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Walz requests FEMA support as MN COVID-19 situation worsens

Twin Cities ICU beds are at 98% capacity.

The latest surge of COVID-19 in Minnesota is putting a strain on healthcare workers and long-term care facilities to the point that Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday requested staffing support from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). 

“Minnesota’s case counts are on the rise, which means the need for staffing support will continue to increase," Walz wrote in the letter to FEMA. “Securing this additional staffing support, in addition to extending the current staffing support on the ground in Minnesota, would significantly assist our state during this tenuous time.”

Walz has requested 10 medical professionals who would help out at facilities that are strained by staffing shortages, while the state health department will continue to coordinate with the Minnesota National Guard for additional support, as has been happening at select long-term care facilities during the health crisis. 

A stark message about Minnesota's coronavirus situation comes from a Star Tribune report Wednesday that says Twin Cities hospitals were down to nine available ICU beds overnight Tuesday into Wednesday morning. 

The report cites three medical sources who confirmed that ICU capacity was limited "due in part to the number of nurses and other caregivers who were unavailable because of their own infections or viral exposures that required quarantines." 

Asked about strained Twin Cities hospitals during Wednesday's press call, health department infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann said ICU capacity is 98% in-use in the metro while traditional medical beds are at 97% in-use in the metro. 

Statewide, ICU capacity is at 92% in-use while traditional hospital beds are 88% in-use. 

While the numbers seem dire, Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said intensive care units "historically run pretty tight in terms of not carrying a lot of excess capacity at any one time." 

In the event that any one ICU ward is strained or pressed to capacity, the state's action plans allow for what Malcolm referred to "load leveling," which essentially helps move capacity around the state where there are available beds. It's a strategy that Malcolm said has been "very successful." 

The news comes despite the Minnesota Department of Health's response and preparation dashboard revealing that hospital capacity statewide has more than 400 ICU beds immediately available and the ability to add around 400 more within 72 hours. 

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COVID-19 hospital admissions have significantly increased over the past 10 days, going from what was then a record 616 patients on Oct. 26 to 908 as of Tuesday, which is the latest update from the state health department. In the past month, from Oct. 3 to Nov. 3, the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Minnesota has jumped from 346 to 908. 

"We're seeing many of our healthcare systems, for lack of a better term, overrun," said Dr. Michael Osterholm during a Wednesday interview on WCCO Radio. "It's a highly stressful situation right now."

Osterholm, the director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, described the situation as a "red alert" to the Star Tribune, while explaining on the WCCO interview that Minnesota's ICU capacity is "at the brink of breaking." 

In his letter to FEMA, Walz also requested additional personal protective equipment, "especially N-95 maks and gloves which can be hard to secure." 

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