ST. PAUL — Minnesota officials on Tuesday, March 24, said they'll extend closures of bars, schools and businesses shuttered to prevent the spread of the coronavirus past the end of this week in an effort to better prepare the state for a peak in hospitalizations.
Gov. Tim Walz on Tuesday said he planned to keep schools along with restaurants, salons, gyms, theaters and other public gathering spaces closed beyond the March 27 date he initially proposed in an effort to further depress the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.
The governor didn't have immediate details about how long Minnesotans would be asked to continue under current restrictions and he said he was also considering an option to require Minnesotans to shelter at home.
“What we have done to this point is working," Walz said, noting that computer modeling would be made public in the coming days to show how the illness is expected to spread in Minnesota. "We will be extending [the order to close schools and businesses] and I think that’s a discussion that’s ongoing."
The comments came after the Minnesota Department of Health reported 27 additional confirmed cases of COVID-19, raising the state's total cases to 262. In total, 5,812 tests have been processed in the state. And the number of Minnesotans hospitalized due to the illness grew from 12 on Monday to 15 on Tuesday, according to the department. Seven patients were in intensive care units. Minnesota has 243 intensive care beds available, in all.
In total, 25 patients have been hospitalized due to COVID-19. And 88 patients who've tested positive for the illness no longer need to be in isolation.
State health and public safety officials said they are using computer modeling to assess how quickly COVID-19 could spread under existing restrictions. And they're trying to push out the time between Minnesota seeing a peak in total COVID-19 cases detected and a separate peak in hospitalizations from the disease that require intensive care.
"We're doing all of this hard work to buy time," Walz told reporters during a daily briefing call.
Early indicators from traffic monitoring across the state to cell phone pings to cell towers tracking movement suggest Minnesotans are taking the guidance to social distance seriously, Walz said. And that could give the state more time to set in place more intensive care unit beds and other needed health care supports before COVID-19 cases in the state peak and before intake to ICU beds due to the illness peak.
Walz and Homeland Security and Emergency Management Director Joe Kelly, said state officials, business leaders and nonprofits were beginning to work together to find ways to open new ICU and hospital beds ahead of a projected increase in cases. Kelly said the state hopes to turn unused motel rooms into hospital rooms and high school basketball courts into sectioned off ICU facilities.
The actions are aimed to prevent an "overrun" of intensive care beds, they said.
“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,” Kelly said.
Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said the state's eight health care coalitions had begun communicating ICU bed capacity and availabilities in the event patients would need to be transferred to receive intensive care.
Walz also suggested that he would continue efforts to limit exposure to the disease in Minnesota, despite President Donald Trump's comments suggesting he would like to re-open the country to spur the economy before Easter, which falls on April 12.
“It’s going to be well beyond Easter and I don’t think it does us any good to pretend that it’s not,” Walz said.
Business and labor unions in the state met with the governor this week to discuss the impact of potential closures as well as state support packages. And in Congress, lawmakers on Tuesday were preparing to take up a stimulus bill after two prior iterations failed to garner needed support.
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