COVID-19 Walz

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz walks into a news conference in St. Paul, Minn., Monday, March 16, 2020. Walz ordered bars and restaurants across Minnesota to temporarily close to customers who dine in amid fears of coronavirus cases.

VIRGINIA — Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said bars, restaurants and schools should expect an extension of the closures and limitations set to expire Friday, but did not provide a timetable for a decision or a new target date.

The governor ordered bars and restaurants closed to dine-in traffic last Tuesday and schools shut their doors the following day through executive orders effective through this Friday. But with mounting cases of COVID-19 — up to 262 Tuesday — state officials believe the peak number of infections are still on the horizon.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers ordered “Safer at Home” orders Tuesday and closed schools, bars and restaurants until April 24. Walz declined to set an “arbitrary deadline” on when Minnesota’s closures may end, noting the state’s infection curve is likely to continue through the Easter holiday on April 12, but also said an indefinite closure isn’t the right choice yet.

“There’s going to be an extension around that,” he told reporters Tuesday. “I don’t think it’s a choice we have to make between the economy and our health.”

Walz is relying on a data-driven approach to his decision making on closures and potential shelter-in-place orders, gathering research and modeling from the University of Minnesota.

Cell phone data is also informing the state that current social distancing measures are making a difference in Minnesota’s results compared to other states, but cautioned that sheltering in place would not be a simple stop, followed by an “all-clear signal,” where life resumes as normal.

He expects “several waves” of COVID-19, a respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus, to arrive as it has in other regions of the world. The state’s goal now is to stretch out the peak and lessen the strain on the intensive care capacity to allow therapeutics and vaccines time to develop, and let more testing, ventilators and personal protection equipment become available.

“The thing we’re striving for is that people who wind up in the ICU and need a ventilator get one, and that they don’t show up to the ICU not being able to get one,” Walz said Tuesday.

Minnesota has 243 available ICU beds, according to the governor, with a 1,171 total-bed capacity according to data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

St. Louis County has an ICU capacity of 179, but other rural areas are facing a more grim reality when it comes to their basic stock of beds. Itasca County has nine total beds, Carlton County has a capacity of six and Aitkin County four.

More dire situations exist along the Canadian, the tip of the Arrowhead and other parts of northeastern Minnesota, where Koochiching, Lake, Cook and Cass county have no reported ICU beds or ventilators.

St. Louis County said health officials have been working closely with local health care providers on capacity and availability. The county has two reported cases of COVID-19 as of Tuesday, but is operating as if the coronavirus is circulating throughout every community.

“We have been working closely with our medical partners in this region and have had a variety of discussions on contingency plans,” said county spokesperson Dana Kazel over email.

Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters Tuesday that the eight regional health care providers around the state are working collectively to provide a flow of information and a coordination of their efforts to state and administration officials, but added “something of this scale is unprecedented.”

Based on patterns in other states and countries, Walz is predicting 40 to 80 percent of Minnesota becomes infected with the coronavirus. Of the 262 confirmed cases, 21 needed hospitalization, 15 remain hospitalized and seven in the ICU, while 88 have recovered.

He said Tuesday that testing still matters to get a clear picture of where Minnesota is on the upward trajectory of the virus’ spread, and that the total number of confirmed cases doesn’t embody the actual number.

Still, he said, flattening the curve of its spread is the foremost battle for residents and state officials to not overwhelm the ICU units, a situation that states like New York are currently seeing.

“This story about bending the curve … is really the story that’s at the heart of this,” Walz said. “The survival rate is much higher with proper ICU care.”

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