As the U.S. battens down for the fast-spreading coronavirus, it’s good to know Minnesota was farseeing enough to create a public health fund that could be mobilized in emergency situations such as the one we now face.
What remains now is to, well, fill it. The fund has a balance of about $4.6 million. That’s a start, but it won’t go far when all the needs associated with a possible pandemic are considered. Testing alone could decimate the account. A state Senate bill proposes to add $5 million, while a House proposal has an as-yet-unnamed amount.
Minnesota Health Department officials testified to lawmakers on Wednesday that they need $25 million. As Health Comissioner Jan Malcolm explained, “More cases will be coming in every day.” The amount requested, she said, is “what we expect, that’s what we’re looking for.” A good chunk of that money would go to pay for health workers who will be focused on dealing with the outbreak.
The amount — which the department should get as quickly as possible — is modest when compared with some states. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee recently sought — and got — a $100 million package from that state’s Legislature. The spread in Washington has been rapid, and as of late afternoon Thursday the state had 70 confirmed cases and 11 deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. The Washington state Senate unanimously passed Inslee’s request less than 72 hours after he made it.
At a Wednesday Minnesota House hearing, Minnesota Hospital Association officials testified that an outbreak here could require hospitalization for 20% of those infected, with 5% likely to need intensive care. In New York, four days after the first case was detected, 22 cases had been confirmed and two patients were in intensive care.
Minnesota, thankfully, is not there yet. But there is no sense in pretending the danger isn’t edging closer. There are now nearly 98,000 confirmed cases in almost 90 countries. The virus is in 18 U.S. states, including Illinois and Wisconsin.
Underscoring the importance of preparation here is congressional action. Setting differences aside, the Democratic House and Republican-led Senate in rapid succession adopted an $8.3 billion package to combat the virus, $10 million of which will come to Minnesota, according to Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith.
The Minnesota Legislature must now do its part and act. When the virus hits, resources must be mobilized immediately.
“This is something that affects us all,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka told an editorial writer. “Working together we’re going to get a good product, and be able to address this in the best possible way.”
DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman said she, Gazelka and DFL Gov. Tim Walz have had strong cooperation so far. That’s important, because the scope and duration of this outbreak remains unknown. Even beyond the medical aspect, leaders may also have to look at mitigating the economic impact. They also need to look longer range. Hortman said she is particularly concerned that legislators anticipate what may be needed once they adjourn in May. “We want the state to have enough resources that we don’t have to have a special session,” she told an editorial writer.
Walz said recently that “preparation is not panic. Preparation is the right thing to do.” He’s right. But those preparations should also be as speedy as possible.