Up to 2.4 million Minnesotans could become infected with COVID-19, according to disease modeling conducted by state and university public health experts.
The stay-at-home order issued by Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday won’t necessarily bring down the number of infections. But researchers said the peak of the pandemic could be pushed back by several weeks, preserving limited health care resources while Minnesota struggles to get more masks, ventilators and testing supplies.
Most significantly, they concluded, intensive care bed availability should last 11 more weeks — the result of tighter measures that keep more people at home and decrease the opportunity for coronavirus to spread.
If Minnesota had not taken community mitigation measures, they said, the state’s limited supply of intensive care beds would be filled within six weeks. Seriously ill patients who don’t get critical care are more likely to die of complications of the disease.
The projected health impacts — foreseeing the virus infecting slightly less than half the state population — provide the first Minnesota-specific attempt to gauge the breadth of the pandemic, which started just four months ago. The estimates, developed by the Minnesota Health Department and the University of Minnesota, are likely to change depending on the pace of new infections and the health care system’s ability to respond.
“It is too late to flatten the curve,” Walz said. “Our objective now is to move the infection rate out and slow it down.”
Walz said it’s too early to estimate the number of fatalities that the state might see, but researchers roughly calculated that 74,000 Minnesotans would have died if no community mitigation measures had been taken, including limitations on crowd sizes and the closing of schools, restaurants and bars.
Minnesota’s COVID-19 cumulative case count stands officially at 287, with another 25 confirmed cases announced Wednesday. The virus has now been detected in 33 counties, with Goodhue and Winona counties seeing their first cases, but many more counties could have cases that have not been confirmed.
Eleven more COVID-19 patients have been hospitalized since Tuesday, bringing the number currently receiving hospital care to 26.
Slightly more than 40% of all known cases have recovered, meaning that 122 people no longer need to be isolated.
Walz said the modeling data helped inform his decision about the stay-at-home order, which starts at 11:59 p.m. Friday and will last for two weeks.
About 80% of people who get sick will have milder symptoms and won’t need much medical care, especially since there is no treatment for the virus.
But the remainder will need hospital-level care resulting in an estimated 60,000 inpatient stays, according to the estimates.
As it stands, hospitals are already facing challenges with personal protective gear, staffing and intensive care beds.
“We remain worried,” said Dr. Rahul Koranne, Minnesota Hospital Association chief executive. “We might have more time to work on these particular aspects now.”
Even though the existing and new mitigation efforts are designed to help slow the demand for intensive care beds, the model predicts that ICU capacity will fill up three weeks before infections peak.
“The model we just heard about, we have to fully understand what that means,” Koranne said. “Right now, our focus is head down, continue to prepare.”
To create more hospital capacity, state planners are looking at the possibility of setting up temporary bed space in other non-hospital locations, including stadiums, hotels, closed nursing homes and high school gyms. That would free up space in hospitals for those who need the most intensive care, which will be about 5% of those infected.
But even the creation of more hospital beds will require getting the equipment and health care workers to make them functional.
Walz said the state has turned to the private sector for help.
“We are bringing in experts who know about supply chains from the private sector,” he said. This is especially important because states, and the federal government, are competing for the limited amount of existing supplies as well as new materials as they come off the assembly line.
Minnesota has been struggling with getting the chemicals and other materials needed to conduct COVID-19 tests. And as that problem is being solved another shortage has popped up.
“The lack of a really strong national testing approach early on in this epidemic was really a lost opportunity,” said state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm.
She said testing capacity in the state’s lab and at private labs “is in much better shape now.”
But the cotton swabs that are used to collect nose or throat samples are in short supply.
As a result, priority will still be given to those already in the hospital, to health care workers and to long-term care facility residents.
The state lab has processed about 6,300 samples so far, and other labs have run about 5,000 tests.