U.S. Air Force Major Heather Mullin is part of the group of 10 nurses serving at Altru to help relieve the strain brought on by an influx of patients with COVID-19. It’s a mission she never thought she would have to undertake.

Mullin is one of 60 Air Force nurses that deployed to North Dakota on Monday, Nov. 23, as part of a joint service effort from the U.S. Department of Defense. The effort to relieve a statewide hospital staffing crunch came after Gov. Doug Burgum earlier made a request for aid to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“This is a war, and it's not something that’s the kind of war that we typically fight,” Mullin told the Herald in a Friday afternoon phone call. “This is definitely a new front for us, but we're up to the challenge.”

Mullin came to North Dakota from Andrews Air Force base in Maryland, after having been stationed there five months ago. She and the other Air Force nurses will stay for 30 days, unless need dictates, in which case that term can be extended.

It’s difficult, Mullin said, to be away from her family during the holiday season but, like her husband who also serves on active duty, is familiar with suddenly having to leave. home. It’s a lesson she is happy to teach her two young children.

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“This is what we do, we help each other and we answer the call when it's needed,” she said.

The nurses came from Air Force bases across the country and haven’t served together until now. Mullin calls them her “new automatic friends” in the need to quickly get integrated and begin working with Altru nurses.

To do that, they went through a two-day orientation period followed by a half day of shadowing an Altru nurse, to get familiar with different equipment, including that used for electronic medical health records.

The Air Force nurses are working in the Intensive Care Unit caring for both COVID and non-COVID patients, as well as the medical-surgical unit, which she said has become Altru’s COVID-unit. Eight of the nurses, Mullin included, will be working the night shift. It’s part of their mission to not only care for patients, but provide relief for hospital staff and even provide a boost to morale.

“It's so comforting to be able to integrate with people who really know this deadly disease and be able to just support them, just take some pressure off and be able to be helpful wherever we're needed,” Mullin said.

As of Friday, Nov. 27, there were 45 hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Grand Forks, and Altru reported only limited staffed beds were available. The hospital can accommodate 50 COVID patients.

Also on Friday, Grand Forks County added another 123 positive cases of coronavirus, but the overall number of active cases had declined to 708, down from more than 1,300 two weeks ago. Forty-one people in the county have died because of the illness.

Despite the decline in positive cases, staffing is still an issue, and the Air Force nurses arrived at a time when the job market for nurses has nearly dried up. Staff at Altru have been working overtime -- a situation that gets worse when a staff member either tests positive or is identified as a close contact and has to go into self-isolation.

“That's definitely been a concern especially recently with our surge in numbers,” said Angie Zafke, a nurse at Altru.

Still, Altru has had some success in hiring nurses and, since March, has added 77 registered nurses, nine licensed practical nurses and 69 certified nursing assistants. The hospital still has openings for 46 positions. Altru employs 362 nurses doing outpatient or non-patient care, and 380 nurses are assigned to inpatient care. The last group of nurses was hired in mid-October.

Zafke has worked at Altru since 2007. In her position as a critical care nurse educator, she works to integrate newly hired nurses into the nurse residency program. Before the pandemic she worked a regular weekly schedule but, since then, like other Altru nurses and nurses everywhere, has been picking up extra shifts, either overnight or on the weekends. The hours add up.

“I think if you asked my family they may feel that it's more, but I would say, 50 (hours) sounds pretty normal,” Zafke said.

Though she was able to be at home for Thanksgiving, Zafke is no stranger to her family being apart on holidays. Her husband served in the military and was away from home on multiple deployments. She knows what it is like for the Air Force nurses to be away from their families “facing a different type of war.”

Zafke thinks Mullin and the other Air Force nurses will make a difference in caring for patients as well as easing the stress and burden on bedside staff.

“I think it's going to help to bridge us while we're facing these surge numbers,” she said. “They come with their own special experience and expertise, which will be great as well.”