Coronavirus in one state (9)

Relying on a model developed by experts at the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Department of Public Health, Governor Tim Walz issued a broad shutdown order on March 25. Governor Walz asserted that, under the model’s projections, up to 74,000 Minnesotans would die of the Wuhan virus absent the shutdown. Later we learned that, under the model’s projection, 50,000 Minnesotans would die with the shutdown. In his most recent remarks, extending the shutdown order to May 4, Governor Walz advised that the model wasn’t to be taken literally.

To people like me, who spent time trying to figure how those numbers could work, Walz should have borrowed the line from Animal House. “You [screwed] up — you trusted us!” If Walz and his experts didn’t pull the numbers from thin air, they may as well have. The death toll ramped up yesterday from 39 to 50, along with the median age of decedents from age 86 to 87. The total hospitalized in ICU as of today is given as 63. (The Minnesota Department of Health Situation Update is posted here.)

The model has become a political issue. State authorities have refused so far to release it or the underlying analysis. Our friend Kevin Roche calls for the release of the model and other related information in this column published by the Star Tribune today.

At the same time, the Star Tribune supports the governor’s approach in an editorial that notes the wild numbers with no analysis beyond this cheerleading: “To the extent that there’s a choice, it must be to save lives and deal with the economic consequences, or to risk more deaths, overwhelmed hospitals, critical shortages and economic consequences….Those initial, higher numbers weren’t necessarily wrong [sic]. They offered a glimpse of what could be if we did nothing, made no sacrifices and just tried to carry on with business as usual. Minnesotans collectively rejected that fate. Instead, together, they flattened the curve.”

On page one the Star Tribune features “Top Minnesota GOP lawmaker opposes Gov. Tim Walz’s extended stay-at-home order on coronavirus.” There’s something about the model. Republicans want to see the beef. The Star Tribune reports: “Walz defended his decision to extend the order Thursday, saying it was based on data and guidance from health experts.”

The experts responsible for the model — “the data and guidance” — at the Minnesota Department of Health and the University of Minnesota are to hold a press briefing this afternoon to lay their cards on the table. So far all we have seen is “a few summary slides,” as House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt rightly asserts in the linked Star Tribune article.

While we await the briefing this afternoon, I urge interested readers to take a look at the April 1 “overview of COVID-19 modeling” provided by Stefan Gildemeister, state health economist, Minnesota Department of Health, and Eva Enns, associate professor, University of Minnesota School of Public Health” (video below). They discuss the model on which Walz relied when he issued his shutdown order on March 25. This is what we have seen so far. It comes across (to me, anyway) as something like an April Fool’s joke, but it was good enough for the editors of the Star Tribune.

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