AUSTIN, Minn. — A gradual attrition of available health care workers at a congregant care facility in Austin, Minn., has led to a call to the Minnesota National Guard.

Pam Kellogg, division manager at Mower County Community Health Services, said staffing problems at Austin’s Sacred Heart Care Center started near the end of August, with the problem getting worse and worse over the course of several weeks until the facility simply needed help having enough care workers.

A nurse, a lieutenant in the Minnesota National Guard, and four health care technicians are now working in the facility to fill a staffing gap created by COVID-19.

Since the start of the pandemic, the facility has seen about 30% of its staff contract COVID-19. About 60% of its residents have had the disease at some point as well. And while younger individuals tend to rebound and recover quickly, residents at the facility who are older and have more risk factors for the disease recover less quickly.

However, as the facility has had more workers absent due to COVID-19, the county reached out to the Minnesota National Guard for health care workers to fill in on a temporary basis.

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“It’s been difficult,” Kellogg said. “They don’t want workers working with positive cases working with patients who are not positive.”

In fact, like many such facilities, a three-track COVID-19 care model is used, Kellogg said. Those who have tested positive and currently are infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 are kept in one wing of the 58-bed facility. Those who exhibit symptoms but have not tested positive are in a second wing. And those residents who are not showing symptoms, have not tested positive, or have tested positive and recovered, are in a third wing.

Part of that care model, Kellogg said, involves keeping care workers separated so they do not cross-contaminate residents.

Amy Lammey, emergency management director for Mower County, said the National Guard is often called to fill in with skilled workers in emergency situations.

“It’s just a vast amount of talent they have we tapped into there,” she said. She added that Mower County is certainly not the first to ask for health care workers to supplement a need during the pandemic.

Kellogg said that early during the pandemic, congregant care facilities in the Twin Cities metro area were known to use National Guard health care workers. This is the first instance of such workers being called to Mower County.

The National Guard workers are working 12-hour shifts, Kellogg said, though that could be adjusted as needed. The five Guard members started Saturday, Oct. 10, and plan to remain for two weeks. Typically, health care workers suffering from COVID-19 are out for about 10 days.

Kellogg said the National Guard will determine if its workers need to stay longer than two weeks. She added that right now, no other care facilities in Mower County look to be in danger of needing National Guard assistance to provide care.

As for Sacred Heart, Kellogg said the facility is not part of any larger health care organization. So, unlike other facilities, when workers became sick, Sacred Heart could not bring in workers from another site.

She said the facility is lucky to have such highly trained workers step in during a time of need.

“They’re trained to deal with an emergency,” she said.