Reinforcements on the way: New funding brings more nurses to hospitals amid omicron wave

Jan. 22—MANKATO — Funding announced by Gov. Tim Walz will bring more nurses to Minnesota hospitals dealing with omicron-fueled surges of COVID-19.

The $40 million in American Rescue Plan funding is aimed at covering 60-hour work weeks for traveling nurses over a 60-day period.

More than 200 traveling nurses or respiratory therapists are preparing to step in at facilities across the state, including five coming to Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato, said Eric Weller, coordinator of the South Central Healthcare Coalition.

"Hopefully by the end of this week the majority of the nurses will be at the different sites," he said. "They're coming from all over, and this is an orientation week."

The idea for the funding will be to increase capacity at larger, tertiary hospitals, most of which are in the Twin Cities metro. When there's enough room and staff, tertiary hospitals can take in patients who require higher levels of care from smaller facilities.

"The goal for Mankato would be they can take some of these higher acuity patients from other hospitals," Weller said. "Most hospitals, the larger hospitals, are running at fairly low capacity."

Mayo Clinic has been working with the state on how best to use the resources, according to a statement from the health care provider.

"Hospitals continue to face high patient volumes as the pandemic surges, and we appreciate support for our staff," Mayo Clinic stated. "Along with other providers, Mayo Clinic continues to work with the state to provide the information needed to deploy these additional resources quickly and effectively."

The 60-day staffing boosts could cover the duration and aftermath of the current omicron surge. South-central Minnesota remains on the upswing of a wave, but omicron's trajectory sharply dropped in other places in the weeks following steep rises.

In response to the staffing crisis, a petition by 672 members of the Minnesota Nurses Association demanded hospital management at six Mayo Clinic Health System facilities, including Mankato, take actions to curtail it while recognizing the sacrifices nurses made throughout the pandemic.

More than 70% of the union's members at Mayo facilities in Mankato, Fairmont, Albert Lea, Austin, Red Wing and Lake City signed the petition. It calls for union nurses to be paid triple time for all hours worked while travel nurses are being used plus a $4,000 bonus to be paid every three months nurses remain on the job.

"Nurses continue to work under extremely difficult circumstances to care for our patients while Mayo CEOs make millions off our hard work," stated Kelly Rosevold, a registered nurse at Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato in a release. "As nurses continue to face down a pandemic, a work environment that feels unsafe, and unresponsive management, these demands will help to sustain nurses who are providing quality patient care at the bedside."

State health officials have been closely monitoring hospitalization levels during the omicron wave. Omicron's higher transmissibility is still causing hospitalizations, disproportionately among unvaccinated Minnesotans, despite data showing it's less deadly than the previously dominant delta variant.

With hospitals dealing with seasonal influenza, other respiratory illnesses, and hospitalizations from other causes, severe COVID-19 cases on top of them are an unneeded additional burden on the system. Non-emergency surgeries are being evaluated across the state because not many inpatient beds are available, Weller said.

In Walz's announcement last week, Minnesota Hospital Association CEO Rahul Koranne confirmed surgeries are being canceled due to severely limited care capacities statewide.

While River's Edge Hospital in St. Peter took itself out of consideration for the temporary workers, chief experience officer Stephanie Holden called the funding a "huge help for hospitals across the state who need it."

The decision came down to thinking other hospitals needed the support more, she said.

"We've been fortunate at River's Edge because we care for patients with COVID-19, but maybe not the numbers we've seen elsewhere in the state," Holden said.

The hospital still has a need for staff in the emergency room and housekeeping departments. The latter, though, is more related to growth at the hospital rather than COVID-19, Holden said.

Walz's announcement also included encouragement for Minnesotans to do their part in supporting hospitals and the frontline workers who staff them.

"Minnesotans also have an important role to play in supporting our hospitals," he stated. "The best thing they can do to protect themselves and their families and support our frontline workers is to get vaccinated, get boosted, get tested, wear a mask indoors, and to stay home when they are sick."

Vaccinated people have markedly lower case, hospitalization and death rates from COVID-19 compared to unvaccinated people. About 64% of Minnesotans completed their vaccine series in the state's latest data update.

South-central Minnesota's COVID-19 vaccination rate has long languished below the statewide average. Blue Earth and Nicollet counties, which have two of the highest rates in the nine-county region, respectively have about 59.5% and 63.6% of their populations with completed vaccine series.

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