If Minnesotans want to keep kids in school classrooms and prevent hospitals from maxing out capacity, it's time to "turn the dial" back on other coronavirus control measures. A logical next step: thoughtfully and temporarily tightening COVID-19 restrictions on bars, restaurants, gyms, large public gatherings and other high-risk settings.
COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths are at alarming new highs here and across the nation. On Thursday, state officials reported a breathtaking 3,956 new cases. University of Minnesota infectious-disease expert Michael Osterholm is warning that the state's ICU capacity is at "red alert" levels. Gov. Tim Walz has also requested federal staffing help for long-term care and hospitals.
Driving all this is the high level of "community transmission." The virus is circulating so widely that there's no clear source of exposure for those who get sick. This indicates the pandemic is spiraling out of control, a grim place to be as winter looms and indoor air is thought to play a critical role in COVID contagion.
A widely available vaccine remains months away but action is required in the meantime. Reducing indoor capacity at public gathering places for a limited time is likely a necessary but difficult step. Bars and restaurants resumed some indoor business in June in Minnesota, as did fitness clubs, movie theaters and swimming pools.
In October, state guidelines were updated to allow restaurants to seat more people together, though indoor capacity remained limited to 50%.
A recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made it abundantly clear these settings are high-risk for transmitting the virus. While targeting them would be hard on these businesses, which would need additional federal relief, doing so could substantially reduce community transmission.
That would prevent hospitals from hitting capacity, help keep students in classrooms, or put them back there. In addition, it would help reopen the economy sooner by getting COVID more rapidly under control. "People of Minnesota need to prioritize what they want open — because we can't do it all right now," Dr. Peter Bornstein, a Twin Cities infectious-disease physician, tweeted Thursday morning.
Some large European countries have already closed bars and restaurants and taken other steps to limit social gatherings. On Thursday, an editorial writer asked Walz's office and state health officials if COVID control "dials" here would be turned to more restrictive settings. Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm provided this statement:
"We see in the data what is driving much of this spread — it's often younger people and it's happening in bars and restaurants, smaller social gatherings, and other celebrations like weddings," Malcolm said.
"The governor has and will continue to look at ways we can minimize the potential for spread through official actions, but it's important to recognize official actions will never eliminate all risk. Every Minnesotan has a role to play. We know what can work. Wear a mask, keep some distance from others, avoid crowds — and get tested, there's no need to wait."
These individual actions remain vital, but stronger prescriptions are in order as the pandemic worsens. Education and health care must take priority. It makes little sense that schools are reverting to remote learning and hospitals are at red alert while other venues that are known drivers of transmission aren't asked to make changes as well.