ST. PAUL — Saying Minnesotans "deserve to be as well-versed as possible on the facts around COVID-19, and the data we are using to inform our plan of attack so that you can be part of this," Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz on Friday, April 3, unveiled a one-stop, real-time digital clearinghouse for the readiness of the state health system to absorb an approaching surge in cases, a test that could come as early as two weeks.
The website (mn.gov/covid19) collates granular data on both the location and population affected by the illness so far, pairing it alongside a previously-undisclosed look at the hard counts of critical medical supplies that have become the singular focus of COVID-19 preparedness in recent weeks, items of high interest including masks, gloves, ventilators and ICU beds.
"I want to be candid with you Minnesota," Walz said during a live-streamed public briefing. "A lot of folks are not putting out this information, because they're afraid it will create a sense of panic.
"You can see on here we need more of these things, we need to continue to get them, to have them produced, and we need the supply chain to work. It's no secret there's somewhat of a disconnect of what the federal strategic stockpile is, and what the states have. My job as governor is to find a way to get these."
The radical transparency initiative lines up with numbers previously offered during daily health department press briefings, data showing state health care facilities currently possess 2,241 ventilators, 857 which are in use, leaving 1,384 available with 888 more on order. The state's hospitals, the new portal shows, possess just 244 surplus ICU beds, with the potential to build another 1,600 within 72 hours.
With healthcare workers launching complaints that personal protective equipment is being rationed or reused, it's a noteworthy revelation that Minnesota health care organizations combined with a state surplus currently possess 374,000 N95 respirators, 243,000 masks, 208,000 gloves, 75,000 shields, and 65,000 gowns, according to the Response and Preparation Dashboard.
The numbers appear reassuring and yet in a state with a population of 5.5 million residents, over half of whom are expected to develop the illness and with 15% of that number likely needing hospitalization, it's hard to say what they mean. Reached last week for an estimate of peak demand, Minnesota Department of Health spokesperson Doug Schultz replied that "at the peak there would be about 50,000 people needing admissions, out of which 5,000 would require ICU care."
That's 3,000 more ICU beds potentially needed at one time than are currently expected to be available. It's why the state continues to assemble sites for field hospitals to carry some of the excess load.
Health officials caution that projections are susceptible to assumptions and can change with increased mitigation efforts like social distancing. It's also behind the move on Friday to put the state's preparedness cards on the table for the public to see.
"I want to make sure," Walz said, "since we're all in this together, that everybody on this team understands what the data shows, and what the plan of attack going forward is. You are buying us the time, so you have an expectation of knowing what is that time buying us. It is buying us the time to ramp up these materials."
"I can tell you right now, states that are requesting 10,000 ventilators are not going to get them," Walz said, "because they're not there. So we need to figure out how we make sure that we move what we have around, and that we are increasing our capacity to the absolute limit we can."
Also on Friday, the state reported four new deaths from the coronavirus, and 47 new cases. The reports bring the state total to 22 deaths and 789 cases. Of the four new deaths, three were in long-term care settings, among residents in their 80s and 90s in Hennepin, Olmsted and Scott counties, while a fourth was a person aged 60 in Chisago County.
In the clearest sign yet that the state is running out of materials to identify health care workers, hospitalized patients and residents of congregate living centers with coronavirus, the Minnesota Department of Health lab tested just 102 samples on Thursday.
Earlier in the week Minnesota Commissioner of Health said the state had just 600 test kits left without resorting to different platforms, and that the kits in predominant use are back-ordered until May.
If the state exhausts its supply of test materials, the work will increasingly shift to private labs now testing for the illness, principally Mayo Clinic.
Walz and health officials said on Friday they planned to continue to research the health of the state through other means, however, including the new Mayo Clinic serology test, and the health department's own health surveillance system, a reporting process that has identified a drop in flu cases yet a surplus of flu-like illnesses assumed to be the coronavirus.
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Minnesota Department of Health 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.