A prominent University of Minnesota health researcher and the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis are calling for a strict, state-by-state lockdown to suppress COVID-19, saying tougher restrictions in the short-term would save lives and more quickly restore the economy.
The U’s Michael Osterholm and Neel Kashkari of the Minneapolis Fed argue states were too quick this spring to give up on social restrictions to combat the virus and failed to go far enough to keep workers home during that time.
Depending on when it would start, a lockdown of up to six weeks could allow for the normal functioning of schools and elections by November, they say. Measures this summer are now starting to control case growth in some Sun Belt states, but Osterholm said as schools reopen and activities move indoors, infections are poised to rebound.
“What does that mean for our country in terms of not only lives lost and health care issues, but to the economy?” Osterholm said in an interview. “In the long run, economically, it makes a lot of sense for the country to deal with it now — take your medicine now.
“If we keep at these numbers like we have now, this is only going to deteriorate until we have a vaccine, which could be six to 18 months away.”
Osterholm and Kashkari put forward the idea of a comprehensive lockdown in an op-ed piece published online Friday by the New York Times.
In an interview Saturday, Kashkari said remote learning isn’t working for students, particularly younger learners, but questioned how schools can safely reopen if the pandemic is still raging. He said the economy can’t recover until the virus is under control.
“If we don’t do the hard shutdown, it’s going to be a much longer, harder economic recovery, with much more serious health consequences for many Americans,” Kashkari said. “We can continue to fumble our way through it, or we could take a much more strategic approach.”
On Saturday, the Minnesota Department of Health reported a large one-day jump in COVID-19 cases, which pushed the statewide total to 60,101 confirmed cases during the pandemic. Eight more people have died from the virus, the state reported, including four residents of long-term care facilities.
The latest numbers show 309 patients were hospitalized, including 154 in intensive care. Daily tallies for hospitalized patients in Minnesota have been rising in recent weeks, although they remain well below peaks in late May of more than 600 hospitalized patients and about 260 people in the ICU.
Saturday’s net increase of 916 new cases came on a volume of 17,857 completed tests, a high one-day total. That means the share of positive tests continued to hold steady at around 5% — a level that likely won’t trigger further restrictions to slow the virus spread, Gov. Tim Walz said Thursday.
“I do worry [if] we start getting above 6% or 7% daily positivity rates, and most of that is coming through community spread of unknown origin,” Walz added.
Asked about a broader shutdown, state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said that returning to some form of a stay-at-home order would be “an unfortunate step that could become necessary down the road if we don’t have enough people step up and make the everyday decisions needed to slow the spread.”
Malcolm suggested that by wearing masks and keeping distant, Minnesotans might avoid the economic and social costs of a shutdown.
Some states are moving too fast to reopen schools and businesses, but Minnesota still has a chance to keep case growth at a manageable level — particularly if younger people cut back on the parties and socializing that can fuel the virus spread, said Dr. John Hick, emergency physician and medical director for emergency preparedness at Hennepin Healthcare.
“The best time to request everyone to literally stay home may be over the holidays — that could be a triple whammy with travel, flu and COVID and trigger a devastating surge nationally in January,” Hick said via e-mail.
COVID-19 is a viral respiratory illness caused by a new coronavirus that was found circulating late last year. Since the first case was reported in Minnesota in early March, 5,506 people have required hospitalization.
People at greatest risk are those 65 and older, residents of long-term care facilities and those with underlying medical conditions such as lung disease, serious heart conditions, obesity and diabetes.
Most COVID-19 patients don’t need to be hospitalized, since it usually causes mild or moderate sickness. Studies suggest that up to 45% of those who are infected won’t have symptoms.
Christopher Snowbeck • 612-673-4744