MINNESOTA (Star Tribune) – Minnesota state officials continue to study the spread of COVID-19 as they weigh whether to take more actions, including shelter in place, to stop or slow the infection rate.
Another 25 confirmed cases were announced Wednesday, bringing the statewide total to 287 people infected with the new coronavirus. The virus has now been detected in 33 counties, with Goodhue and Winona counties seeing their first cases.
Confirmed case counts show only part of the COVID-19 spread in Minnesota. Testing is not widely available as the state lab and health care providers are trying to save their limited testing resources for the most high-risk cases, including those in a hospital, health care workers and people in long-term care facilities.
Even with the testing limitations, the positive COVID-19 cases discovered every day reflect infections that happened in the past, sometimes one to two weeks ago considering the lag time for symptoms to develop.
Based on a general understanding of epidemics, especially for a new virus, anywhere from 40 % to 80 % of the population could be affected.
Even though most infections result in only mild symptoms, a statewide rate of even 40 % would mean strong or severe symptoms for hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans. Some would suffer severe pneumonia or breathing problems and need intensive hospital care, perhaps with ventilators to maintain adequate oxygen.
Gov. Tim Walz said Tuesday that he will be relying on data from the Minnesota Health Department and the University of Minnesota to help guide future restrictions and assess the ones that have been put in place.
“Minnesota will do it the smart way,” Walz said, though he braced people to be ready for restrictions that extend “well beyond Easter.”
That’s where state health officials hope their data-driven strategies come in. Walz said he is awaiting predictive modeling on when Minnesota will see a peak in COVID-19 cases, and when hospitals could run out of intensive care services and ventilators for patients with severe level of illness.
The measures that have been put in place, including limiting large gatherings and closing schools, bars and dine-in restaurants, are keeping people off the roads.
Traffic volumes are down 33 % in the metro area and 26 % statewide.
Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Tuesday that state epidemiologists are also monitoring other data sources to look for impact.
“We are somewhat confident that we a complete picture of hospitalizations related to COVID,” she said.
There were 15 COVID-19 patients in state hospitals Tuesday, including seven who were in intensive care.
State officials are keeping a close eye on the availability of beds for the sickest patients, saying that 243 intensive care beds were open Tuesday.
The ebb of the flu season has helped, reducing usage of ventilators and intensive care beds. A week ago, only 5 % of the Twin Cities’ ICU beds were open. Now, that number is at 15 %. The state’s capacity also is being padded with the conversion of surgical anesthesia equipment and other devices into ventilators.
“We hope that demand doesn’t exceed our health care capacity, and we’re in good shape now, but we need to be prepared to expand that system very quickly,” said Joe Kelly, the state’s emergency management director.
“Early April is kind of going to be our tipping point,” said Dr. John Hick, medical director of Hennepin Healthcare and the Metro Health & Medical Preparedness Coalition that is mapping out a metro-wide response to the pandemic.
Hotels, closed nursing homes and high school gyms are all being considered as spillover sites for patients who don’t need intensive care but still require hospital-level attention.