Gov. Tim Walz on Tuesday will unveil “surgical” COVID-19 restrictions that target spreaders of the fast-growing infectious disease, as well as plans for mobile device tracking to alert people when they have been exposed to the virus.
Walz on Monday said he wanted to avoid a “blunt” action like the 51-day state lockdown this spring and hinted at early bar and restaurant closures based on where and when customers appear to be spreading the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
“It makes sense to us now to target those much more surgically, much more aggressively, than a statewide stay-at-home order,” Walz said, “because at this point in time, we’ve learned we can do retail, we can do education, some of it in person, if we’re able to test, contain and contact trace those folks to get [their infections] isolated.”
The Minnesota Department of Health on Monday reported 19 more COVID-19 deaths and 3,930 infections with the coronavirus that causes the disease. Totals in the pandemic have reached 2,675 deaths and 184,788 diagnosed infections.
The state pandemic dashboard also showed continued pressure on Minnesota hospitals, which as of Monday had admitted 1,084 COVID-19 patients and placed 224 of them in intensive care.
Several doctors urged Walz via social media to order new dial-back restrictions that limit viral transmission and prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed.
“Governor, we need you to exercise your emergency powers to dial back,” Dr. Saugar Maripuri, a kidney specialist with Hennepin Healthcare, said in a tweet. “We are at a tipping point with hospital capacity and we cannot afford to run out of ICU beds.”
The dashboard indicated that 981 of 1,349 immediately available ICU beds in Minnesota were occupied with patients who had COVID-19 or other unrelated medical issues. The state also has a surge capacity of 408 ICU beds that can be readied in 72 hours, and for one of the first times, the dashboard indicated that 20 are in use.
Walz did not specify the plans he would unveil Tuesday, but he said they will concentrate on places where adults aged 18 to 35 gather and spread the virus. He also said plans were influenced by state health data showing that more infections in bars and restaurants occur after 10 p.m.
However, he noted that risks exist in other situations such as large celebrations after elections or football games.
“We’re not demonizing … this environment. It’s just a riskier environment,” Walz said of bars and restaurants. “But in all fairness, you gathering with three or four families in your backyard, or worse yet in your garage, for a celebration, would have an equally detrimental effect, and we’ll have to target those, too.”
The state Health Department has identified 117 outbreaks involving seven or more people at bars or restaurants. Half were reported in October alone.
Ninety-six weddings have been linked to 851 primary infections — with attendees spreading the virus secondarily to others. That includes 44 weddings in October. The MDH Restaurant and Social Outbreak Summary lists the settings where outbreaks occur.
Hospitality Minnesota President and CEO Liz Rammer said bars and restaurants shouldn’t be singled out given the outbreaks at parties and informal gatherings.
“Restaurants and bars are affiliated with only 2% of the cases. … Closing down these businesses would only serve to push more people to home gatherings where the data shows increased case spread,” she said.
House Republican Leader Kurt Daudt declined to say whether he might support further restrictions, such as potential curbs on bar and restaurant hours, without more data or evidence from the governor to support such actions.
“The Legislature doesn’t know anything and didn’t have any part of this,” he said.
State Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said part of the problem is that people lose vigilance over time at parties and bars. People also focus on one mitigation strategy when it takes a combination of mask-wearing, social distancing, avoiding large crowds and staying home when sick to reduce risks.
Masks don’t give people permission to be in close contact, even if they have no symptoms, Malcolm said. “This silent, asymptomatic spread is one of the things that is so pernicious about COVID-19, and it’s very unusual for a virus. It’s part of what has made control so difficult.”
Walz and Malcolm spoke Monday while unveiling the new saliva testing site at the west end of the Minneapolis Convention Center — the state’s eighth such site to increase COVID-19 testing. National Guard armories across the state will be hosting free testing clinics as well.
State health officials said Minnesota has the capacity and resources for asymptomatic people to seek testing to find out their status ahead of visits with others who may be at higher risk for severe COVID-19. The holidays are usually launchpads for influenza season and could have the same effect on COVID-19.
“Younger people often don’t show symptoms, but you can still spread the virus,” MDH Assistant Commissioner Daniel Huff said. “So if you are in that age group, please get tested before Thanksgiving. Get tested again before the end of the year. We need you to get tested twice in the next couple of months.”
Malcolm said the state is testing a mobile device app that identifies when someone who is infected has spent 15 minutes within 6 feet of another person — which is considered a moderate risk for viral transmission. The app could alert people who test positive for COVID-19 to all of their close contacts and give them the option of texting those contacts anonymously to notify them of their viral exposures.
Walz said the voluntary, anonymous nature addressed some of his privacy concerns about the approach, which has been tried in other states and used in Asia and Europe.
North Dakota offered a voluntary app but it had low uptake. HealthPartners tried a crowdsourcing app this spring in which people could upload their own anonymous health status so others around them would know of any COVID-19 threats nearby.
“If COVID just gave you red spots, that’s all we’d need — if we just had a whole bunch of 18- to 35-year-olds who we could see had red spots on them,” Walz said. “What you’re going to see is that red spot is going to be your phone vibrating saying, ‘Hey, just so you know, you were in 6 feet for more than 15 minutes of someone who had COVID.’ ”
Staff writers Joe Carlson and Torey Van Oot contributed to this report