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'My patience level is gone': Walz calls on lawmakers to help ease strain on hospitals

The governor said only legislators can enact some of the needed measures.

A frustrated Tim Walz called on state lawmakers to "stop the political theater" and commit to pass legislation to help ease the strain on hospitals, while pleading with unvaccinated Minnesotans to get a COVID shot.

"You're taking time to hold hearings with anti-vaxx advocates and COVID deniers," Walz said Friday morning after visiting with health care workers at North Memorial Health Hospital in Robbinsdale, telling legislators to "come down here, stand by that bed of that COVID patient and listen to providers in that space tell you what needs to be done."

The governor's media briefing was, in part, to discuss the handful of measures he is taking to ease the strain on the state's hospitals. Many have few staffed critical care beds available, due to a combination of continually climbing COVID cases (with the majority of hospitalized patients unvaccinated) combined with a health care workforce that is burnt out and low in numbers.

"We're running out of options. We're running out of alternatives. We're running out of new spaces to open," said North Memorial Chief Hospital Officer Andy Cochrane during the press conference. 

This week, a veteran who needed immediate care but couldn't get a hospital bed for two days because they were at capacity died, the Pioneer Press reported

But the briefing was also focused on two issues intimately tied to the hospital shortages: Legislative support and vaccinations.

Walz, who called it "frustrating" and "heartbreaking" the pandemic has continued this long, said some of the measures that will help health care workers and hospitals, such as waivers for bed use, can only be implemented by lawmakers. Doing so would require a special session, which only the governor can call. 

Senate Republicans, however, have suggested they would use a special session to hold a confirmation hearing on Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm. If not confirmed, Malcolm — who was first appointed to the role in 2018, then retained by Walz in January of 2019 — would immediately lose her job.

They've already ousted two cabinet officials this way, and a third resigned ahead of a planned vote

On Friday morning, new Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, sent a letter to Walz, saying his reluctance to call a special session without assurances regarding Malcolm's job safety is "jeopardizing" progress they could make on important issues. Miller also said a special session should include reforms to the governor's emergency powers and discussions about vaccine mandates.

"We're not in a damn emergency powers situation," Walz said Friday. "We're in a health care crisis they can respond to."

"My patience level is gone," he later said, adding lawmakers can "come back in January and play politics and fire whoever you want."

Walz, Malcolm and North Memorial leaders also stressed, repeatedly, the importance of getting vaccinated. 

"I know everybody wants to be done with this, but we are truly back in a critical, critical point," the health commissioner said, noting this current surge has been climbing upward since July — the state hasn't the the rapid peak and descent of previous COVID surges.

North Memorial CEO Kevin Croston said health care workers are "now more stressed than they've ever been," and suggested he was concerned about large, indoor gatherings during the holiday season ahead. 

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"This is all avoidable. Please get vaccinated," he urged people. "Help us with this."

Cochrane noted 96% of all ICU patients at North Memorial are unvaccinated, while Walz said the fact 25 Minnesotans are dying every day to COVID when effective vaccines are available is "unconscionable."

Among Walz's efforts to reduce hospital strain is to open up more rapid testing sites in Minnesota. Three will begin operating next week in Stillwater, Hutchinson and Crookston, he said, with at least three more in communities the following week. This should help people quickly determine if their symptoms are indeed COVID, or simply the flu or allergies.

But the hospital strain will only be fixed with "upstream" action: Vaccinations.

"Don't end up in the hospital if you can help it," Walz said. "And one of the ways you can do that is, get vaccinated for COVID-19."

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