The 2022 campaign Minnesota has focused mostly on inflation, public safety and abortion. Those are the top three issues that voters cite in nearly every statewide poll.
So, of course, the final debate Friday between the leading candidates for governor spent an inordinate amount of time on … COVID-19? During a 60-minute debate that sounded more like an argument, Gov. Tim Walz defended the state’s response to the pandemic, and GOP challenger Scott Jensen criticized it. In turn, Walz attacked Jensen’s national prominence as a COVID skeptic, and Jensen defended it.
On a question about learning loss from MPR News host Mike Mulcahy, Jensen blamed Walz for extensive school closures and the use of on-line schooling.
“I’m a family doctor,” Jensen said. “I’m running for governor because I think Minnesota is fractured, and I think Tim Walz’s policies of locking kids out of schools was incredibly damaging, and his policies of locking nursing home patients into the facility without the contact and dignity provided by loved ones is a horrible thing he did.”
On the Feeding Our Future meals program scandal, Jensen said the Walz administration could inspect restaurants to make sure they followed business closure orders but couldn’t drive by a feeding program falsely reporting thousands of meals a day.
Walz came back later to say the work thrown at the state, schools and health care by the pandemic was made more difficult by Jensen’s public doubts about the dangers of the virus, his claims that death counts were inflated and that unproven treatments were valid.
“If you’re auditioning for this job, Scott had an opportunity in the one area that is supposed to be his area of expertise and he found himself being one of the most … dangerous people when it came to COVID,” Walz said. “The only person praising him was Vladimir Putin.”
Walz said Jensen’s public position as a COVID questioner is why the Minnesota Medical Association endorsed him and not Jensen. Jensen claimed the association is a liberal organization that never endorses Republicans.
Later still, Jensen challenged Walz to declare that COVID-19 vaccines would not be required to attend school in Minnesota, the way other vaccines against diseases like measles, tetanus, polio and pertussis currently are. A committee recently recommended that the COVID-19 vaccines be added.
Walz said the state doesn’t have to follow that recommendation and that there is a process under the Department of Health to consider additions. But Jensen said that wasn’t enough and that Walz should say no, as Jensen said he has pledged to do.
Is Jensen outside the mainstream among health professionals? He was asked.
“I think I’ve definitely been a skeptic,” Jensen said. Questioning how frequently the virus is listed as the cause of death “is where I first became identified as a skeptic.” Jensen had said that some patients who had COVID-19 would have died from other conditions and shouldn’t have been included in the counts.
Jensen said he thinks his public statements led to investigations by the state’s medical practice board. In fact, the complaints filed with the board did raise questions about his public support for unproven treatments such as ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine.
Said Walz: “‘Out of the mainstream’ is a kind, kind characterization.” Walz repeated one of the excuses he has given for agreeing to three debates when he did more four years ago.
“This is a platform going out to the public,” Walz said. “Many of those, including the Minnesota Medical Association, are deeply concerned whenever Scott has a platform.” After citing the state’s death count — 13,463 — Walz said “Scott’s answer on that was to question how someone died, never helping. Telling people not to wear the mask. He can’t even practice in hospitals because he can’t follow their procedures.”
Jensen said that early use of ventilators on sick patients turned out to be a mistake, that health care providers learned that it often led to death and that other therapies were more productive. Many states over-purchased ventilators early in the pandemic’s early months.
“That’s why people were so desperate to stay out of the hospital,” Jensen said. But wasn’t the problem caused by the virus, Jensen was asked. “COVID was a deadly problem,” Mulcahy said.
“No, the ventilator was the deadly problem,” Jensen said. “We actually reduced death rates once we stopped using the ventilators.”
Walz responded: “Let’s be clear, when science changes its mind, they weren’t lying, they learned more. That’s the way the system works.”
Jensen said he now believes that the virus didn’t move from animals to humans in China but instead escaped from a lab in Wuhan.
When asked to respond, Walz said he “didn’t want to platform Scott any more on this.”
In a MinnPost/Embold Research statewide poll earlier this month, COVID-19 and the response to the pandemic was rarely cited by those polled as an issue that is a priority to them.
The debate did cover crime, state budget and taxes, abortion, the Feeding Our Future fraud scandal and education. Both tended to use terms and phrases that required an insider’s knowledge of government and politics, and Jensen has fallen into Walz’s tendency of speaking in clauses rather than full sentences.
But it also served as a chance for the candidates to make a closing argument to the relatively small segment of voters who say they are undecided.
“This election is about our future,” Walz said. “You’re gonna hear, and you’ve seen over this campaign, two very contrasting visions of Minnesota.” Jensen’s vision, Walz claimed, “is a dark and fearful Minnesota.”
Walz said the state came through tough times together and “we’ve come out stronger than ever. We offer up solutions to our toughest problems.”
Jensen said he became a doctor because he wanted to help people and is running for governor “because Tim Walz hurt people.
“Tim Walz failed. Minnesota is broken. We’re fractured. We’re (more) deeply divided than I can remember in my lifetime … there’s an opportunity for us to move forward but it’s going to new leadership.”
The previous two debates took place in Rochester last week and in August at Farmfest.