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Minnesota volunteers take routine burdens off COVID-strapped hospital workers

24December 2021

Dr. Hsieng Su is a Mayo-trained internist in charge of medical quality as Allina Health’s chief medical executive, but on Tuesday she was changing linens and sanitizer dispensers in Mercy Hospital’s jam-packed emergency department.

Nurse Diana Niblack had an off day from patient care in Mercy’s intensive care unit in order to complete training, but she squeezed in a few hours on the floor to provide supplies for colleagues, help them move patients and take blood samples to the lab.

“It sounds little, but it adds up to save time [for doctors and nurses] that they can dedicate to being with their patient and maybe catching something that is really relevant,” Niblack said. “It makes a big difference.”

Su and Niblack are part of a new Helping Hands program at Mercy — the busiest COVID-19 hospital in Minnesota this fall — that diverts clinical and nonclinical Allina employees to do grunt work that leaves doctors, nurses and other caregivers free to focus more on patients. The program was launched a few weeks ago to help the hospital manage extreme surges in patient demand and is being copied at other Allina facilities.

Hospitals in Minnesota have been attempting creative solutions to an unprecedented three-month stretch of patient demand, caused largely by the latest COVID-19 wave and the fast-spreading delta variant. Even with COVID-19 hospitalizations beginning to decline in December, patients with COVID and non-COVID issues combined to occupy 97% of available adult intensive care beds in Minnesota this week.

“Going from extremely high to very high still feels very bad,” said Dr. Michael Schwemm, Mercy’s medical director.

Solutions to ease the pressure in Minnesota have included hospital-at-home programs in which stable patients with COVID-19 or other illnesses are sent home with daily monitoring and care instructions. The federal government also dispatched relief teams to shore up staffing at HCMC in Minneapolis, Southdale Hospital in Edina and St. Cloud Hospital.

Helping Hands was envisioned as a quick source of staffing support, because many Allina employees already have training in basic health care and patient privacy laws and can be quickly diverted to crowded hospitals.

“Our nurses are just incredibly overwhelmed right now. So any of the support that we can provide to help the daily function … provides safer care for patients,” said Heather Galang, a manager of safety and quality at Mercy who helped create the volunteer program.

On Tuesday, Mercy’s ER was so busy that patients were in beds in the hallway outside the nursing station. Craig Luehr stood patiently next to his mother, who was on a gurney in the hallway and was being monitored for non-COVID breathing difficulties and high blood pressure.

“It’s out in the hall yes, but the doctor has been on the case,” Luehr said.

Up three floors, the ICU was full as well with COVID-19 patients taking up 16 of the 25 occupied beds. The hospital used to cordon COVID-19 patients to one wing — with red tape on the floor signifying where visitors needed to wear protective gear — but the rapid influx of patients in the latest wave makes that level of organization impractical.

Switching patients from their backs to bellies has been a key form of supportive care for critically ill COVID-19 patients, presumably because it shifts the congestion in the lungs and helps them heal. But it takes several people to execute.

Niblack on Tuesday quickly donned a gown, gloves and goggles to help as a volunteer and rotate a COVID-19 patient into the prone position. Only on her third month as a nurse in the Mercy ICU, Niblack said there is a strong bond that has formed among the nurses and caregivers as they face the constant surge of patients and the many COVID-19 deaths. The volunteers on the floor also help assemble packets given to grieving families that include seeds to plant a memorial tree.

“It feels hard to go home every day and feel like you lost,” she said. “You put out 100% … and you still lost that patient. That is hard.”

State health leaders are hopeful that an increase in COVID-19 vaccinations and booster doses has increased protection and caused a downturn in the latest pandemic wave. However, they are concerned that holiday gatherings and a new omicron coronavirus variant could disrupt that progress and fill up hospitals again.

Helping Hands is designed to assemble volunteers for support roles when hospitals are at capacity, and then allow them to return to their day jobs. Su started her medical career as an internist, treating patients in and out of hospitals in Hibbing, Minn., before taking executive positions in Wisconsin and Missouri and finally back in Minnesota.

“Now I know how to actually operate that,” Su said after replacing a sanitizer dispenser. “There’s no job too big or no job too small. We’re all in this together.”

Volunteers also provide an extra set of eyes on the throng of patients, and that turned out to be life-saving a couple weeks ago, said Ben Thomas, the manager of patient care services in the Mercy ER. A business analyst and security guard were helping triage patients in the ER waiting room and they noticed one patient who was outside smoking a cigarette was hunched over. They took a pulse oximeter out to the patient and found he had dangerously low blood oxygen levels and needed immediate critical care.

“Without even medical training,” he said, “we can look at someone and go ‘That doesn’t look right.'”

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