Benedictine St. Gertrude’s in Shakopee is Minnesota’s first alternative care site, seeking to alleviate hospital capacity concerns and staff shortages caused by COVID-19.

Gov. Tim Walz announced Nov. 2 that St. Gertrude’s, a senior living community, would be accepting up to 30 patients from local hospitals who no longer need hospital-level care, but cannot yet return home.

“Our action plan is aimed at easing the burden on Minnesota hospitals, providing more capacity for Minnesotans who are sick with COVID, and ensuring all patients are receiving the care that is right for them,” Walz said in a news release. “There is more work to be done, but today is an important step.”

‘LEARNING CURVE’

On Oct. 15, Walz announced the state would be sending the Minnesota National Guard and other staff to help alternative care sites address hospital backlog concerns.

As of Nov. 9, 55 of 91 reported Minnesota hospitals have reached over 95% of their ICU bed capacity. This currently leaves only 42 ICU beds available in the entire state, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Health.

65 of 130 reported Minnesota hospitals have reached over 95% of their non-ICU bed capacity. The department records just over 300 non-ICU beds available in Minnesota.

Since mid-July, the number of Minnesota ICU and non-ICU beds used for COVID patients has regularly increased through early November.

Thirty beds have currently been designated in two St. Gertrude’s transitional care units for treating patients arriving from hospitals. As of Nov. 10, St. Gertrude’s Administrator Megan Diamond said the facility has filled 22 beds.

So far, the facility has been working with, and receiving patient referrals from, the M Health System, Allina Health System, HealthPartners, Hennepin County Medical Center and North Memorial Health Hospital, according to Diamond.

While the center receives around 20 referrals a day, St. Gertrude’s works on a rotation with the hospital systems to ensure each system has an appropriate number of patients admitted. According to Diamond, St. Gertrude’s has to review each referral, making sure patients can have proper needs met and have insurance and Medicare plans sorted out before admittance.

The care unit is also not taking in any patients with COVID. Diamond said the team has protocols in place for any patient who tests positive while already in the St. Gertrude’s facility.

Operating as an alternative care site for just over a week, Diamond said the program’s success relies on effective, constant communication.

“It’s been a learning curve for all parties involved,” Diamond said. “Being the first site, we’ve gotten to be the guinea pigs on how this process can work, and we’ve been working every day to make it more efficient.”

According to Diamond, St. Gertrude’s regularly holds debriefing calls with the Department of Health, Minnesota National Guard, Worldwide Travel nursing agency and hospital partners to discuss what works well in the program and what could be improved moving forward.

STEPPING UP

Ahead of Nov. 2, St. Gertrude’s had a limited amount of time to prepare the facility and get everyone on the same page.

Diamond said Benedictine President and CEO Jerry Carley met with the Department of Health and Department of Human Services along with other multi-site CEOs to discuss Gov. Walz’s strategy plan.

Carley and Benedictine COO Steve Przybilla identified facilities within Benedictine that could help in this plan — leading them to St. Gertrude’s.

The living community surpassed the bed requirement and had two transitional care units in the building available for use due to staffing shortages. Diamond said she was asked to sign up St. Gertrude’s as a potential care unit option.

Days later on Oct. 27, she received a call saying the living community had been chosen.

Immediately after, St. Gertrude’s and all involved parties got to work preparing for the Nov. 2 opening. The facility held an introductory meeting with the Department of Health on Oct. 28 and a “game-planning” one with the department and Benedictine the following day.

St. Gertrude’s also held calls with the Minnesota National Guard and Worldwide Travel to plan for orientation. The orientation process was then held on Nov. 1, only a day before opening.

“It was a very quick-moving process. They wanted to start helping the hospitals relieve and open beds for potential COVID this fall season,” Diamond said.

Staffing for St. Gertrude’s has been relatively local thanks to support from the Minnesota National Guard. Diamond also believes many of Worldwide Travel’s nurses have been sourced from Minnesota.

In Gov. Walz’s Nov. 2 news release, Carley said this staffing support will make all the difference in the work St. Gertrude’s is doing.

“With the staffing support from the National Guard and the COVID-19 emergency staffing pool, Benedictine St. Gertrude’s is able to use its available capacity to serve this need,” Carley said.

St. Gertrude’s employees work with the Minnesota National Guard and Worldwide Travel nurses to ensure processes are being run safely and correctly.

Safety is also prioritized through staff testing and vaccinations. A news release from Benedictine stated that “all staff provided by the state will be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and will participate in the regularly scheduled COVID-19 testing.”

Diamond said around 80% of St. Gertrude’s staff is vaccinated, with the other 20% participating in mandatory testing twice a week.

While the facility has brought in a few dozen temporary staff members for this program, Diamond said there is still a need for staffing that reflects issues the entire healthcare industry has faced since the pandemic began.

“I think we still are challenged when it comes to finding nursing staff. I think a pandemic has really changed how people operate … [and] I think we are experiencing the staffing struggle that everybody is,” Diamond said.

St. Gertrude’s Foundation and Marketing Director Yvonne Anderson said she is confident in the living community’s ability to step up in this situation and make a difference in the state of Minnesota.

“I think it’s very natural for us to be chosen because we have a long-standing relationship working within the hospital industry and caring for people as they move through their rehab and their care,” Anderson said.

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