Amid a surge of coronavirus cases that has rocketed the state to the hottest of U.S. hot spots, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz last week said he has no plans to declare a peacetime emergency to enact the types of strict lockdowns and mandates that typified previous responses to the pandemic.
They wouldn’t work — and they shouldn’t be needed in the age of vaccines and other precision responses, Walz said in response to reporters’ questions.
“Just get vaccinated!” a somewhat exasperated Walz said at one point during a media conference call from Helsinki, Finland, where he led a trade delegation to there and England last week.
And for those already vaccinated, get a booster shot when your time comes.
It’s a message he, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm and doctors have been hammering for more than a week as the state has found itself in a surge that has seen the highest number of cases this year and stretched the health care system to its limits, with some hospitals delaying procedures and boarding patients who would normally be sent to other facilities.
As of Wednesday, there were nearly 1,400 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in Minnesota, including 320 in intensive care. That’s the most dire it’s been since December, the height of the state’s worst surge — and a time before vaccines were widely available.
Meeker County is among the rural areas of the state where infections continue to rise, while vaccinations remain stagnant. The state reported 147 new cases of COVID-19 in the county for the week of Nov. 15-19, the highest yet during the recent surge of infections. The county has seen 805 new cases and eight deaths since Oct. 1, according to Minnesota Department of Health.
The state currently reports 62 percent of the eligible population as fully vaccinated. Meanwhile, less than half of Meeker County’s eligible population (47.2%, or 10,895) has received one dose of the vaccine. Vaccinations do seem to be on the uptick, however. After not reaching 1,000 administered doses in any month from June through September, the state saw 1,471 doses administered in October and 1,876 so far in November.
There continues to be a stark age disparity in those getting vaccinated in Meeker County, as in other parts of the state and nation. So far, nearly 84% of the 65-and-older population in the county has received at least one dose, while the 16-and-older population with at least one dose stands at 57.4%.
In December last year, Walz used emergency powers to limit indoor activities at bars, restaurants, gyms and museums and place limits on social gatherings. It was an echo of his stay-at-home order in the spring of 2020, but it was needed, he and public health officials said, to curb the uncontrolled spread of cases.
So, nothing like that now? Nope.
In March 2020, Walz declared a “peacetime emergency,” using a Minnesota law that gave him sweeping authority to control a range of sectors of society and the economy. Governors across the nation used similar laws. The Legislature allowed those powers to remain in place for 16 months before ending at the end of July in an agreement with lawmakers, especially Republicans who control the state Senate and opposed the state of emergency within several months of Walz declaring it.
But the law remains in place, and there’s nothing to stop Walz from declaring an emergency again; it could last for nearly a month before the Legislature would take up the issue.
“If I believed I could declare a peacetime emergency and save lives, I would do that,” Walz said Nov. 17.
But Walz said he doesn’t believe the public — or at least the part of the public that would be needed to heed, say, a statewide mask mandate — would follow any such orders.
“With (75 percent of people 18 and older) vaccinated and doing the right thing and staying safe … it’s not for them,” he said, suggesting the minority of the eligible population that has refused to get vaccinated would also refuse to abide by an emergency edict. “If you’re unvaccinated, don’t gather around people indoors unmasked.”
Walz didn’t directly address the prospect of declaring an emergency to close businesses or other public gathering places, but it’s clear that’s not in the cards.
‘TOOLS DIFFERENT NOW’
While vaccinated people can still contract and spread the coronavirus, public health officials believe that the wildfire-like spread of the highly contagious delta variant is being driven by unvaccinated people.
The bulk of hospitalizations are among the unvaccinated, and the unvaccinated are 15 times more likely to die or require hospitalization than those who are vaccinated, Kris Ehresmann, director of infectious disease prevention for the Minnesota Department of Health has said, quoting published studies.
But protection from the vaccines fades over time and many of the first to be vaccinated — including the oldest and most COVID-vulnerable people — are well past six months from their initial vaccination. Officials have noted that the vaccinated have begun to stream into hospitals as well. So-called “breakthrough cases” made up 32 percent of hospitalizations and 45 percent of deaths from mid-September to mid-October, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Health.
Thus, Walz and Malcolm are urging boosters for all adults six months after receiving a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or two months after receiving a Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
“The tools are different now,” Walz said, referring to his previous restrictions as “blunt instruments” that he said saved lives in the pre-vaccine stages of the pandemic. But now, he said, “the data doesn’t support” such measures as being the right course.
“It’s more important than ever that we use the tools that we know work, and the most important tool is the vaccine,” he said, referring to the whole suite of vaccines now widely available: first doses for everyone age 5 and older and boosters for adults.
Using his office as a soap box to urge vaccination isn’t the only response Walz and Malcolm say are needed. They announced Nov. 17 that teams of medical staff from the Department of Defense will be swooping into Hennepin County Medical Center and St. Cloud Hospital to try to relieve overwhelmed staff. Malcolm said they hope more such teams might be in the offing soon.
Walz supports expanded vaccine-or-test mandates for teachers and long-term care workers, but Republicans leaders, while often encouraging vaccination, have resisted requirements.
There are other measures that Walz, a Democrat, and top Republicans generally agree are needed, but politics is getting in the way.
In early October, Walz sent a summary of proposed changes to state laws and regulations that could allow more staff at hospitals and nursing homes and more flexibility for child care centers and personal care attendants, among other ideas.
But these issues have become mired in back-and-forth posturing between his administration and Republicans in the Senate. Some senators, for example, have said they want to fire Malcolm. It’s unclear if there are enough votes in the Senate to do that, but Walz has continually pointed to the threat as a roadblock to progress. Additionally, partisan disagreements over how to reward frontline pandemic workers have blocked progress on prompt COVID responses.
On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, issued the following statement following Walz’s remarks: “We remain ready to come back for a special session to address frontline worker bonus pay, drought relief, and immediate COVID needs. The governor is the only person who can call a special session and we look forward to continuing discussions with the governor when he gets back from his trade mission.”
- Independent Review general manager Brent Schacherer contributed to this story.