the trauma surgeons' responsibility or stress, move some of the things that make a difference and we can ease this," Walz said. "The absurdity of this has got to be obvious to everyone of what needs to be done here, what can be done, and what is real."

Earlier in the day, Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, sent a public letter to the governor saying that lawmakers should be able to take up the state's vaccination or testing requirement, as well as reforms to the state's emergency powers rules as part of the special session.

"Your publicly stated position that a special session will not be called without assurances regarding the future of agency heads is jeopardizing progress on issues important to Minnesotans," Miller said. "Only you can call a special session."

Democratic-Farmer-Labor leaders in the Legislature called for the Senate GOP caucus to come back to the table to negotiate a front-line hero pay deal and criticized the caucus for bringing other issues into the mix for a special session.

House Deputy Minority Leader Anne Neu-Brindley, R-North Branch, meanwhile, called the governor's plan to activate the National Guard to relieve caregivers a "Band-Aid" and said the governor should be more active in hero pay talks since it'll be up to him to call a special session.

Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter @bydanaferguson, call 651-290-0707 or email dferguson@forumcomm.com