MINNEAPOLIS — Gov. Tim Walz on Tuesday, Nov. 23, met with nearly two dozen Department of Defense doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists at Hennepin County Medical Center as they began their rotations relieving local medical staff.

The team of federal physicians stepped in to treat COVID-19 patients and take on other duties after medical staff in Minneapolis and at St. Cloud Hospital called for help to back up doctors and nurses that treat COVID-19 and have seen an influx of patients needing critical care.

As the state's new COVID-19 infection numbers peaked nationally, Minnesota hospitals strained to keep up with the demand for intensive care for the illness as well as critical injuries and sicknesses.

"Demand for emergency and life-saving care has exceeded our capacity," Hennepin Healthcare CEO Jennifer DeCubellis told reporters, noting the hospital had added 40 additional beds in an effort to meet the growing demand but still has roughly 20 calls it can't answer each day. “We’ve pushed ourselves as far as we can go.”

The introduction of the team of Department of Defense medical team members will allow the Minneapolis hospital to add six step-down beds to relieve the intensive care unit and 10 beds that can be used after patients receive emergency care, DeCubellis said. Hennepin Healthcare doctors had previously struggled with enough staff to open up the beds.

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Hennepin Healthcare and St. Cloud Hospital typically take on sicker patients from smaller hospitals but, in recent weeks, they turned away some because there weren't spaces for them. And that has placed an additional burden on hospitals around the state as they experience longer waits prior to transfer.

"What helps Hennepin and what helps St. Cloud helps everybody from the standpoint of this constant level of illness going on," Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said. "There isn't anybody that isn't stressed right now so these first two teams will really help to balance geographic demand."

The group of federal workers is set to remain on the job in Minnesota as long as the COVID-19 emergency situation requires their help. Malcolm said additional hospitals around the state also requested federal backup but the hospitals were selected because they were in areas where the sickest patients were looking for help.

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A day earlier, Walz announced that he would activate the National Guard to send out response teams that could take pressure off of nursing homes around the state. Over the next week 400 National Guard members will train to become certified nursing assistants or temporary nursing aides and deploy to nursing homes around the state for up to three-week rotations.

The state also put up $50 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to help long-term care facilities recruit and retain caregivers. Long-term care facilities for months have said they're short of employees and more recently have had to turn away new residents because they don't have enough caregivers.

That shortage has also caused a bottleneck for hospitals since they can't discharge to long-term care facilities the patients that no longer need acute medical care.

Malcolm and others on Tuesday also urged Minnesotans to test, get vaccinated and wear masks in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19.

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