‘One Minnesota, we’re in this together’: Walz joins frontline workers to address worsening COVID-19 situation

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz joined state health officials and frontline workers on Monday to bring the state together in a form of unity as the COVID-19 pandemic worsens in the state.

Walz was joined by Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm; Director of MDH Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Prevention, and Control Division, Kris Ehresmann; Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Cuong Pham; intensive care nurse Kelley Anaas; and Assistant Professor of Nursing at St. Kate’s, Dr. Michelle Palmborg.

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Gov. Tim Walz

The governor said many counties and the upper midwest region in general are going through some of its darkest times during this pandemic. In the region, hospitalizations are up 90% in the last 10 days. Infection rates are higher in the region than anywhere else in the world.

Even with the recent news on Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine providing early strong protection and providing a dash of hope during these times, Walz says it’s vital that we each do our due diligence in combatting this virus.

"There’s light at the end of this tunnel but we need to get neighbors to the end of the tunnel," the governor said Monday. "(I am) not here to tell you what you want to hear but what you need to hear."

High-risk patients could receive a vaccine within the next month or two, but for everyone else, a vaccine most likely wouldn’t be available until late winter or spring at the earliest timeframe. Walz added that this pandemic has carried on amidst a backdrop of "angst" and "division." He says it’s important Minnesotans come together to curb the spread.

"One Minnesota, we’re in this together," Walz said.

The governor explained why this has continued to be a challenging thing to rope in, as everyone is not on board. A deepening division had settled across the country, Walz says, and making a public health crisis a matter of political ideology has hurt this state. However, the governor believes as the months move forward, the sense of togetherness will be urgent for Minnesotans.

"Our greatest strength here in Minnesota has been that we’re in this together, a sense of kindness for our neighbors," he said. "We have to rely on being in this together before a vaccine is here. Need to fight the virus, not each other. If we continue to take mitigation efforts we reduce pressure on health care, teachers, daycare workers, etc.

"If you don’t believe what someone is saying because of their political affiliation, listen to apolitical people who don’t have an affiliation with this. Wear your mask and stay healthy if it’s just to vote against me in two years," Walz added.

MDH Commissioner Jan Malcolm

Commissioner Malcolm took the podium Monday, stating that state COVID-19 numbers are "terrifying."

In just three days, about 24,000 positive COVID-19 cases have been reported in the state. Within those three days, approximately 167,000 tests have been conducted by health care workers. Over the weekend, Minnesota also saw 66 new deaths arise.

"Five days ago was 200,000 [positive cases], and now we estimate to see 300,000 [positive cases] next week," Malcolm said. "The rate of increase has accelerated beyond even the most aggressive expectations."

Latest MDH report: 7,444 new COVID-19 cases, 12 new deaths

An increase in positive cases among health care workers has skyrocketed as well, up 25% from the previous week (recent data taken from week of Oct. 25). Malcolm notes it’s not just health care workers testing positive, but others are having to quarantine due to exposure.

The commissioner said cases are increasing in every county in Minnesota. Zero counties are known to have fewer than 10 cases per 10,000 last week. Malcolm added that health guidance may get more and more conservative as the virus rages on.

"We are really at a crisis point. This is a short term sacrifice, a big one, but short term," Malcolm said. "This is a step we can take now to reduce the risk of COVID-19. Our entire state and country is right now a gigantic hotspot."

Regarding social gatherings, any function that includes more than a few people is a major health risk now. People are encouraged to celebrate the upcoming holidays with members of their immediate households. Celebrating virtually is also recommended for the holiday season, as any time people gather from other households, it poses a threat of spreading the virus in that setting.

"There is now a 30% chance of one in 10 people at a group outing infected in Hennepin or Ramsey counties," Malcolm stated, encouraging residents to check out the map the Georgia Institute of Technology put together.

Malcolm urges Minnesotans to make better choices starting now if a difference is desired later.

"We know there will be pushback [regarding the upcoming holidays]. People want to get together, but we really do believe that what we do in the next few weeks will tell the story of what December, January, February look like [in Minnesota]."

Director of MDH Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Prevention, and Control Division, Kris Ehresmann

Ehresmann says it’s important to acknowledge that her duties are done as a civil servant and that she has served under multiple administrations, but she is not a political appointee.

