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First state-hired health care worker arrives at Willmar hospital

Two health care workers, a registered nurse and a respiratory therapist, have been assigned to Carris Health-Rice Memorial Hospital in Willmar. The state is using pandemic relief aid to provide about 200 workers to help the state's hospitals through the current surge of COVID-19 cases.

Carris Health-Rice Memorial Hospital sign, Willmar MN
Two health care workers have been assigned to Carris Health-Rice Memorial Hospital in a state program to help the state's hospitals deal with the latest COVID-19 surge.
West Central Tribune file photo
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WILLMAR — An intensive care registered nurse arrived at Carris Health-Rice Memorial Hospital Wednesday, part of an influx of health care workers funded by state pandemic funding.

A respiratory therapist is expected to arrive early next week.

Kathy Dillon.jpg
Dillon

The two are expected to offer a welcome respite for hospital staffers who have cared for patients with COVID-19 nonstop for nearly two years, said Kathy Dillon, executive director of acute care and chief nursing officer at Rice.

Gov. Tim Walz announced earlier this week that $40 million in American Rescue Plan funding would be used to hire emergency health care workers to ease the burden on the state’s hospitals.

One hundred workers were assigned to 23 hospitals around the state in the past week. Another 100 workers will be assigned to more hospitals in the next week.

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The traveling workers have been hired to work 60 hours a week for 60 days, Dillon said. Each will provide the equivalent of a worker and a half while they are here.

“We certainly are grateful,” Dillon said. “In recent times, we have had to keep some more critical ICU patients than we might have on a normal day, and we certainly have stretched our resources within that department.”

The nurse said she was excited to be in Willmar and wanted to assist the staff however she could, Dillon said.

Respiratory therapists are in short supply, Dillon said, so the additional help in that area will be useful, too.

“Our staff has done an amazing job despite the fact that we’ve been put in very challenging situations,” Dillon said, but fatigue has been set in.

While the state’s help is appreciated, she said, the community’s help is needed, too, Dillon said.

In the coming weeks, the community can help ease the stress on health care workers by wearing masks, avoiding large crowds and washing hands, and getting their vaccinations and booster shots, she said.

”That will help us get through this and hopefully get past the need for the multiple hospitalizations and the need for critical care,” she added.

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Carris Health and its parent organization CentraCare have required that all employees be vaccinated or apply for an exemption. That went into effect in mid-December, and those who didn’t comply were placed on unpaid leave. It was a small percentage of the entire staff.

While some may blame that policy for the staffing shortage, “I would say our staffing shortages began long before the requirements for employment,” Dillon said. “There certainly may have been some impact with that, but overall it’s such a combination of things that have occurred.”

The staffing problems have been compounded by the highly contagious omicron variant which has had numerous staffers out of work because they’ve tested positive or have been exposed.

Labor shortages have hit many parts of the economy, not just health care. Many people have grown weary of the pandemic and are re-examining their careers, she said.

“Overall, the impact of the requirement has had minimal impact,” she said. “We’ve also experienced that people are interested in trying something new, so they’ve left our organization as well.”

All the health systems around the state are experiencing staffing challenges to some extent. “When we’ve had difficulty moving patients to find a critical care bed, it’s been hard on all organizations,” she said.

Rice has employed traveling nurses before the pandemic, Dillon said, so that isn’t new for the staff.

The nurse who arrived this week has worked around the country, has broad experience and told the staff she’s willing to help out wherever she can.

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More by Linda Vanderwerf:
Students from Focus House, a program to help people with special needs prepare for living on their own, have spoken to fourth-graders in the past month about bullying and how to address it. Many of the young adults from Focus House said they've been bullied in the past.

In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: lvanderwerf@wctrib.com or phone 320-214-4340
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