Coronavirus in one state (5)

Yesterday the Star Tribune featured Jeremy Olson’s 1,300-word page-one story “Minnesota’s COVID-19 response shows promise in helping to slow virus.” Subhead: “Walz said he will be looking this week for updated modeling and any signs of the infection ebbing before deciding on extend his stay-at-home order.”

Olson had previously reported on the model underlying the current shutdown ordered by Minnesota Governor Tim Walz. I checked in on that story in “Coronavirus in one state (3)” and in “No one here gets out alive.”

In his big story yesterday, Olson failed to draw on his own reporting that the governor predicated his current shutdown order (dated March 25) on the assertion that Minnesota would experience 74,000 deaths by the virus absent his order. Last week, in his earlier page-one story, Olson reported that, with the order, Minnesota would experience 50,000 deaths, according to the model employed by the governor. The governor left that out of the announcement of his March 25 order.

Olson’s story yesterday investigated how we were doing and implied a guarded optimism. Olson somehow forgot about the projected 50,000 deaths based on the model Olson reported in his last story. As of this moment on Monday morning, the Minnesota Department of Health attributes 29 deaths to the coronavirus. Olson also omitted the arithmetic that would suggest we have 49,971 deaths to go if everything goes as projected. (Projected by the governor, that is.)

It would be nice if some newspaper were keeping track and asking the appropriate questions. That’s what I had to say in part 4 of this series. Yesterday evening the governor gave his annual state of the state address. Devoted to the coronavirus, it was long on uplift and short on facts regarding his order or the progress of the disease. The Star Tribune has posted the full text. Video is at the bottom.

I asked our friend Brian Sullivan for his comments on Olson’s story yesterday. As John put it in a nearby post, Brian is a serial entrepreneur who founded and now runs a cutting-edge cancer research company. Brian comments:

What should be of most interest to Minnesotans today is whether infection and hospitalization rates, leading indicators of the virus’s spread, are changing relative to when the shutdown went into effect. The Star Tribune seems unwilling to shed any light on the topic. To fill this gap, here are a few statistical observations about the state of the virus in Minnesota.

• Minnesota’s lockdown started March 28. Since the CDC estimates a Wuhan virus infection is typically reported 5-7 days after a person is exposed, infection rates wouldn’t be affected until April 1-3.

• The highest daily percentage increase of reported cases occurred on March 23, after the March 17 guidelines went into effect and five days before the shutdown. Sixty-six cases were reported that day, a 39 percent increase over the total up until that day.

• The rolling three-day average daily increase that day was 27 percent.

• On April 2, six days after the shut-down and before the shutdown’s effect could be detected, the rolling three-day average increase in daily cases had fallen to 9 percent. In other words, the rate of increase of infection rates was already falling significantly (from 27 percent to 9 percent) before the shutdown could have effect.

• This Sunday, 70 new virus cases were reported, an 8 percent increase over total reported cases. The rolling three-day average increase is now 8 percent.

• So far, only 48, or 14 percent, of the 355 available ICU beds are in use. According to IHME, the model many officials are now relying on, Minnesota is expected to need 219 ICU beds today. Oops. They were only off by 350 percent.

One could plausibly argue that the decrease in growth rate of the reported cases is a result of the social distancing guidelines announced on March 17 [i.e., the governor’s first shutdown order]. Restaurants and bars were closed that day and public gatherings were banned.

The obvious question to ask is whether the social distancing steps imposed on March 17 are sufficient to slow the spread of the virus. Limiting an individual’s contact with strangers and a wider population may be the most impactful step a state can take. In other words, is the shutdown overkill and are social distancing steps, perhaps augmented with requirements to wear masks in public, sufficient to manage the virus’s spread?

The governor’s state of the state is below. We deserve better than this and better than the media’s nonfeasance.