Gov. Tim Walz is extending a statewide stay-at-home order to May 4 to push the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic into the summer — and to buy time to allow hospitals to stock up on supplies and researchers to develop tests and treatments against the new coronavirus.
The existing two-week stay-at-home order has already put Minnesota on a trajectory for a lower rate of cases than states such as New York and Louisiana, where hospitals have struggled with a surge of severely ill patients, the governor said. Even so, projections suggest the state will either run short or barely have enough intensive care hospital beds, ventilators, masks and protective equipment for doctors and nurses to weather the expected caseload.
“It can all go sideways very quickly if we don’t continue,” Walz said in announcing his decision Wednesday.
His initial order already exempted from restrictions as many as 78% of jobs deemed to be in critical industries. The new order will expand that list and allow some workers to immediately return to jobs that don’t pose obvious risks of spreading the virus. Walz mentioned landscapers, for example, and said that he would be reviewing other businesses during the next month that also could reopen under certain conditions.
Walz said he extended the order based on guidance from federal health officials, the experience of other states that took early action and saw good results, and updated modeling by state and University of Minnesota researchers.
While the federal government recommended social distancing measures until May 1, Walz chose May 4 because it will fall on a Monday. He said he doubted that schools would reopen before the summer break, though it’s possible.
The pandemic has played out differently than expected in Minnesota since the coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan, China, in December and spread worldwide. Minnesota so far has 1,154 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 39 deaths.
People aren’t needing to be hospitalized for as long as initially predicted, which is good news because shorter stays mean more beds available for other patients and potentially fewer deaths. On the other hand, it now appears that an infected person on average spreads the coronavirus to four others, making it nearly twice as infectious as forecast.
National studies also have found that nearly one in five infected people have no symptoms, making them unwitting spreaders of the virus, said Kris Ehresmann, state infectious disease director.
This new understanding produced new state modeling results. Walz’s initial decision last month rested on modeling suggesting that a stay-at-home order could reduce deaths in Minnesota by as much as a third — from 74,000 to about 50,000 — over the course of the pandemic. Now, the modeling predicts the state actions might cut the death toll in half or better — from about 50,000 if the state had done nothing at all, to a range of 6,000 to 20,000 deaths.
While state officials said they provided the death estimates for transparency, they stressed that the modeling is intended to determine whether social restrictions and policies will work — not to project a death toll.
“We’re not predicting a certain number of deaths will happen or won’t happen with these scenarios,” said Jan Malcolm, state health commissioner. “It’s directional. It’s all about helping us understand which levers have the biggest impact. And what the model confirms … is that the biggest levers really are building up ICU capacity and isolating the most vulnerable.”
The state currently has 1,147 intensive care hospital beds in operation, but renovations and other steps by hospitals over the past month resulted in another 1,098 beds that could be converted to that purpose in 24 hours, according to the state’s COVID-19 information dashboard. Another 525 ICU beds could be readied in 72 hours. State modeling suggests that might be enough, depending on the severity of the peak outbreak.
Reacting to order
The Minnesota Hospital Association commended the extension for buying more time to prepare. Hospitals and other care facilities also received $50 million in state grants Wednesday to support those efforts.
The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce issued a statement indicating that it supports the state’s virus response but wants state income and property tax payments delayed to ease the financial pain.
Some critics of Walz’s closures expressed defiance.
“I’m not staying home,” tweeted state Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria. Franson and other conservative activists in Minnesota have questioned the forecasting models.
Other Republicans were more measured, though they expressed concern about a pandemic and a state response that has resulted in more than 367,000 Minnesotans filing for unemployment benefits.
“It is welcome news some businesses can open up and safely resume work, even as the stay-at-home order is extended,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said in a statement.
Landscapers and lawn care service workers will be among the first to return to work.
“Nature doesn’t pause,” said Bob Kroth, part owner of Parkway Lawn Service in Minneapolis. “Everything has to be taken care of like a usual season. … We’re just thankful to be out there.”
More tests needed
While the extended stay-at-home order will push back the peak of COVID-19 cases, Walz said it will take public adherence to the order as well as additional testing capacity and hospital resources to reduce the size of that spike. The governor said he is hopeful about rapid expansion of antibody testing — already available at Mayo Clinic and soon to be available at the University of Minnesota — to identify people who have already recovered from infection and are presumably immune.
But supplies for both diagnostic molecular testing and antibody testing remain limited. The state just received a federally purchased supply of 15 new Abbott rapid COVID-19 testing machines, but only enough chemical reagents to run about 120 tests with those machines, said Joanne Bartkus, director of the state’s public health lab.
A worst-case estimate suggested Minnesota could run out of masks and other personal protective equipment amid a summer surge in COVID-19 cases. Walz said the state had received a commitment from a company to send such supplies from China before the military in that country surrounded the facility to halt exports.
Supplies have come steadily from other sources, though, said Alice Roberts-Davis, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Administration, and she expects that to continue.
“We have been seeing supplies coming in from overseas,” she said. “We feel like we’re very well positioned.”
Walz thanked President Donald Trump for the disaster declaration that will allow Minnesota to be reimbursed for pandemic expenses, such as its use of the National Guard. However, he lamented confusing aspects of the federal response, including a stranglehold over supplies that makes it hard for Minnesota to buy even from local manufacturers such as Medtronic and 3M.
The way some COVID-19 payments will be apportioned could also reward states that didn’t respond as aggressively and expand Medicaid to reduce the number of people lacking insurance, Walz said.
One positive: Minnesota was among the first to gain clearance for supplemental $600 federal payments to go to state residents who are unemployed. In some instances, the combined state and federal unemployment payouts could exceed what workers would have made on their jobs, said Steve Grove, commissioner of the state Department of Employment and Economic Development.
“Its an odd incentive structure … but at a time when we’re asking for Minnesotans to stay home, we’re grateful for that federal money,” he said, “and of course we’re going to get every penny of it to the Minnesotans who deserve it.”
Staff writer Mary Lynn Smith contributed to this report.