Walz blasts Senate GOP special session demand as he readies Guard to help with care shortages

By: - October 15, 2021 2:45 pm

Gov. Tim Walz speaks at North Memorial Hospital in Robbinsdale on Oct. 15, 2021. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer

Gov. Tim Walz on Friday readied the Minnesota National Guard to help with staff shortages in long-term care settings and to assist with COVID-19 testing sites. 

Walz, the first-term DFL governor, toured the intensive care unit at North Memorial Hospital in Robbinsdale before speaking to reporters about alleviating staff shortages caused by the ongoing pandemic. 

Hospital ICUs are nearly full, in part because they are struggling to transfer patients to long-term care facilities, which can’t find workers. Walz is also expanding access to an emergency staffing pool available to long-term care facilities that need workers. 

“When COVID surges, it displaces space,” Walz said. “This has had a domino effect going down to step-down care and long-term care facilities…. there’s no ability to step down now because there is no capacity at those facilities.”

On Friday, the state health department reported 28 new COVID-19 deaths, bringing the state’s total death toll from the disease to 8,407. The spread of the Delta variant is straining some rural hospitals, where Minnesotans tend to be less vaccinated.

The governor has fewer tools available to him to respond to the pandemic. The peacetime emergency he had declared in March 2020 ended in July 2021, after lawmakers voted to end it. 

He recently asked Senate Republicans to approve new laws to help him deal with the pandemic, adding to a potential special session agenda that had originally included pandemic bonus pay for essential workers and drought relief for farmers. 

But Senate Republicans are pushing a different approach. 

This week, they held a hearing critical of Walz’s mandate for state workers to get a vaccine or tested weekly for COVID-19. Just before Walz toured the hospital on Friday, Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, sent the governor a letter noting his caucus’s opposition to the governor’s health mandates. 

Only the governor can call the Legislature back to St. Paul, and before calling them back, Walz wants assurance the Senate will not vote to remove Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm, who has not been confirmed despite being in the job for nearly two years. Senate Republicans have refused. Miller said that pre-condition is delaying the start of a special session. 

“At this time, the only obstacle to addressing today’s needs is your unwillingness to put frontline workers and farmers ahead of the job security of your cabinet,” Miller wrote. 

Walz grew irate at the letter and its timing. He also objected to another demand Miller voiced in his letter: Reforming the state’s emergency powers law.

“We’re not in a damn emergency power situation,” he said. “We’re in a health care crisis they can act upon.” 

Walz criticized Republicans for holding two hearings on his mandate for state workers to get vaccinated or tested, saying they have invited people to testify who are downplaying the pandemic or spreading anti-vaccine fervor. He said Senate Republicans want a ban on so-called vaccine passports or mandates for the public. “None of those things are real,” Walz said. 

He added: “My patience level is gone.”

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, also blasted Republicans’ special session demands.

“Senate Republicans’ letter to Governor Walz is amateur party politics, whose only purpose is to make anti-vaccine politicians feel loved,” he said, in part. “Commissioner Jan Malcolm is leading our pandemic response, and Senate Republicans are leading nothing.”

This story has been updated to reflect that Walz’s mandate allows state workers and supporting workers to be tested weekly for COVID-19 instead of getting vaccinated.

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Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez

Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.