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Coronavirus in Minnesota: Walz, health care officials urge vaccinations as hospitalizations continue to rise

Walz also downplayed the possibility for a special session, even after Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller said Republicans may back down from a threat to fire Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm. 

Gov. Tim Walz, right, speaking to medical team members from the Department of Defense, as Major General Shawn Manke, far left, looks on.
Gov. Tim Walz, right, speaking to Air Force Lt. Colonel Brandon Shealey, as National Guard Major General Shawn Manke, far left, looks on.
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein

On Tuesdays, MinnPost provides weekly updates that cover COVID-19 developments in Minnesota from the previous Wednesday to present.

This week in COVID-19 news

Ahead of Thanksgiving weekend, state health leaders on Tuesday said Minnesota’s hospitals are dangerously full and urged people to get vaccinated, get booster shots and reduce behavior that puts them at high risk for catching COVID-19.

Jennifer DeCubellis, the CEO of Hennepin Healthcare, told reporters that the “demand for emergency and life saving care has exceeded our capacity.” 

“We need all Minnesotans right now to stand up, to stand together and to protect our limited and vital emergency resources the best we can so that no one in Minnesota is faced with a life-threatening need without optimal care and recovery supports immediately available,” DeCubellis said.

Hennepin Healthcare, which runs HCMC in downtown Minneapolis, is the largest top-level trauma center for adults and kids in Minnesota and has unique expertise in emergency care. Providers across the state rely on their expertise and many in need of life-saving help around the state are flown to Hennepin Healthcare.

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“When we exceed capacity it doesn’t mean people get turned away,” DeCubellis said. “It means we stretch our team members. It means we leverage other expertise, it means care access can take longer, it means rural Minnesota hospitals hold onto care that they don’t have the expertise for a little bit longer until they can get somebody where they need to be.”

Gov. Tim Walz was at HCMC on Tuesday because the hospital is receiving a 23-person medical team from the Department of Defense to help with staffing shortages. St. Cloud Hospital is also receiving a team.

Jan Malcolm, the MDH Commissioner, said HCMC and St. Cloud Hospital aren’t the only medical systems in need. “Just about every hospital in the state is in tough shape in terms of how stretched thin they are, how hard their workers have been working for 20-plus months now.”

A special session in play?

Walz on Tuesday also downplayed the possibility for a special session even after Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, said Republicans may back down from their threat to fire Malcolm if the two sides strike a deal on other pandemic-related measures.

Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller
Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller
Walz, Senate Republicans and majority-House Democrats have been negotiating for months over how to distribute $250 million in bonus pay to frontline pandemic workers, approve drought relief money for Minnesota farmers and pass other measures meant to help capacity at hospitals and long-term care facilities.

But the GOP has indicated they might try to remove Malcolm from her post. The Senate can vote to confirm, or not confirm, members of Walz’s cabinet.

“We put forward an offer yesterday that we believe can get us to a special session and address many concerns we’re hearing from Minnesotans,” Miller told Minnesota Public Radio. “And if we can find agreement on the areas that were outlined in that letter, Senate Republicans would be willing to back off any discussions regarding commissioners for a special session.”

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Despite that change in stance, Walz said many of the things he wanted for pandemic response were meant to prepare Minnesota for a winter surge in cases and would have been more helpful two months ago. “I think one of the things the Legislature misses is that real life continues on,” Walz said. 

The governor said he has been focused on other ways the state can respond to the spike in COVID-19, such as expanding testing, vaccination, and calling in the federal defense teams.

Walz didn’t completely close the door on a special session but said “we’ve kind of moved beyond that,” at least when it comes to relaxing some regulatory requirements for medical systems.

Gov. Tim Walz and MDH Commissioner Jan Malcolm speaking during Tuesday's press conference at HCMC.
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Gov. Tim Walz and MDH Commissioner Jan Malcolm speaking during Tuesday's press conference at HCMC.
On Monday, Miller outlined a series of priorities in a special session, including up to $200 million in federal funds to help long-term care centers suffering with worker shortages and legislation to ban “state-issued COVID-19 vaccination mandates.” Walz can’t order broad vaccine mandates but does have a requirement for most state workers to either get vaccinated or undergo COVID-19 testing regularly

Miller also said he met with Malcolm last week and had a good discussion with the commissioner.

Walz spokesman Teddy Tschann said the state is among Minnesota’s largest employers and the governor wouldn’t agree to give up power for vaccine mandates for state workers. Walz on Monday also said he would spend $50 million in federal funds for hiring and staff retention at long-term care facilities. Lawmakers in June set aside $500 million in federal cash for Walz to use.

Meanwhile, earlier in the day, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, told MPR that Miller’s comments represented a “big step forward” toward a special session. Still, she said there’s not much time left before lawmakers are set to convene for their regular legislative session, so a special session still may not happen. 

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Data from the Minnesota Department of Health show the state added 29,577 new COVID-19 cases in the seven days between Nov. 17 and Tuesday, for an average of 4,225 new cases per day. That’s down slightly from a 4,484 new case daily average the week prior. At the height of the pandemic in late November of 2020, Minnesota averaged more than 7,000 new cases per day.

The most recent seven-day case positivity average — or the average share of positive cases out of total COVID-19 tests — is 11 percent, which is well above the “high risk” threshold for COVID spread set by state health officials. That rate is also up from 10.3 percent the week prior. You can find the seven-day case positivity average here.

As of Oct. 17, the most recent data available, there have been 83,933 documented “breakthrough” cases of COVID-19 among fully vaccinated Minnesotans. That represents 2.57 percent of fully vaccinated residents. The state is also reporting 3,638 hospitalizations among people with breakthrough cases and 620 deaths.

People who are fully vaccinated are far less likely to contract a severe case of COVID-19.

Deaths and hospitalizations

Minnesota added 182 new COVID-19 deaths in the last week, up from 165 the week prior. (Deaths did not necessarily occur in the week in which they were reported because deaths are not always reported and confirmed immediately.)

COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to rise in Minnesota. As of Tuesday, 320 people are in intensive care with COVID-19, while 1,109 are hospitalized and not in intensive care. Last Tuesday, 307 were in intensive care and 1,041 were hospitalized and not in intensive care. At the peak of Minnesota’s surge last winter, there were nearly 400 people in the ICU with coronavirus.

More information on Minnesota’s current hospitalizations here.

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The most recent data show 65 percent of Minnesotans, (3.616 million people), had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, while 60.1 percent of Minnesotans (3.343 million people) had completed the vaccine series. A week ago, 63.8 percent of Minnesotans had received at least one dose and 59.9 had completed the vaccine series. More data on the state’s vaccination efforts can be found here.

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