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Walz, legislative leaders outline state’s response to coronavirus

Minnesota still doesn’t have a confirmed case of COVID-19, but it is prepared for when it does, say state officials. 

Gov. Tim Walz
Gov. Tim Walz: “It’s important to talk to the people of Minnesota: preparation is not panic. Preparation is the right thing to do.”
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Gov. Tim Walz and legislative leaders are trying to find the sweet spot between raising awareness about threats from the coronavirus and not scaring Minnesotans into a panic.

After a closed-door meeting with top lawmakers, Walz and Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Monday they wanted residents to take the threat seriously enough to take personal actions that could slow the spread of the virus but not to the point of acting irrationally, or living in dread. Minnesota still doesn’t have a confirmed case of COVID-19, but it is prepared for when it does, they said. 

“It’s important to talk to the people of Minnesota: preparation is not panic. Preparation is the right thing to do,” Walz said after the meeting. “This will get to Minnesota at some point and preparation is the way that we can contain it, that we are able to keep the numbers lower and make sure our health care system can respond to that.

“The state is doing everything possible to make sure we keep them safe,” Walz said.

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Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka echoed that sentiment: “We are calm. We are focused. We have a plan, We’re not wringing our hands,” he said. “I want to encourage people; you can be calm, you can be hopeful that we have a plan and we will implement it.” (Here is the COVID-19 webpage of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

“Obviously we’re all watching the news,” Malcolm said of reports regarding increasing numbers of cases and deaths in the United States. “Based upon what we’re seeing, we do believe it’s likely that we will see cases and likely in the very near future.”

The legislative response that Walz asked for Monday is twofold: appropriate more money and be unified in how the state communicates with the public.

There are already House and Senate bills to funnel money to the Public Health Response Contingency Account. The Senate bill would add $5 million to the $4.6 million already in the account. The House bill does not yet include a dollar amount, but one will be added when the state has a better sense of what the costs might be. Both houses and both parties want to avoid the need for a special session over the summer to appropriate more funds.

The state is also likely to get money from the federal government, but Malcolm said that could take some time and “it would be prudent to have access to the funds already appropriated and we are going to recommend an additional infusion of state resources.”

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm: “Based upon what we’re seeing, we do believe it’s likely that we will see cases and likely in the very near future.”
Health officials in Washington state, the current domestic epicenter of the outbreak, Monday asked lawmakers there for $100 million to respond. State and local health departments have been looking for isolation centers, and King County Monday purchased a motel for that purpose.

There could also be a third part of the state’s response. House Speaker Melissa Hortman said she wants to look at the governor’s emergency powers to give him the same authority to respond to a public health emergency as he now has for natural disasters.

“We want to make sure the executive branch has the authority they need under either set of circumstances,” Hortman said. 

Gaps in that authority became evident in the fall when governors in other states were stopping sales of vaping products that were implicated in lung injuries. Walz has no such authority, though Minnesota’s health commissioner can order people into quarantine under current law, and the commissioner of education can order the closure of schools. 

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Gazelka said later he is looking at the issue of emergency powers after Walz raised it Monday. “I’ve instructed our folks to take a look at what that means,” Gazelka said. “The whole issue of more authority will have a fully vetted conversation.”

What people can do

What sort of preparation should residents make? 

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
Walz and Malcolm repeated the direction to wash hands frequently; cough or sneeze into elbows or sleeves; avoid touching your face in case your hands have come into contact with the virus; clean surfaces where the virus could exist; and stay home if suffering symptoms.

“We realize that that isn’t always an easy thing to do but it is critical that we talk with our community, talk to our employers, really encouraging people to stay home when they’re sick,” Malcolm said. 

She even complimented residents who rushed to stores over the weekend. “We want to thank Minnesotans actually for taking these messages seriously,” Malcolm said. “We’re hearing about stores running out of cleaning supplies and soap and that’s a high-quality problem to have in the short term.”

Malcolm also advised residents to think about how they might care for a sick family member; what they would do if schools or day cares are closed; and whether they have enough food and supplies to be isolated at home for a week or two. But she said it is too early to begin canceling travel plans that might be pending with spring break approaching or deciding not to attend events with large crowds such as sports tournaments.

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“At the present time, the CDC continues to say, and we believe this to be true for the state of Minnesota as well, that for the general public the risk remains low today,” Malcolm said. “We’re not seeing today the need for people to cancel regular travel plans domestically. That could change, but it would be made as facts change and we get additional guidance from the CDC.”

Testing for the virus

The state health lab received test kits from the CDC and worked over the weekend to validate that its results were the same as the CDC projects. “They are ready to go,” Malcolm said. 

The state has two testing kits from the CDC and each kit can test 400 people. The state will order more test kits as needed, the department said. 

“If a health care provider has a patient that they are considering for testing either because of epidemiological reasons or because of very severe illness, they are asked to call the Minnesota Department of Health to consult with them and guidance on testing,” the department said in a statement. “While we are following CDC guidance, we do consider each situation and have some latitude to consider testing if it falls outside of regular guidance. … If you are not sick enough to need to seek health care, we continue to recommend staying home if you are sick. We’ll be testing people that meet the criteria, but will not be testing everyone with respiratory symptoms.”

Said Malcolm: “We have to be a little bit careful to make sure that those tests are used on the cases that have the most probability of detecting this.” 

“There is a silver lining in that, if it’s the case that it is already circulating and has been undetected for two or three weeks, what that suggests, and we know this to be true, is that the majority of cases are mild,” Malcolm said. “But we owe it to the vulnerable in our state to do what we can do to stop the spread, because for some communities it is more severe and has the potential to be fatal, as we have seen.”

Walz took part in a White House briefing for governors led by Vice President Mike Pence, and he met later Monday with officials from the state’s hospitals. The seasonal flu has already taxed hospitals, and a virus outbreak could add to the pressures they are facing, he said. 

Malcolm said she would be gathering a private sector leadership group “to help us think through community mitigation strategies if we see significant numbers of cases” as other states are seeing. The state has also forwarded special guidance for schools.