Nearly 300 Essentia Health nurses in the Twin Ports were placed on “special administrative leave” last week, according to their union.

More registered nurses at Essentia beyond the 289 already affected will be asked to accept the voluntary status, said Rick Fuentes, spokesman for the Minnesota Nurses Association, which represents them.

They’ve also been told that layoffs are a possibility, he said.

Essentia declined to confirm that the action took place, instead issuing the following statement:

“We continue to evaluate our business and staffing levels. We must make difficult decisions that allow us to continue to care for patients as we plan for the expected surge in COVID-19 patients. Those plans include bringing staff back as they are needed to provide care in our communities.”

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Essentia Health spokesman Louis St. George III said the system employs just under 3,000 registered nurses in direct patient-care roles at its facilities, which are spread across parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota.

Fuentes said the RNs he referred to work only at Essentia facilities in Duluth and Superior.

“Special administrative leave” is another term for a furlough, he said. It means the nurses retain their health benefits and will be called back to work at some point. They also are eligible for unemployment benefits.

Essentia hasn’t made a commitment about when the leaves will end, Fuentes added.

It’s not the first move Essentia has made in response to a steep drop of revenue that came as elective procedures and many clinical visits were canceled. On March 30, Essentia announced it was placing about 500 non-medical staff on leave across its system as it braced for a 20%-40% decrease in revenue.

In mid-April, Essentia announced that those leaves were being extended by 30 days and doctors and executive leaders were taking pay cuts. At the time, Essentia cited a finding by the Minnesota Hospital Association that the state’s hospitals and health systems expect to lose almost $3 billion over three months because of COVID-19 challenges.