Emma Kraft was in sixth grade when she had to make a choice that would affect the course of the rest of her life: golf or softball.
Well, there was no softball for the middle school that year, so the 2018 Hutchinson High School graduate picked up a club and gave golf a whirl. The rest, as they say, is history.
“My dad played golf, and my grandpa and uncle,” Kraft said. “They've always tried to get me to play golf. Shortly after that, they couldn't get me off the course and I've been playing ever since.”
We’ll never know what kind of softball player Emma might have been, but as a golfer she showed talent all the way through high school, earning all-conference nods her final three years. That talent has extended into college at Augsburg University, where she is one of four finalists in the 2020 Auggie Awards for Women’s Athlete of the Year in an individual sport.
Kraft shot in the 80s in seven of her 10 rounds in the fall and finished as the team’s top golfer with an 86.1 stroke average. She recorded two top-five finishes in the fall season and shot the third-best individual round in school history with a 77 on the final day of the 2019 Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Championships.
After a solid freshman campaign in 2018-19, Kraft knew that she still had a lot of work to shave off additional strokes and improve. She has a fine drive game, but where she lacked was on the green. She played down at Crow River Golf Club where she played a lot throughout her earlier years.
“I just started really working on my short game,” Kraft said. “That's where the scores started to go down.”
Kraft also credits her Augsburg coach, Eric Rolland, and the rest of the coaching staff for her growth in the past two years. Not to mention lots of time on the course. She played at Crow River three to four times a week last summer, working on various drills or playing 9 to 18 holes.
Although she played other sports throughout high school, such as volleyball and hockey, hitting the green for practice is what made the decision to play golf easy for her.
“I love those sports, too,” Kraft said, “but I didn't love practicing as much. And golf, I get to practice all day if I wanted to. That's why I stuck with golf.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has canceled the spring portion of the women's golf season. A lot of the players have stayed or returned to their hometowns but have kept in touch with each other to keep the team chemistry going. But golf is played on courses, and until courses are open, they can't get reps in.
“It's hard not being able to practice during this time,” Kraft said. “We're hoping that the courses will maybe open here shortly, because I think we can maintain the six feet (social distancing) if we're allowed on the course.”
This isn’t the first time Kraft has been nominated for an Auggie Award. She was up for Rookie of the Year last year, though she didn’t win. This year’s Auggie Awards winners will be announced April 24 during an online webcast at athletics.augsburg.edu, but win or lose Kraft is thankful for the recognition and hopes it will boost the profile of the women's golf program, which is looking to grow.
“We haven't been the strongest team in the MIAC,” she said, “but I think getting more girls interested in coming to Augsburg will definitely help. And I think it's pretty cool to be put up with some names like some of the women wrestlers, which we now have at Augsburg. So yeah, it's cool.”
Minnesotans can now see more information on a unique coronavirus model that Gov. Tim Walz has leaned on to make decisions about responding to the pandemic.
The University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health and the Minnesota Department of Health on Friday released several scenarios, assumptions, technical details and other aspects of an epidemiological model that projects the spread of COVID-19 and how responses like stay-at-home orders and hospital capacity might change that spread and, ultimately, the death toll.
There’s still no slick website, such as those of several other national models, but that’s coming, officials pledged. Friday morning’s release amounts to a significant step toward transparency as an undercurrent of public dissent brews among what at times feels like a nation of armchair epidemiologists.
How the release of the information might affect that dynamic remains to be seen.
Based on questions from reporters during the presentation, and a subsequent one later in the day, the media itself remains somewhere along a learning curve of the nuanced dynamics that go into making projections that are inherently uncertain about a virus unknown to humanity before December. Based on some threads on social media, at least some portion of skeptics appeared to only solidify their skepticism.
WHAT YOU CAN SEE
On the state’s recently released COVID-19 home page — MN.gov/covid19, which provides figures ranging from hospital capacity to confirmed cases — there’s a new button at the bottom that takes you to a landing page for “MN COVID-19 Modeling.” Type that phrase into a search engine and the page will likely be a top result.
In addition to an introduction, there are several additional resources. Among them:
What you can’t do it see the model in action or play with it. Gildemeister said the team is aiming to release such a website, and perhaps the entire code of the programs and algorithms, around the end of April.
