ST. PAUL — As a cascade of other Midwestern states fell under orders to shelter in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz held back Monday, March 23.


He’s waiting on computer models that will project how COVID-19 illnesses might spread in Minnesota — and, crucially, how a shelter in place order might affect that spread and ultimately the ability of the state’s hospitals to save lives, he said Monday.

Unlike even a week ago, those models are now maturing — with fresh data coming in not from distant parts of the world, but other parts of America, as the pandemic blooms on the nation’s coasts, in places like New York City and the states of Washington and California.

And maybe, he suggested, we might be sheltering enough without more requirements — for now.

“There’s not a clear-cut answer on this,” he said when asked by reporters why he appears to be hesitating when some of his peers from other states have moved ahead.

On Monday, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued such an order. Hours earlier, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers issued a “stay at home” order, which has many of the similar features — closing all businesses deemed nonessential — but which he said wasn’t quite as stringent as a shelter in place directive.

On Sunday, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine escalated his state to shelter in place status.

Theirs followed the decision by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, whose shelter in place order went into effect Saturday evening.

Walz diverges

Walz said he’s talked with those governors and appeared to tip-toe around second-guessing them.

“This is a very hard decision,” said Walz, who began quarantining himself Monday after a member of his security detail tested positive. “I’m not going to speak for those governors and our private conversations, other than all of us are agonizing over this. I think the lack of data is what people are seeing, and I think they’re making their best judgement that with the lack of data, this is the way to go. That is not the decided position. There are different epidemiologists that see this differently.”

The lack of data throughout much of the American epidemic is the result of testing, which has paled in comparison to many other modern nations across the globe. As such, American leaders have suffered from difficulties in figuring out how widespread the virus actually is.

This has been made all the more difficult because researchers are still learning about this coronavirus, which was unknown to science until December. For example, recent evidence suggests the virus might be spread by people who don’t even know they have it, either because their symptoms haven’t manifested or because it takes such a negligible toll on them. This, in part, played into Minnesota’s lead infectious disease official Sunday saying that it’s possible there could be between 10 and 100 times more Minnesotans infected than the number of cases confirmed by testing.

Walz said Monday that Minnesota’s testing capacity is growing from about 100 patients a day at the onset to 982 tested Sunday, providing a clearer picture.

Epidemic grows, data grows

The virus swept into Seattle and New York with such speed that modelers didn’t have a chance to project its path, Walz noted.

Minnesota, on the other hand, has had the luxury of some lead time. This has allowed models to be developed jointly by the Minnesota Department of Health, the University of Minnesota, and potentially other sources of expertise in the disciplines of epidemiology and statistical modeling, he said.

As the virus has spread from the coasts into the Heartland, it’s left in its wake not only sickness and death, but data. That data not only informs modelers how it spreads, but how people behave, both in reaction to the virus itself, but also in reaction to governmental restrictions — we are not, after all, Chinese under authoritarian rule, nor are we Italians accustomed to nightly aperitifs in close-quartered piazzas. Nor are Minnesotans Texans.

Minnesotans are sheltering

Detailed information on Minnesota’s own modeling hasn’t been released publicly. Officials have said they hope to release projections this week.

However, other data sets are becoming public, and at least one suggests a fascinating possibility: Minnesotans appear to be heeding government urges to isolate themselves more than many Americans — even more than many Midwesterners.

Insert your quip about Lutheran reservedness or chilly weather, but Descartes Labs has released data using aggregate mobile phone data that suggests Minnesotans began to limit their travel March 14, and continued to do so through Friday, moving around less and less each day.

In fact, according to an analysis of the data by the New York Times, travel by Minnesotans from March 18 to March 20 looks more like New York or California than Wisconsin and Ohio, which look more like Arizona or Texas.

That’s significant for several reasons.

First, California and New York have seen large numbers of cases, so folks there might be expected to take the outbreak more seriously. Second, California and New York City were among the first to enact shelter in place orders.

The data shows that, generally, across the Midwest and South — where far fewer cases have been confirmed and hospitalizations and deaths have been few — residents haven’t reduced their travel as much. In Wisconsin, Gov. Evers said his health officials told him that previous measures, which stopped short of closing all nonessential businesses and asking everyone to stay home, weren’t working enough.

But Minnesota is an outlier.

Walz didn’t cite that mobile phone data specifically, but he did say that anecdotal reports from the Department of Public Safety support this idea. “The words from public service officers and police across the state is Minnesotans are doing this,” he said, adding later, “I think there’s a real sense of social responsibility in Minnesota, that in these models, others might not see being reflected as much.”

ICU impact is key

To be clear, Walz was hardly ruling out a shelter in place order. He said he’s leaning toward it eventually and would do it “now rather than 15 minutes later to save lives and make the difference.”

And what exactly is that difference? This: Strain on hospital intensive care units that mean the difference between life and death for the potentially lethal pneumonia that COVID-19 wields.

Here’s how Walz put it, placing faith in the state’s nascent models: “We have what I think is the most real-time accurate representation. I should be able to get some answers that say: How much does it slow down ICU use if you put this (shelter in place order) in place? That’s the question that I asked the modeling to show me.”

And, he emphasized, such an order, given the toll it places on society and the wrath it wrings on an economy, shouldn’t be done too soon.

“I don’t think anyone yet knows this answer, but it sure looks like it’s leaning to: This will not be able to be a shelter in place for a week to two weeks. It will probably have to look more like multiple weeks to months to get the desired effect.”

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