One of the last things pianist Nachito Herrera remembered before being rushed to a hospital and placed into a coma because of COVID-19 was practicing a Rachmaninoff concerto. So, it was terrifying for him to awaken two weeks later with a temporary loss of function in his hands.
The infectious disease caused by a novel coronavirus had forced him onto a heart-bypass machine to maintain adequate oxygen and damaged his heart and kidneys, too.
"This [was] a huge invisible enemy trying to kill … my body," said Herrera, 54, of White Bear Lake.
Herrera was called by Gov. Tim Walz along with others affected by the COVID-19 pandemic on Wednesday to discuss their struggles — in contrast to President Donald Trump's "do not be afraid" tweet about the pandemic. Walz also hoped the stories would counter any apathy Minnesotans are feeling about mask-wearing and other strategies to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
"The ripple effects of each of these stories shows how devastating this can be if we don't get this right," Walz said.
The storytellers included Kathryn Hall, a Lake Elmo psychologist, who called the coronavirus an "invisible tiger" that physically isolated her mother in long-term care and finally caused her death.
Dr. Cuong Pham, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota's medical school, also discussed the heartbreak of treating COVID-19 patients, losing a loved one to the infectious disease and losing human contact with his parents.
"Our reaction has to be conservative," Pham said. "I am thinking about the most vulnerable people in our population. I'm going to wear this mask as a community member until I know that the most vulnerable people are going to be protected, whether we have a mandate or not."
The governor said he is "terrified" by the rapid infection growth in Wisconsin, which earlier in the pandemic had been hailed for its low COVID-19 rate, and that people need to hear about the consequences of the pandemic.
The Minnesota Department of Health on Wednesday reported 14 COVID-19 deaths and 918 new lab-confirmed infections with the coronavirus that causes the disease, bringing totals in the pandemic to 2,101 deaths and 106,651 infections.
The COVID Exit Strategy website showed Minnesota with a rate of 185 infections per day per 1 million people — which is ranked as "uncontrolled spread" but is lower than the rates above 400 in Wisconsin and the Dakotas. North Dakota reported a single-day high Wednesday of 24 COVID-19 deaths while Wisconsin readied a makeshift hospital in Milwaukee.
The roundtable came two days after the president made his controversial tweet and was discharged from the hospital with his own COVID-19 case. The event also occurred amid signs of fatigue among Minnesotans when it comes to seeking diagnostic tests and quarantining themselves when exposed to the virus.
Walz agreed with Trump in the sense that he would never tell people to be afraid, but he said they still must be cautious. However, he noted that Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan lost a brother to COVID-19 and was upset by the underlying connotation of the president's tweet.
"Her brother, a Marine, fought this thing but lost his life to it," he said, "and that somehow he was afraid or somehow he didn't fight hard enough is really disrespectful."
A particular concern emerging for state health authorities is parents or teenagers refusing COVID-19 testing to avoid quarantines that could affect their schools or sports teams.
A school nurse tipped off state health officials about a high school football team's pact to not get tested, while contact tracers last month investigated a group of children with known exposures who cut short quarantines and played hockey.
"We keep hearing … many situations in which parents intend to ignore quarantine guidance particularly because of sports," said state infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann via e-mail. "It is very concerning to us."
People advised by state public health officials to quarantine for 14 days because of viral exposures also are asking their doctors if they can shorten or get out of those restrictions. The Minnesota Medical Association (MMA) issued an alert Tuesday discouraging its doctors from overriding quarantines recommended by public health officials.
"Isolation during this time of COVID, it is not fun and it may mean missing work, but we want to support our colleagues in contact tracing and public health and say [to patients], 'You need to listen to the advice you are getting,' " Dr. Marilyn Peitso, a St. Cloud pediatric hospitalist and MMA president, said in an interview.
Dr. Jon Cole, an ER physician at HCMC, suffered an infection early in the pandemic along with his wife and said it was challenging to get through it while caring for their four children, who also were infected.
"I've never felt so short of breath in my life," said Cole, who spoke at the governor's roundtable. The doctor added that he was heartened by a colleague bringing him an oxygen saturation monitor so he could keep track, but then was reminded that others aren't so fortunate.
COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on minorities, partly due to higher rates of people who are in poverty or working low-wage service jobs requiring face-to-face contact and transmission risks. While more than 80% of deaths are in people 70 and older, the majority of deaths in people 65 and younger are minorities.
"I think so much about how hard it was for us," Cole said, "and how much easier we have it than all of the patients that I take care of."