Walz and Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm have repeatedly emphasized that the model is one of numerous tools they use. Standard public health surveillance, information from other states and other nations, economic considerations and other epidemiological models are among the other sources of information they list. Both have underscored that Minnesota hospital networks have their own models and that those are “more pessimistic” than what’s become known as the “university model.”
What makes the university model unique is that it includes state health data on underlying health conditions of the population. Not personal info, but aggregate data, they said. No other model in the nation knows, for example, how many Minnesotans over 60 who also are obese and have diabetes — two additional factors that increase a 60-year-old’s likelihood of needing hospitalization from the virus.
However, Gildemeister and Malcolm emphasized that models are limited in what they can do. Predicting a single point in time — that on May 1, this is how many people will die, for example — is not something models are good at. Anyone who says a model projects “11 deaths on May 1” is probably misreading the model or relying on an oversimplified summary; a better reading of such a model would be this: The model is 95 percent sure that there will be between two and 44 deaths on May 1 (11 is essentially a statistically weighted midpoint). The picture of the future that a model provides is blurry.
Also, a model is only as good as the knowledge that modelers put into it. A cornucopia of variables, from how much people observe social distancing to how contagious the virus is, are still being understood; no one has tried social distancing in America since the 1918 flu pandemic, and the virus is brand new.
Modelers are referring to the model released Tuesday as “version 2.0,” and they said that several variables are different in the new version because the virus is better understood than when they released their first version only two weeks ago. And the model will continue to change as more is understood, they said.
WHAT IT'S USED FOR
The primary use of the model is to show what tactics — closing schools, stay-at-home orders, isolating the most vulnerable, increasing intensive care beds — affect which parts of the epidemic, and how.
For example: Staying at home delays infections, but it doesn’t actually reduce them unless enacted for months. That’s because everyone who shelters in place remains just as susceptible to the virus as when they started. In a bell curve showing the epidemic’s peak, staying at home pushes the peak to the right — both the peak of infections and the peak of deaths.
Another example: Increasing ICU beds and ventilators does little to change the progress of the virus, but it greatly reduces deaths. That’s because of the way this particular coronavirus affects the lungs in those most ill. Having a ventilator available can increase your chance of survival by between 1.6 and 16.5 times, according to published medical papers the modelers used in the underlying assumptions. In that bell curve graph, nothing changes for the curve of infections, but the curve for deaths is flattened.
Walz has consistently stated that his goal is to have ICU care available for everyone who needs it to reduce preventable deaths. Translated into the graph, that means the curve of those requiring ICU care never peaks above the level of ICU capacity.
Thus, his stay-at-home orders have been intended to delay the peak ICU demand, during which time ICU capacity can be built up. An added bonus appears to have surfaced: Minnesotans appear to be staying put more than version 1.0 assumed. As a result, the curve has actually flattened somewhat.
Moving forward, Malcolm said officials plan to use the model in part to see how Minnesota might emerge from the stay-at-home order currently set to expire May 4.
The six scenarios that the university model has contemplated begin with the “do-nothing” one that serves as a baseline and escalate through various scenarios that explore what happens if stay-at-home orders are lengthened, compared to other measures, such as a “requirement for vulnerable people to stay at home.”
The model hasn’t examined extreme measures, such as a stay-at-home order for the entire summer.
Curiously — perhaps frustratingly for some — the precise stay-at-home order that we’re currently under was not plugged into the model. The closest one is a stay-at-home order that extends until May 8, followed by “physical distancing” through June 6 and isolating the vulnerable through Aug. 28 or 30 days after the peak number of deaths.
Under that scenario, the peak ICU demand would occur sometime between the week of June 15 and the week of Aug. 17 (again, blurry picture). The number of ICU beds needed under that scenario would be between 2,700 and 4,800. The university model assumes an ICU capacity today of 2,200 beds. Hospitals estimate that given 72 hours advance notice, they could actually have 2,770 beds available, according to state data. However, a number of those beds would be needed for non-COVID-19 patients, such as people who’ve suffered a heart attack or a car crash. On Friday, for example, 844 ICU beds were in use, mostly for non-COVID patients. The university modelers chose a “blunt” assumption that a certain number of ICU beds would be in use, Gildemeister said.
