Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz had a light touch Thursday when fine-tuning the dial of the state’s COVID-19 restrictions. While this prolongs the pandemic’s economic fallout, extending the stay-at-home order for another two weeks while expanding the businesses that can operate with precautions strikes a prudent though still painful balance.
This week, state health officials delivered encouraging news. Minnesota fortunately doesn’t appear to be on track to max out hospital capacity. Avoiding that was a key reason for stay-at-home orders here and elsewhere.
Caution, however, remains in order in the battle against a virus for which there are no proven treatments and no vaccine. President Donald Trump has been an energetic advocate for easing quarantine restrictions, but Minnesota doesn’t appear to meet his administration’s own criteria for doing so. That’s a reality check for all who are frustrated by Walz’s pace.
The “Opening Up America Again” plan released April 16 by the White House takes a three-phased approach to easing COVID-19 containment measures, with states required to clear one “gate” before moving on to the second and then third. Minnesota doesn’t pass the first, which involves a decline in clinic visits for flulike symptoms, and likely falls short on parts two and three.
To clear “Gate 2,” the state needs to have a “downward trajectory” in confirmed COVID-19 cases for a 14-day period. But Minnesota reported a new one-day high on Thursday: 492. Nor is there sufficient data to say whether Minnesota meets the plan’s alternative metric to move forward.
Minnesota looks to be stymied by Gate 3, as well. This part of the plan requires a “robust testing program in place for at-risk health care workers, including emerging antibody testing.” Minnesota’s testing to diagnose COVID-19 is ramping up, but demand still appears to outstrip availability.
The White House’s three-phase plan surprisingly doesn’t include criteria for COVID-19 death numbers. That should be considered as reopening decisions are made. Minnesota’s fatalities nearly doubled from 160 on April 21 to 319 on April 29. As of Thursday, that number now stands at 343, an increase of 24 from the day before.
The stay-at-home order’s extension will spark healthy debate over its merits. Two data points are likely to come up, and each is worth examining:
• Of those who died in Minnesota, 99.24% had underlying health conditions. This might suggest healthy people have nothing to fear. Again, a reality check is in order. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that “six in ten Americans live with at least one chronic disease, like heart disease and stroke, cancer, or diabetes.” COVID-19’s risks are more widespread than it may appear.
• Minnesota testing will hit 20,000 a day. Mayo and the University of Minnesota’s new diagnostic testing capacity will help state officials track and contain outbreaks, paving the way to ease restrictions. But it will take time to hit the 20,000 mark. On Thursday, the state reported that just 3,279 tests had been completed in a 24-hour span.
The tests also require chemicals and other materials to process. Shortages have hindered testing nationally and continue to be a serious concern in Minnesota. On Tuesday, Walz sent a letter to Vice President Mike Pence saying “supply chain issues persist” for these critical materials.
The White House had a dramatic announcement of its own this week about testing, releasing a “blueprint” Monday. It was a step forward but it lacked a detailed federal strategy, something that Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith and others have called for, to secure adequate testing supplies during a global shortage. Remedy is urgent.
Minnesotans are understandably weary and worried as COVID-19 batters daily lives and livelihoods. But the time bought so far through social distancing’s sacrifices is allowing health care to catch up to a fast-moving virus. It’s time to push forward, not let up.