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Walz to address Minnesotans on next steps in COVID-19 fight

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Gov. Tim Walz plans to describe the next steps in Minnesota’s fight against COVID-19 Wednesday evening, after health officials released updated modeling — couched in caveats — that shows the potential effects of various scenarios he could choose.

The Democratic governor is expected to extend his emergency declaration, which expires Wednesday. He may also discuss the future of his stay-at-home order, which expires Monday.

The peacetime emergency declaration gave Walz the authority to issue the order, as well as to close schools, bars, restaurants, and other businesses, and to take other steps to fight the pandemic without legislative approval. He has come under increasing political pressure to loosen up the restrictions, and some business owners are threatening defiance if they remain in place.

The Minnesota Department of Health and the University of Minnesota School of Public Health on Wednesday presented the third version of the model that they’ve used to help guide the state’s response to the pandemic, and the updated model is certain to fuel the debate. While the previous model assumed the stay-at-home restrictions would reduce person-to-person contacts by 80%, the new model works off data showing a 59.5% drop in person-to-person contacts and projects somewhat higher death rates.

A scenario based on letting the stay-at-home order expire as scheduled Monday, followed by a three-week soft reopening, projects a peak on June 29, with 1,441 deaths through the end of this month, and 29,030 deaths in total. That compares with a July 6 peak, 1,388 deaths this month, and 28,231 total deaths, if the stay-at-home order runs through May 31 followed by a soft reopening, and a peak demand of about 390 fewer intensive care unit beds at 3,006. Those near-term death rates would have to spike sharply for the May projections to come true.

Other scenarios looked at the potential effects of following the federal Center for Disease Control’s guidelines for reopening, of increased testing and of a new drug treatment. For example, following the federal guidelines, which would delay a reopening, cuts total projected deaths to 26,294 and ICU peak demand to 1,034.

Health Department officials stressed that the modeling is just part of the information guiding their decisions and cautioned against putting too much stock in any of the numbers, which carry a wide range of uncertainty. Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said the model is best used to illustrate broad directional trends instead.

“I share the hope with you that we are wrong and that this is a pessimistic outcome of the model,” said State Health Economist Stefan Gildemeister. “Nevertheless, we think it is a plausible outcome.”

Eva Enns, a University of Minnesota professor who helped develop the model, called it “an approximation of reality. … It’s really about making decisions under uncertainty with the current information.”

Confirmed cases of coronavirus infections continue to rise in Minnesota. The department reported 431 new cases Wednesday for a total of 12,917 statewide, and 24 additional deaths among confirmed patients for a total of 638. The department also reported nine probable COVID-19 deaths. It was the first time the department has released a figure for deaths among people not documented to have tested positive.