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First came the sore throat and the sniffles, then Gov. Tim Walz completely lost his sense of taste and smell.

Fear washed over him: He'd heard cases of people who contracted COVID-19 and never tasted or smelled things in the same way again. After 48 hours, he breathed a sigh of relief.

"I was never so happy to smell coffee again," Walz said in a wide-ranging interview with the Star Tribune on Wednesday.

After nearly two years of managing the COVID-19 pandemic as governor and several close exposure calls, Walz closed out 2021 with his own family contracting the virus. He says his experience is much like what others are going through as the omicron variant surges across Minnesota. It also signals a potential new chapter in the state's fight against COVID-19.

"The fear is — and it's real — the sheer volume and the speed that this thing spreads is we are going to see another spike here, and we're seeing it right now," Walz said. "I've been saying for months that at some point in time this will turn to an endemic."

In the short term, the increase in cases caused by omicron is disrupting everything from testing supplies, which are in short supply and high demand, to workforce levels and kids returning to school. Even though omicron infections appear to be milder than those caused by the delta variant of the virus, the speed at which omicron is traveling means more infections, which means more people could wind up in hospitals.

But Walz said the situation has heightened Minnesotans' awareness of the importance of testing, masking and getting vaccinated and boosted against the virus. As COVID courses through the population, he hopes a major decline in cases will follow.

"After this spike we should see that downturn again like we saw last June," Walz said. "If you recall, the first of July we were under 100 [hospital] beds that were being occupied. Now we're at 1,500."

It's in line with what Walz has been saying for months, since mask mandates were lifted in the state and he relinquished his emergency powers to manage the pandemic in order to strike a budget deal with Republicans in the Legislature.

He'd warned that COVID-19 isn't going to simply go away, but Minnesotans must learn to live safely with the virus well into the future. He feels omicron has driven that point home.

"The White House for the first time yesterday was saying we're not going to suppress omicron, we're just going to stop the spread of it and figure out how we live most safely with it," Walz said. "I think that's what in Minnesota we've really focused on."

Walz and his wife, Gwen, were vaccinated and boosted, and his school-aged son is also vaccinated. But the virus still spread through their home after his son Gus first experienced symptoms.

Walz said luckily, everything worked the way it was supposed to. Testing helped detect the virus after the family experienced symptoms and prevented them from spreading it to other family members over the holidays, and the vaccines helped protect them against severe illness.

"Back in March, when we were still learning so much about this and talking to epidemiologists, I remember saying, 'By the end of this epidemic, most of us will end up getting this,'" Walz remembered. "But we can't all get it at the same time, we can't get it when we don't have vaccines and treatments."