Coronavirus in one state (27)

Governor Walz turned in a stellar performance announcing the extension of his shutdown order for an additional 14 days (to May 18) while slightly relaxing the rules to allow retail curbside pickup and delivery business (video below). He asserted that as many as 30,000 Minnesotans might return to work under this scenario. Walz’s new executive order is posted online here. For an account that takes Walz’s show-and-tell yesterday at face value, see Jeremy Olson’s Star Tribune story.

Walz’s briefing went on for nearly 90 minutes with Power Point slides and a supporting cast. Walz has a genius for impersonating an average Minnesotan. If you haven’t seen Walz speak at any length before, this might be a good time to tune in. He is a force to be reckoned with.

Walz draws on the metaphor of dials to explain his orders. He is turning the dial on commercial opening up slightly to three or so. He put me in mind of the addled rock musician Nigel Tufnel in Spinal Tap who thought he amped up the volume of the music with dials that went to 11. Walz’s dial is always turned to 11.

I thought to myself during his performance yesterday that Walz could sell me a used car. I would buy a used car from him. Once. The problem is that I bought the used car when Walz told us on March 25 that 74,000 Minnesotans would die unless he shut down the state. It took another week or so for us to learn that 50,000 Minnesotans would die even with the shutdown and to begin to understand that the numbers weren’t to be taken seriously. They are only “directional,” or they show “patterns of direction.”

Walz’s extension of the shutdown is premised on the alleged shortage of hospital care as the COVID-19 virus spreads in Minnesota. We now know that Walz’s original model produced farcically errant numbers. We have yet to be advised by Walz or his commissioners in one of these briefings how many hospital employees have been laid off or furloughed or how many hospital rooms stand empty throughout the state. The number must be in the thousands, not including the additional rooms for which the state has arranged if needed.

Slowing the spread of the virus — producing the same number of cases over a longer period of time — remains the premise of the lockdown. On Walz’s own argument, we are just buying time. I seriously doubt that the average Minnesotan is given to understand this in Walz’s blizzard of talk and the related reportage.

Olson summarizes Walz’s case to the effect that “the extension is necessary in order to continue preparations for a peak of COVID-19 cases that is unlikely to be eliminated without a breakthrough treatment or vaccine. Minnesota’s COVID-19 response strategy is taking a little longer to execute, but the governor said it will put the state in a strong position given its hospital resources and its continuing buildup toward 20,000 molecular diagnostic COVID-19 tests per day.”

As usual, Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm updated the data. New deaths attributed to the virus ramped up to 24, for a new total of 343 to date. How many of the new decedents were residents of nursing homes? We had to wait for Malcolm to be asked before learning that the answer is 22 of the 24. Malcolm reported that six of the new decedents were in their 90’s, 7 in their 80’s, 8 in their 70’s, two in their 60’s, and one in his 40’s (“with significant underlying conditions”). The median age of all decedents remains 83.

Nearly 80 percent of all deaths have occurred among residents of nursing homes or other congregate care with significant underlying conditions. What we have here is a campaign of fear riding the back of a nursing home crisis.

The economic harm wrought by the shutdown is devastating. Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove reported that 584,431 unemployment applications have been filed since March 16. That is a stunning number.

Olson’s story today includes a breakdown of decedents’ underlying conditions based on a review of death certificates. His story is worth reading on this ground alone. It represents a contribution to our understanding of the facts.

I mildly criticized Olson yesterday when he omitted yet another stunning number in both of his April 30 stories: the number given by MDH Infectious Diseases Division Director Kris Ehresmann in response to Tom Hauser’s question at the briefing the day before. Hauser asked what percentage of all decedents whose deaths are attributed to the virus had significant underlying conditions. Ehresmann had the number ready at hand: 99.24 percent.

In his story today, Olson remedies his previous omission this way: “More than 90% of deaths in Minnesota so far were among those with underlying health conditions, including asthma; diabetes; chronic kidney, liver or heart disease; or diseases that compromise the immune system. Tobacco use also is considered by state health authorities as an underlying health condition.”

I found it intensely interesting that the number exceeds 99 percent and that the state has carried it out two decimal places. We are approaching Ivory Soap territory. Why not report it?