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Governor taps team of experts for help with long-term coronavirus plan

Governor Walz says he will unveil a modified 'stay at home' order Wednesday, but it's just the next step in a long, uncertain journey.

As Minnesota Governor Tim Walz readies a plan to extend Minnesota's stay at home order on Wednesday, he's consulting a panel of experts, including renowned infectious disease specialist, Dr. Michael Osterholm, to devise a long-term path forward. 

"I think what we've learned is there are ways we can continue to refine how we go about this. And that is exactly my goal, to figure out, threading that needle with the safety of Minnesotans in place," Governor Walz said on Tuesday. "We bend the curve, we build up our supply, we get ready for that fight,  we continue to isolate those that need to be the most isolated. We ramp up testing and we get as many people back into the workforce as we can."

Minnesotans have reason for optimism after the first few weeks of closures and social distancing. State leaders say there is now good data showing the actions bought hospitals and healthcare workers valuable time.

According to MDH, from March 1st to March 18th, confirmed coronavirus cases doubled every 1 to 2 days. Since March 18th, the week Governor Walz began ordering closures through #StayHomeMN, health commissioner Jan Malcolm says cases have doubled every 8 days.

"That's the pace we've maintained," Malcolm said. "We need to keep this up, so we can reduce the chance that our healthcare system is overwhelmed by a surge in cases."

Even that surge is looking slightly less intimidating, according the latest models from the University of Washington. The nationally recognized Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) model is now predicting that Minnesota will see a peak in hospital use on April 23rd. It also indicates that Minnesota will narrowly avoid a shortage of regular beds, ICU beds and ventilators. 

Dr. Osterholm says that's no reason to start celebrating.

"People are missing the point of what is going to happen here," Osterholm said. "It's just the very first wave of cases."

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Osterholm, who is the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, says the IHME model relies on strict distancing, business closures and stay at home orders to keep the projected numbers down. He says that's not a realistic expectation in the long-term. Instead, he said state leaders will have to rely on increased antibody testing to find out who has recovered and can go back to work.

"Far too many people are approaching this like a single battle war. This is actually many, many battles," Dr. Osterholm said. "This is going to be years of battles. We will, I believe, have eventually a relatively safe and effective vaccine, but none of that is coming soon."

Osterholm says, in the meantime, priority will be on finding the supplies needed to expand testing and prioritizing who should be tested and what restrictions can begin to be lifted.

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"It's going to take leadership among all areas of society. In Minnesota, I'm very proud to say we actually have a Governor work group, which I sit on, addressing that very issue," Osterholm said. "We're working with the laboratories, clinicians, public health experts and local and state public health people in general. It would be great if we had a national program that we're helping to coordinate and pull the best information together but, nevertheless, we're doing it here in Minnesota."

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The state of Minnesota has set up a hotline for general questions about coronavirus at 651-201-3920 or 1-800-657-3903, available 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.