Minnesotans don't put away the snowplows, shovels and parkas for the season after a warm stretch of days in January. Snow and dangerous cold are still likely for several months to come. Winter sets its departure date, no matter how much we long for spring blossoms and balmy breezes.
Wishful thinking is similarly ineffective against COVID-19. This new strain of coronavirus has been spreading around the world for almost a year, leaving personal and economic pain in its wake. Everyone is weary. Everyone wants to go back to normal. But the virus is still dictating the terms and will do so until a safe, effective vaccine is widely available sometime next year. This is not the time to let down our collective guard.
COVID metrics in Minnesota and elsewhere are driving home that reality, taking a grim, recent turn for the worse. No, the nation is not "rounding the corner," as President Donald Trump said during Thursday's debate. Nor is it time to haphazardly "open up Minnesota," as state Republican legislative leaders called for last week during an ill-informed, ill-timed news conference.
That event, held Monday at the State Capitol, was the unfortunate equivalent of giving Minnesotans the green light to take off snow tires as a blizzard blew in. On Thursday, health officials reported 35 new deaths from COVID in Minnesota, a high-water mark not seen since May. Cases have been surging for several weeks here, and the rising number of hospitalizations and fatalities undercuts those who dismiss more cases as an artifact of additional testing.
There are flashing red lights, as well, on regional and national dashboards. Hard-hit Wisconsin activated a field hospital, and seven of its cities (as of Friday) were on the New York Times' top 10 list of metro areas where the outbreak is the worst. Two other cities on the national list are in North Dakota.
The national tally of cases is increasing sharply, too. "More than 75,000 new cases were reported in the United States on Thursday, the second-highest daily total nationwide since the pandemic began," according to the Times. There is more testing, to be sure, but hospitalizations are also rising rapidly. More than 41,000 people now need hospital care in the U.S., up 40% over past month.
With indoor air thought to play a major role in spreading the virus, cold weather's approach has experts deeply concerned. "These next 12 weeks are going to be the darkest of the pandemic," said Mike Osterholm of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.
At this point, the low-tech tool kit of wearing a mask, socially distancing and staying home when ill, along with state guidelines limiting gatherings, remains vitally important to contain the virus. These measures work best when compliance is high. That's why it's critical to add context to several overly optimistic points cited by GOP leaders as they argued to open up the state:
• That COVID treatment has improved. Yes, but none of the new treatments or procedures is a cure or guarantee. Dr. Dimitri Drekonja, of the University of Minnesota, likened the advances to wearing a Kevlar vest into battle: You still need to worry about injury and death in a battle zone.
• That there's more personal protective gear for health care workers. State stockpiles are stronger, but the Minnesota Nurses Association (MNA) is still concerned about availability for front-line workers. Suggesting that this is resolved is "misinformed, disrespectful and dangerous," MNA President and ICU nurse Mary C. Turner said.
• That in-classroom instruction and school sports have a vital role in education. Yes, but the science on whether it's safe to resume classroom education is just emerging and both caution and expertise are needed to interpret findings. Viral spread in schools also tends to reflect community spread, so one area's experience may not be applicable elsewhere. State health officials have additionally identified 57 suspected COVID outbreaks linked to high school sports.
Minnesota GOP leaders did not respond to an editorial writer's request for comment this week. Their desire for normalcy is understandable. But this is a time to call for patience and endurance, not risky shortcuts, to get through the winter ahead.