One way to measure the success or failure of a state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic is simply to count the number of times it has made the national news.
Of late, for example, Iowa and South Dakota have gotten plenty of attention – none of it good, after massive outbreaks of the virus at meat processing plants.
Georgia, too, is now a center of attention, after its Republican governor defied the advice of health experts and even President Trump in his rush to open his state for business. Then there's the mayor of Las Vegas, who drew plenty of attention to Nevada by begging for permission to open the casinos and let customers be some sort of “control group” in a death-defying human experiment.
Even the casino operators were appalled.
Minnesota, under what we would call the steady leadership of Gov. Tim Walz, has largely avoided national scrutiny. Per capita, our virus cases are low. We've had no horror stories about our doctors and nurses using garbage bags as gowns, nor of refrigerator trucks becoming temporary morgues.
Walz hasn't picked needless fights with federal officials or agencies. Rather than complaining about equipment shortages and testing problems, he's simply pointed out these problems and addressed them, with the help of Mayo Clinic, the University of Minnesota and countless other health care providers and equipment manufacturers.
In short, he's conducted himself like the ex-military guy that he is. He's battled the enemy with the weapons he has, and by doing so he's put Minnesota in as good a position as it could be at this point.
But now Walz, his staff, our elected officials, business leaders and health care providers face what might be the far more difficult stage of this war – figuring out how to safely begin moving Minnesota back toward the new normal, whatever that might be.
Make no mistake: Walz is under tremendous pressure to get this right. Even people who've kept their jobs are stressed and worried, and the recently unemployed or “furloughed” are terrified that the longer Minnesotans stay at home, the more likely it is that their jobs will never return.
With the stay-at-home order set to expire May 4, we already have some inklings of how things will develop in the next few weeks. Starting Monday, Walz has authorized about 100,000 workers to begin returning to work at manufacturing companies and offices that have no face-to-face dealings with customers. Social distancing must be maintained, and there will be extra cleaning requirements, but we see this as a great first step.
And, it's worth noting that Walz is doing this in quiet defiance of federal guidelines that call for 14 days of declining case numbers before any relaxation of stay-at-home guidelines. (The handful of noisy “freedom fighters” who came to Rochester on Thursday seemed unaware of this fact.)
Walz is right to defy that federal guidance, because we predict that Minnesota is about to have an explosion of confirmed COVID-19 cases.
How do we know that? Because the other big announcement this week was that Minnesota is about to become the global per-capita leader in COVID-19 testing. Mayo Clinic, the U of M and HealthParters will anchor a system that, once fully operational, will test up to 20,000 people per day.
To put that into perspective, as of Wednesday, Minnesota had tested fewer than 50,000 people since the onset of the pandemic. Many patients who had symptoms were simply told to stay home, self-isolate and recover on their own. They were never tested – and thus were not included in any statistics.
That will change under the new testing program, as the goal will be to test every patient who is symptomatic. This almost certainly will cause an eye-popping spike in Minnesota's confirmed cases, but it will also enable more effective isolation of both patients and those with whom they've had recent contact. A month or two from now, Minnesota could very well be the shining example of how to test, isolate and limit the spread of COVID-19.
We hope that happens, but we're still waiting on one key part of the plan for the future; namely, how and when restaurants, retailers, health clubs, movie theaters and other customer-intensive businesses will be able to recall their employees and open their doors.
When Minnesota's first stay-at-home order came out, we were told that the goal was to flatten the curve, so that hospitals could prepare enough ventilators and ICU beds for when the virus eventually “peaked.”
That goal, we'd argue, has been achieved. Our state's medical providers are as ready as they will ever be for the crush of COVID-19 cases that we hope will never come.
Now, however, if Walz chooses to extend the stay-at-home order beyond May 4, people will need to know when and how Minnesota can expect to begin a true re-opening of its economy. The shutdown can't go on indefinitely until a vaccine is found. And it won't be enough for Walz to simply say, “We need more testing and contact tracing.”
Uncertainty causes anger, and while Minnesotans have comported themselves very well up to this point, we'll soon need some specifics. We'll need to know what churches, restaurants and movie theaters will need to do in order to reopen. Will hair stylists, personal trainers and grocery store clerks need to be tested every week – and who will pay for those tests? For whom will facemasks be mandated? Will outdoor events and venues face the same rules as indoor ones?
The bottom line is that while Walz might very well need to extend the stay-at-home order beyond May 4 – especially given that kids will continue distance learning through the end of the school year – any such extension should be accompanied by a detailed plan that points toward an ending, toward some sort of reward for the sacrifices that we're making every day.
To borrow an expression from Gophers head football coach P.J. Fleck, Minnesotans are willing to “row the boat” as long as is necessary, but they deserve to know the destination -- and an estimated time of arrival.