ST. PAUL — Minnesota recorded its second death from coronavirus on Thursday, March 26. The individual was a resident of Ramsey County in their 80s.
"We want to express our sincere sorrow about this and offer our condolences to the family of the person who died," said state Commissioner of Health Jan Malcolm in an afternoon call with reporters, Gov. Tim Walz and other state officials. "It's close to our home and to our hearts."
"As much as it hurts to say this," Malcolm later said, "we know we will be reporting more deaths in the days to come."
It was the first meeting with reporters for health officials since announcing on Wednesday the preliminary results of a joint Minnesota Department of Health-University of Minnesota computer modeling project attempting to forecast the impact of the illness within the state.
The projections formed the basis of a executive order issued on Wednesday by Walz that all non-exempt Minnesotans are to stay at home except for essential services for at least two weeks.
"I recognize that the last 24 hours have been stressful for Minnesota," said Walz. "This was put in place to slow transmissions and buy us some time. We're looking for Minnesotans to stay home and break the chain of infection for a short time."
The projections determined that as many as 2 million Minnesotans are likely to contract the virus. While 80% of the infected could expect only mild symptoms, officials believe that without mitigation efforts like closing schools, businesses and the order to stay at home, 74,000 Minnesotans could be expected to die of COVID-19. The modeling has provided no data at this time on the number of Minnesotans who could die from coronavirus with mitigation now ongoing.
"That number shocked me when I saw it," said Walz. "And we ran that number several times."
The projections determined 15% of those who contract the illness will require hospitalization — health officials believe this could rise as high as 50,000 patients at its peak — and 5% of those patients could require ICU care, potentially 5,000 at its peak.
The model forecasted that at current transmission rates and health care capacity variables, ICU beds in the state could fill up within 11 weeks, a point in time three weeks prior a projected peak for infections statewide. The stay at home measures hope to slow this entire timeline, pushing the statewide peak from late April to mid-August.
"There are some assumptions in there that are just that — they are assumptions," said Walz of the alarming forecast on Thursday. "We think it is crafted as good and as Minnesota-specific as anything out there."
Health officials further clarified the variables informing the modeling, stating that it combined data reflecting population, rate of transmission as seen elsewhere within the U.S., state of social contact and available capacity of the Minnesota health care system.
"Directionally, the model holds up very strongly," said Malcolm. "The major variables that will change the outcomes are the amount of critical capacity available in the form of ICU beds, ventilators, and staff to man those ICU beds."
Malcolm said that for those who need one, access to an ICU bed increases the chance of survival tenfold.
"That's not to say everyone who gets ICU bed survives," Malcolm added. "But that there is no chance for those who need one without an ICU bed."
To address a rapidly-approaching scenario in which thousands more Minnesotans could require an ICU bed than are available, the state has begun to explore the use of gyms, hotels, dormitories and stadiums to house overflow hospital patients, thus allowing health facilities to convert standard rooms into ad-hoc ICU settings.
Officials said the state is now gathering sites from recently-closed hospitals and nursing homes first, followed by dormitories and hotels second, and as a last resort, arenas and convention centers.
"Within a couple of days we will have identified properties around the state and the metro that we think are appropriate sites," said Minnesota Emergency Management Director Joe Kelly.
The state recorded an additional 59 cases on Thursday, new cases ranging in age from 5 months to 104, bringing the new total to 346. The confirmed case count is widely believed to be undercounted. Testing jumped by nearly 1,500 tests on Thursday, with private labs conducting 991 tests in one day and the state adding 484 more. 12,950 Minnesotans have been tested so far. Statewide, 31 patients are hospitalized for coronavirus, with 14 in an ICU setting.
Kandiyohi, Sibley, Mahnomen and Wilkin counties all recorded single cases for the first time Thursday.
Olmsted County jumped by eight cases in a single day. Because Olmsted County-based Mayo Clinic is likely the source of most of the roughly 1,000 extra private tests conducted in the state each day, at 29 cases, its home county now has nearly as many cases with a population of 150,00 as the 32 cases in Ramsey County, with a population of 550,000.
Malcolm cautioned that families who have chosen to relocate to their cabins in the northern part of the state should remember that "those communities don't have the same kind of capacity to absorb large numbers of healthcare cases, and to be mindful that we don't want to overload those small communities."
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MDH COVID-19 hotline: (651) 201-3920.
School and childcare hotline: (651) 297-1304 or (800) 657-3504.
MDH COVID-19 website: Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) website.