ST. PAUL — Nine teams of trained Minnesota National Guard members are set to deploy nursing homes around the state by the end of the week to relieve caregivers, a state health official told a legislative panel on Wednesday, Dec. 8.

In an effort to stave off workforce shortages in long-term care facilities, the state last month activated 400 National Guard members to train as certified nursing assistants and trained nursing aides. And the first three teams of caregivers started work in Minnesota senior care facilities earlier this week.

So far, 42 facilities have asked the state for National Guard backup to relieve staff who've been working multiple extra shifts each week, said Diane Rydrych, acting assistant commissioner at the Minnesota Department of Health's Health Systems Bureau. One hundred members are set to start work in the nine designated facilities by the end of the week and additional facilities are in consideration to receive support teams, she said.

The update came as a Minnesota Human Services Committee took up testimony on the staffing challenges in long-term care communities and in the health care industry more broadly. Rydrych said the most requests for support came from central and northwestern parts of the state, along with the Twin Cities metro.

Industry leaders and senior care facility staff said the short-term supports helped manage the challenging situation, as did a stay preventing a federal COVID-19 mandate from taking effect in nursing homes. But Minnesota senior care facilities still reported that 76% of nursing homes in the state were unable to take in new residents because of insufficient staffing. And in some regions, upward of 90% of senior communities said they were unable to bring in new residents.

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"While the vaccine mandate is on hold and that has bought us some time, this is still a very dire situation," said Kari Thurlow, Leading Age Minnesota vice president of advocacy.

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Thurlow and others called on lawmakers and agency heads to take more permanent steps to boost caregiver pay and recruitment incentives. The Walz Administration has said it would use $50 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to help recruit and retain caregivers across the state and it offered to paid tuition for those training to become certified nursing assistants.

Other senior care leaders raised concerns about being penalized by state health regulators if they asked for help from the National Guard.

"There's this fear, first of all, that they're admitting that they need help and that they can't take care of people and they don't want to report it because they're scared that maybe the health department will then come in and then we've opened ourselves up to more problems," Cami Peterson-DeVries, a vice president with St. Francis Health Services, said.

Rydrych said facilities would not face additional scrutiny if they asked for help and she encouraged them to apply if they needed staffing backup.

"We want facilities to let us know that they need help, that is what the National Guard is there to do," Rydrych said.

She said the department would only go out to facilities that bring on a National Guard team if there was a complaint that was triaged as in a situation of immediate jeopardy. "We would not be going into a facility because they raised their hand and said they needed help."

Minnesota hospital system leaders also told the panel that vaccine requirements at the health system level at Mayo Clinic and Allina Health had resulted in very few resignations but they'd faced staffing issues across the board. Many of those staffing issues pre-dated the pandemic, they said, but many had experienced burnout amid the pandemic.

Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, who chairs the panel, urged hospital system leaders to ensure workers' had the option to pursue health or religious exemptions to the vaccination.

Hospital system leaders also reported paying substantially more in the last year and a half to pay temporary traveling medical staff at the same time they weren't bringing in revenue from specialty surgeries and procedures.

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