On the subject of college students returning home for the holidays, people should be aware that this younger group is most likely to be spreading the virus with little or no symptoms. One option is for students to remain on campus and celebrate the holidays virtually, if possible. Ehresmann also points out that Thanksgiving break is typically a time to get together with old friends but that remains risky, as crowds and drinking in them increase outbreaks.

"Strongly discourage travel during break, either just go home and stay home or just stay here," Ehresmann noted.

MDH: 11 new COVID-19 testing sites open across Minnesota, Anoka location opens Monday

However, for those who are expecting to travel, it’s important to take the steps necessary to slow the spread. Get tested and stay where you are, Ehresmann said.

Different states have different requirements, so Ehresmann suggests to make sure you know the rules wherever you are.

Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Cuong Pham

Dr. Pham, also a physician at M Health Fairview, spoke on the topics of pride, truth, anxiety and thankfulness.

He started by thanking Minnesotans for the safe way they voted in the recent election and how they celebrated Halloween without creating bigger risks.

"Medical system could not have done it without you. We got through the first peak because of Minnesotans’ decisions, " Pham said. "It allowed us to stay under hospital capacity. Why is it so hard now? We are all tired. I’m tired. COVID is finding all the weaknesses in safety nets."

Pham noted that hospitals are nearing capacity and are busier than ever during the length of the pandemic. The worry continues to be not having enough beds, not just for patients with COVID-19, but other patients who need medical care in other ways. He emphasized to combat the spread for others.

"Elderly, small businesses, children, those at risk… they all need your help. Do it for them," he said.

Intensive Care Nurse, Kelley Anaas

Anaas, who spoke with passion and worry, said she was coming off a grueling work week and now she suddenly sits at a position of a frontline worker.

"I find this name laughable as it implies there is a second line waiting in the wings. We are your only line," she said.

She continued, saying she watched intensive care units get filled up with COVID-19 patients this past weekend. Patients are also being transferred out more as more critically ill patients come in. Noted places where people were coming from include Stacey, Brainerd and Bemidji. More patients were intubated than sent out to medical floors, according to Anaas.

"We have been saying goodbye to many patients we’ve been caring for for weeks," she said, holding back tears. "I signed up for this with trust in community that they would protect me. I am here to say that you need to believe nurses when we tell you that these things are happening and that what we’re asking for in support will only help you and others."

She highlighted how other health problems for people, such as strokes and heart attacks, haven’t stopped during the pandemic, causing further issues for all patients.

Charting for hospitals and health care workers has switched to a crisis approach in recent weeks.

"A person standing behind you at a grocery store may be a frontline worker. Someday soon you may need them and you need to be sure they’ll be there for you," she said, adding "mask up and keep your distance."

Assistant Professor of Nursing at St. Kate’s, Dr. Michelle Palmborg

Dr. Palmborg, who works in the emergency department as a registered nurse, emphasizes the importance of the community coming together to keep neighbors and health care workers safe. She said she has personally notified the increase to come help in the emergency department with growing numbers.

Noting her colleagues being burnt out, Palmborg said in return, many hospitals are seeing an increase in wait times in emergency departments and intensive care units are at capacity.

Patients who have emergent situations not related to COVID-19 are being transferred out due to a lack of beds for everyone.

"We are prioritizing COVID-19 patients but other emergent situations still happening in the community. This is absolutely not a sustainable model," she expressed.

A growing concern remains for health care workers getting sick and not being able to do their jobs.

"We all need to do our part, express importance of handwashing, social distancing and masking," she said.

Other important items to note from Monday’s news conference:

  • Walz said the state will surpass 300,000 positive cases by next week, and will go past 3,000 deaths soon as well, saying "it’s not the end, only thing in question is how bad will it get."
  • Ehresmann said there is evidence of reinfection of the virus in some cases.
  • A three-wave process is expected for an eventual vaccine, some "really good news" in recent weeks according to Ehresmann. The first phase of vaccinations will begin in late December or early January and will have a limited supply, namely for health care workers. Then, a second phase would begin, vaccinating non-health care workers and higher-risk patients. The third phase would then be the general public, beginning sometime in the spring.
  • More guidance is expected to be announced regarding high school sports in the coming days. Malcolm noted that the growth of cases is starting to show up in sports. Talks are ongoing between the Minnesota State High School League and MDH. The biggest outbreaks have been seen in football, followed by volleyball, hockey, basketball and soccer. Ten percent of all school cases are associated with sports, Ehresmann says.