COVID-19 hindsight: MDH emails, interviews reveal internal anxiety at start of pandemic

Ryan Raiche
Updated: March 17, 2021 10:15 PM
Created: March 17, 2021 08:05 PM

It was a sunny, brisk Friday afternoon last March. Hopeful signs of spring were tempered by anxious feelings about the new virus that was beginning to spread across the country but hadn’t yet reached Minnesota.

State health officials had been basically crossing their fingers that they could keep pushing off what they knew would eventually arrive.

Behind the scenes, various teams at the state’s Department of Health had been preparing for the announcement for days by setting up a hotline, crafting messaging and establishing guidelines.

Kris Ehresmann, the head of infectious diseases at MDH, shot off a quick email to the leadership team after receiving a frantic call from the lab that was testing a handful of specimens each day.

The time: 12:39 p.m. on March 6, 2020.

The subject line: POSITIVE.

“It was sort of like, this is it now,” recalls Ehresmann, who would soon become a familiar face for anxious Minnesotans over the next year (and counting).

It was the first of the many dark days to come and would lead to some of the most consequential decisions that are still impacting life in Minnesota more than a year later. 

Follow KSTP's complete COVID-19 coverage 

Internal emails, as well as interviews with the three top officials who have become part of daily life during the pandemic, offer a revealing look behind the scenes as those decisions were debated during the early days of COVID-19.

One of the early signals that normal life would come screeching to a halt was the decision by the NBA on March 11 to shut down the season. 

They did it in dramatic fashion as the players for the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder had already taken the court.

It was just the beginning of shocking shutdowns.

Next came the BIG 10 Tournament, right as the Gopher basketball team was heading to the stadium in Indianapolis. March Madness, the Masters and everything in between soon followed.

“I think that the public got a lot of confused and mixed messages early on. So something as visible as the sports leagues taking it as seriously as they did, I think did make people sit up and take notice,” said Jan Malcolm during a recent interview with 5 INVESTIGATES.

But those mixed messages had a lasting impact, Malcolm admits.

For example, in early March then-Vice President Mike Pence sent a very clear message to Americans: “anyone who wants a COVID test, will be able to get a COVID test.”

“That happened,” Ehresmann said, recalling the day MDH had to figure out how to respond.

“We were still having difficulty having adequate test capacity and we thought ‘Oh my goodness, how is this going to happen,’” Ehresmann said.

According to internal emails, Ehresmann expressed her frustration in one simple word at the time, as her team passed around a New York Times article about Pence’s comments: “WHAT?!?”

As officials tried to work through the messaging, a bigger dilemma was looming -- one that would affect families in every corner of the state.

Pressure was mounting to take action to protect school-aged children, but emails show not everyone was in agreement.

Dr. Michael Osterholm from the University of Minnesota, who gained national attention for his assessments and predictions, urged health officials to keep schools open in the early days of the crisis even as states around Minnesota were doing the opposite.

“It may be counterintuitive,” he wrote in an email to top health officials. “But we must not give in.”

Gov. Tim Walz gave in days later on March 15. He broke the news during a weekend press conference. 

“We will begin the process of closing our schools,” he said.

Malcolm says the decision was influenced mostly by what was not known about the virus at the time.

“It was debated, you know, did we have enough evidence to say, schools are dangerous, or schools aren't dangerous, and we didn't in those early days,” she said.

More than a year later, Osterholm stands by his recommendation but may offer new guidance in the weeks to come.

“I all along have been all about proportionally putting the recommendations out what to do based on the risk in your community at the time,” Osterholm said in an interview with 5 INVESTIGATES.

However, the situation has evolved since then, and the debate over schools is still not over.

In fact, Osterholm is predicting a new surge in COVID-19 cases over the new strain of the virus that’s impacting the state, and this time he will be recommending a closure of schools.

“I think in the next several weeks, with this B117 variant, which is going to hit schools particularly hard, where I think closing schools is absolutely an important element of what we need to do to respond,” he said.


Copyright 2021 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company