January 22, 2022

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Health care leaders must step up now

Michigan may have just replaced Minnesota as the nation’s hottest COVID-19 hot spot, but we still are heading into the holidays with grim viral metrics and the unknowns of the new omicron variant. To save lives, the state’s world-class medical providers need to step up now with this urgent but unpopular message:

Minnesota must do more to control the current COVID surge, and that includes implementing both old and new preventive measures to keep the upcoming holidays from refueling viral spread.

Actions that would make a difference include temporary indoor masking requirements in commercial spaces, requiring vaccination for entry to some indoor events, consistent masking requirements for K-12 schools, and testing and quarantining.

Another option that’s needed: a steady supply of free, rapid tests mailed monthly to every household. The state Department of Health has done praiseworthy work providing easily accessible community testing sites. But in-home tests, such as the BinaxNOW self-test, which can deliver results in 15 minutes, offer an edge in convenience. If supplies could be secured (an admittedly difficult challenge), this option could persuade more people to check for infection before going somewhere and spreading the virus.

“We need coordinated effort from the state. Hospitals are overflowing and providers are overwhelmed,” said Dr. Scott Colson, president of Voyage Healthcare clinics in the Twin Cities.

The call to action has to come from the state’s respected health care community. The reason it’s not likely to come from state government is the frustrating political stalemate over providing COVID bonus pay to front-line workers.

If the Republican Senate majority and Gov. Tim Walz can’t find a way forward on this, it’s unlikely further statewide solutions to curb COVID will come any time soon. Bipartisan support for any new protections is crucial. Scoring cheap political points off them would undermine public support for these new safeguards and thus, their effectiveness.

Pressure from the state’s medical providers may be the only option powerful enough to punch through the gridlock. It would be particularly valuable if the large health care systems came together and demanded additional protections.

These well-known health care systems are among the state’s largest employers, lending heft to their voices. And despite the despicable disinformation downplaying COVID’s threat, Minnesotans are still entrusting their loved ones’ care to their local hospitals and clinics.

It’s time for the leaders of Mayo Clinic, Allina Health, M Health Fairview, Hennepin Healthcare, CentraCare, EssentiaHealth, North Memorial Health and other respected providers to leverage the goodwill earned through the years. The Minnesota Hospital Association, the Minnesota Medical Association and the Minnesota Nurses Association also need to step up.

There’s no time to lose. As Colson noted, health care providers are overwhelmed and weary. Hospital capacity remains strained throughout the state. On Monday, the Star Tribune reported that “COVID-19 hospitalizations increased in Minnesota to a 2021 record of 1,467 on Friday, and included 340 people receiving intensive care.” This data is the most up-to-date available given the long holiday weekend.

There is one hopeful sign in the state’s metrics: the COVID testing positivity rate appears to be stabilizing. But it’s too soon to determine the impact of Thanksgiving holiday gatherings. Crowded indoor gatherings are ideal for viral spread. And Minnesota has the fifth-highest number of cases per 100,000 residents, according to a New York Times comparison of states.

The next month offers a crucial window of opportunity, and stronger safeguards would deliver maximum benefits. Moral clarity on this from Minnesota medical leaders could be a game-changer.