A key measure Minnesota lawmakers approved this week before radically ratcheting down operations due to COVID-19 was eminently sensible. They passed $200 million in emergency aid to help the state’s health care system meet the heavy demand expected from the pandemic.
Minnesota was reporting 60 cases on Tuesday, but the exponential increases in infections caused by this new coronavirus strain has overwhelmed medical centers in other countries. China built a 1,000-bed hospital in a remarkable 10 days. In Italy, patients are housed in tents and hallways, and shortages of critical equipment, such as ventilators for those are seriously ill, are widespread.
The measure passed by Minnesota legislators is no guarantee this won’t happen here. But it will help hospitals procure equipment, bolster staffing, convert existing rooms into intensive-care units if necessary and maintain critical cash flow during a disruptive time. Long-term care facilities, whose residents are at high risk of COVID-19 complications, will also be able to tap into these dollars. Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, and Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, merit praise for their quick work on this.
The assistance package boosts peace of mind during this difficult time. So does the knowledge that state medical centers have been preparing for a pandemic for years. That said, the unknowns about this new viral disease remain unsettling and have the potential to upset even the best-laid plans.
“What we are dealing with in COVID-19 is very unprecedented,” said Kris Ehresmann, the Minnesota Department of Health’s infectious disease director, during a Monday media briefing. “Despite all that planning and preparedness, it’s likely we will have challenges. Many things we are doing and dealing with have not been dealt with in the past.”
Minnesota Hospital Association President and CEO Dr. Rahul Koranne had a blunt and honest response when asked about state medical centers’ ability to handle a large surge of COVID-19 patients. “We can’t completely say ‘Yup, everything will be just fine no matter how big the surge is.’ ”
Staffing, room capacity, potential equipment shortages and limited COVID-19 testing are a concern in Minnesota just as they are elsewhere, he said. The health care system is working diligently with the Minnesota Department of Health to address these concerns and procure equipment from the federal government’s national stockpile.
But Koranne also emphasized that Minnesotans have a vital role to play in hospitals’ ability meet surge demands.
What is known suggests that roughly 5% of those who become ill with COVID-19 will need intensive care and another 15% will need hospitalization. If Minnesotans, through social distancing, staying home and other sensible measures, can keep the number of infected people low, then the health care system should be able to meet the needs of the 5% who need ICU care and 15% who need hospitalization.
“It all depends as a society, are we going to come together and will we agree to be inconvenienced? If we go about thinking it’s not that big a deal for me and we keep going out and about, then we might be looking at an enormous surge and then the health care system is not going to be able to bear that,” Koranne said. “The time for Minnesota to act is right now.”
That message bears repeating. Your individual risk may be low for COVID-19 complications. But taking precautions is critical to protect older Minnesotans and prevent a precipitous strain on hospitals and health care providers. This state is fortunate to be home to world-class medical centers, and right now they need everyone’s help.