After a brutal April that saw more than 300 deaths and hundreds of COVID-19 hospitalizations, Minnesota health officials say the new month promises more sickness and loss but also a health care system better equipped to handle the pandemic.
Doctors and hospitals credit public adherence to a stay-at-home order from Gov. Tim Walz with slowing an expected surge of COVID-19 patients, but the political consequences were on display Saturday in the form of protests at the State Capitol and a threat by Republican lawmakers to withhold support for key public infrastructure legislation.
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said his caucus will block passage of a public infrastructure borrowing package until the peacetime state of emergency Walz has used to enact the stay-at-home order and other coronavirus response measures comes to an end.
“We feel that this has gone on for basically two months now where we’ve had unilateral decisionmaking by the executive,” Daudt said. “I feel like more eyes and more minds in this process are going to give us better decisions.”
Despite the opposition, polling suggests most Americans support continued social distancing rules as a means of combating the virus, which caused 24 more deaths and nearly 500 newly confirmed cases in Minnesota, the state said Saturday. One of the deaths involved a Hennepin County resident in their 40s with no underlying health conditions who did not live in a long-term care community.
“No one is free of risk from this disease,” said Dr. Cindy Firkins Smith, a past president of the Minnesota Medical Association who practices in Willmar, the west-central Minnesota city seeing a cluster of COVID patients who work in poultry processing.
The statewide toll is now 395 deaths, according to data posted Saturday by the Minnesota Department of Health. All but three of the new deaths reported were residents of long-term care facilities. Long-term care residents account for about 80% of the state’s deaths.
“We are going to continue to see deaths,” Kris Ehresmann, director of infectious disease at the Health Department, said via e-mail. “The good news is that we have tamped down the curve — our acute care is not overwhelmed.”
Walz and legislative leaders in both parties have said they want to pass a borrowing bill that will create jobs through public construction projects before the session ends May 18. They remain split on how much debt the state should take on.
Daudt’s opposition could thwart efforts to reach a deal in the session’s final weeks. Unlike other measures, the bonding bill needs support of minority parties in both chambers. House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, called Daudt’s statement “disappointing.
“Ending the peacetime emergency declaration before the emergency has passed would be reckless,” she said.
Republicans in both chambers have raised concerns about the DFL governor’s use of executive power during the pandemic. The peacetime state of emergency, initially declared March 13, gives Walz broad authority to respond to the crisis without legislative approval. It does not require legislative signoff, however, though lawmakers can vote to end it. House Republicans’ attempts to rescind the order have failed.
Governors across the country have used emergency executive powers to respond to the crisis, and a federal emergency declaration signed by President Donald Trump remains in effect.
Teddy Tschann, a spokesman for Walz, defended the administration’s actions, saying, “The governor is committed to getting Minnesotans back to work safely, and he’s asked the Legislature to join him by passing a robust Local Jobs and Projects Plan.”
The extended stay-at-home order provides new flexibility for some retailers to reopen with curbside pickup or delivery for customers.
On Saturday, a “drive-in rally” protesting Walz’s handling of the shutdown drew a steady stream of vehicles past the State Capitol. Roughly 100 people stood on the sidewalk in front of the building, some waving signs and flags and at least half a dozen carrying guns. Only a few wore masks and many stood within inches of one another.
A group of counterprotesters, all wearing masks, formed a line across a street leading to nearby Bethesda Hospital. They said they were keeping the route open in case an ambulance needed to get through.
While Republicans have raised concerns about the impact of restrictions on the economy, GOP governors in states from Georgia to Ohio have had varied responses to the pandemic.
On Thursday, after Walz extended his stay-at-home order, the Minnesota Hospital Association issued a statement urging residents “to continue to practice diligent social distancing in public and to stay at home whenever possible.” The Minnesota Medical Association said it supported the governor’s move as the best way to save lives.
“April was a very important month of preparation for our hospitals and clinics,” said Dr. Keith Stelter, president of the Minnesota Medical Association, via e-mail. “The time we all spent staying at home and doing social distancing was extremely valuable, because the predicted extreme peak did not occur before we could make these preparations.”
Minnesota and Wisconsin currently face decisions on whether to stay the course with social restrictions that are similar to those in place in Norway, or adopt the model of Sweden, with more relaxed rules, said Thomas Oliver, a professor of population health sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Following Sweden’s example will bring more death and illness, Oliver said.
The number of known COVID-19 cases in Minnesota increased Saturday from 5,730 to 6,228. People 65 and older, as well as those living in long-term care facilities and those with underlying medical conditions are at greater risk from COVID-19. Those conditions range from lung disease, serious heart conditions and cancer to severe obesity, diabetes and kidney patients who need dialysis.
The death reported Saturday of a person in their 40s who apparently didn’t have those problems shows “there are still going to be some occasional cases of people who are under the age of 65 who don’t have an apparent risk factor who do get severe disease,” said Dr. Jack O’Horo, an infectious disease physician at the Mayo Clinic.
Staff writers Katy Read and Rochelle Olson contributed to this report.