Bottom line: A need for between 2,700 and 4,800 ICU beds, but only 2,200 available. Thus, hospitals remain under intense pressure to increase their ICU capacity. If they can’t, the death toll will rise. The university model projects a total death toll one year from now under that scenario of between 9,000 and 36,000. But again, that’s if there are no additional ICU beds.
Assuming hospitals can increase the number of ICU beds and ventilators, that range of death tolls will fall — but, officials emphasize, not because the model was wrong, but because a key variable — ICU beds — increased.
“It’s a powerful tool,” Malcolm said. “But it’s only one tool.”
Local lawmakers aren't enthusiastic about a push by Secretary of State Steve Simon to expand mail voting in Minnesota in response to COVID-19.
He appeared before the Minnesota House Subcommittee on Elections during a digital meeting to support a bill that would permit him to send each registered voter a ballot in the mail. The proposal would be limited to peacetime emergencies in response to infectious disease outbreaks. The number of polling places could be reduced while elections administrators would be given more time to process ballots under the proposal. He also proposed giving his office the power to change polling locations, citing the need to move them from vulnerable locations such as senior care facilities. Candidates would also be able to file by mail, fax or email.
A witness signature is required for mail-in voting.
“The administration of elections has become a public health issue," Simon said. "Minnesotans should not have to choose between their health and their right to vote. After talking with elections professionals from all levels of government throughout the state, the goal became very clear to me: We need to minimize exposure at polling places and maximize voting by mail.”
Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, said the house caucus opposed the proposal, and he did as well because of, "the amount of fraud that can take place with mail-in ballots." He said voters should have to show an identification at the polls or obtain an absentee ballot. He said absentee voting must accommodate those with disabilities or safety concerns.
"But I do oppose a total mail-in vote," he said.
Gruenhagen felt the health risk of voting at the polls would be mitigated by the time state primaries come around in August.
Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Acton Township, acknowledged that Minnesota presently has mail-in ballots, but questioned if it was wise to have everyone do so.
"I think we need to approach this with some caution," he said. "It's worked well when it's spread out the way it is."
Urdahl said it was fortunate that the current system has caused little fraud, "but I am concerned about more possibility for shenanigans. It's something we can look at, but we have to be very cautious."
Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, also opposes mail-in ballots. He believes such a method lacks built-in safety measures to maintain the integrity of the system, and that if there is more opportunity for people to violate the system it will disenfranchise people who feel like their legitimate vote was minimized.
"I would not at all be interested in using the coronavirus pandemic as a reason to begin shifting further into the mail-in ballot system," he said.
Newman favors changes to make voting places safer for those practicing social distancing.
"For those who don't want to vote in person, then they should be able to exercise their right to vote with an absentee ballot," he said, noting that voters no longer need to provide a reason for an absentee ballot.
He said absentee or mail-in voting would both require county auditor offices to be operational to some degree.
State Republicans have proposed expanding the number of polling locations to ease the number of people packed into one building. Deborah Erickson, chair of the Minnesota Association of County Officers Elections Committee, said last week that election officials are already facing shortages of election workers and judges, and adding more polling places would exacerbate the issue and make it harder to meet state statute. Though elections are later this year, training and ordering of ballots will come in the next few months.
"A significant number of election judges statewide have expressed concerns about potential exposure to COVID-19 or fall into an at-risk category," Erickson said in a letter to legislators. "Additionally, social distancing guidelines, if still in effect, will be very difficult to maintain in many of the polling places across the state, and voters themselves may feel some concerns about their own personal safety impacting their accessibility to a safe balloting option."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has suggested moving to mail-in voting to reduce contact among voters and to avoid the sharing of pens and other equipment. States have received $400 million from a federal COVID-19 stimulus bill to respond to election challenges.
“We can spend some of this money on hand sanitizers and wiping down tables and all the rest. And that might, on the margins, help people feel a little more comfortable,” Simon said. “But I don’t think we’re kidding anyone that if we spend a bunch of money on hand sanitizers and disposable pens that people are going to be comfortable en masse to the tune of millions going to polling places.”
Newman noted one other factor in the discussion. He believes if an expansion of the system came by way of the Secretary of State Office's authority, or through an executive order from the governor, it would invite a lawsuit.
"This issue of voting and mail-in voting, that's been a hot topic around the capitol for many years," Newman said. "It's very sensitive. ... There are groups in Minnesota that I think would gear up."