ROCHESTER, Minn. — Gov. Tim Walz revisited the the state's coronavirus mitigation efforts on Wednesday, April 8, in an extraordinary press conference that was one part stay-at-home-extension pep talk, one part crash-course in epidemiology, and one part every-state-for-itself admonition that the federal government has not only failed to come to the state's aid where it was required to by law, it has begun to prevent the state from helping itself.
The hour began with a hopeful chart, continued with several that were less hopeful, and closed by refocusing on the arrival in coming weeks of newly approved serological finger-stick tests, game-changing information that could potentially tell Minnesotans in just minutes if they have antibodies for the coronavirus and are free to work.
On a day when the state's case count jumped by 85 while adding deaths in Hennepin, Washington, Wilkin and Winona counties, Walz made the case for 30 more days of stay-at-home order. He did so by showing how well the state has fared within a worrisome trajectory taken by states that waited longer to impose heavy mitigation efforts, stay-at-home orders still not taken by Iowa and the Dakotas.
"What this slide is showing is [how] we were in the middle of the pack when it takes off, whereafter Minnesota remained relatively flat. Louisiana started lower than us, and then it shot through the roof. The same thing with Michigan. In nine days they had caught up with us, and in the next ten days from that, they have also shot through the roof."
"Looking at New York, Michigan and Louisiana," Walz continued, "it took 10 days for us to remain flat and for New York to go into a crisis situation. What this means is that we can not rest easy. This thing can explode overnight if we don't take the proper precautions."
Walz called up a series of slides showing a revision of the state's projection of when the hospital system will hit peak demand from coronavirus. Though this spot in time once looked like an actual mountain peak, it has been rendered into a indeterminate box.
This new window of crisis puts the peak demand on state hospitals within a broad range requiring as little as 3,000 ICU beds to as many as 5,000, and from a period spanning from mid-May to mid-July.
A slide showing the availability of critical personal protective equipment during this peak was also less than definitive, something Walz attributed in part to the collapse in availability of the strategic national stockpile, and unexpected martial obstacles like the seizure by the Chinese military this week of Minnesota-bound personal protective equipment.
"When a road block is thrown up we got to figure out how to go around it," Walz said. "The bulk of these things are built by companies in Minnesota. Instead, Medtronic and 3M are both off limits now to us, because the federal government has put a hold on them."
Not surprisingly, state health officials are tempered in their hopes for a return to concerts, gatherings and water events of the approaching warm months.
"We hesitate to say 'let's cancel summer,'" said state health commissioner Jan Malcolm. "But covering your coughs, regular hand-washing and staying six feet apart, we're going to have to keep up those behavior changes for a long time."
"It's not going to be a typical summer," Walz added. "We're certainly not going to have the party barges on Lake Minnetonka."
In response to a question as to the lowest hard-number estimate for deaths in the state given the very best mitigation efforts in place, Malcolm said the projections start at 6,000 lives lost.
Health officials closed with research suggesting rural Minnesota is both more vulnerable to poor outcomes from the virus and less vigilant about following recommendations.
"We know by county who's adhering to this," Walz said.
"We've seen some metrics suggesting that people in some of the rural areas of the state may be following the social distancing guidance with a little less rigor," Malcolm said, "perhaps lulled into a false sense of security that most of the cases so far are in the Twin Cities and other urban areas."
"Rural Minnesotans are on average older and have more underlying health conditions than the state population as a whole," Malcolm said. "That means they too are at higher risk for severe COVID-19 related illness. That fact combined with smaller number of hospital beds and other resources in rural Minnesota means we really need Minnesotans in all areas of the state, rural and urban, to take this seriously and please follow the social distancing guidance."
As a public service, we’ve opened this article to everyone regardless of subscription status. If this coverage is important to you, please consider supporting local journalism by clicking on the subscribe button in the upper right-hand corner of the homepage.
Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 hotline: 651-201-3920.
COVID-19 discrimination hotline: 833-454-0148
Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 website: Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) website.