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Minnesota health officials: 'We're not done with COVID yet'

The state has seen less activity in recent weeks, but health officials don't think what they prepared for was overkill.

Balancing the pros and cons of shutting down or limiting a bulk of the state's economy in response to the initial wave of the coronavirus pandemic may be debated forever, but Minnesota heath officials made clear Wednesday that while the decisions they made took a toll on society, it definitely saved lives. 

"When prevention works, folks tend to not appreciate the value of having done it," said Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) Commissioner Jan Malcolm. 

Malcolm's answer was in response to a question about Minnesota not yet coming close to nearing ICU bed capacity, nor the surge capacity created at temporary care facilities that were planned for throughout the state. 

Health officials have long estimated that the peak of the current wave of the pandemic would arrive sometime between now and early August, though the unpredictability of the virus' behavior has made it nearly impossible to say for certain what will happen in the coming days, weeks and months. 

"I think it's too early to say have we peaked and therefore we overshot our preparation. We don't know that we peaked. It's highly possible that we could see the pattern shift again and the cases continue to grow, and even if we are at a sustained plateau for a while, or if cases come down ... that doesn't mean that we won't see a resurgence in the fall and winter," said Malcolm. 

"In fact, that's a very possible scenario that we have to be prepared for." 

A worst-case scenario feared by the University of Minnesota's Dr. Michael Osterholm is the disease falling off during the summer only to come back with vengeance in the fall and winter, similar to the behavior of the 1918 influenza pandemic. 

"This would be the worst thing that could happen," Osterholm said in an interview with WCCO Radio in late May. "Given previous influenza pandemics, and this not an influenza virus so we don't know for certain it will act like that, but if it did, by far the second wave was the worst one of each of the pandemics."

He said a second wave in late summer or early fall that lasts 3-4 months "could make everything we've experienced so far seem mild." 

Regardless of the severity of any future ballooning of the outbreak, the pandemic has been expected to come in waves until herd immunity is achieved or a widely available vaccine is created. 

"There's no question that the prep has been important and useful," explained Malcolm. "When and how we end up deploying it is yet to be seen, but we will be far better prepared for what comes next."

Health officials continue to have a watchful eye on the state's hospital bed capacity, namely the beds available in intensive care units. As of the June 10, the statewide ICU capacity is 2,199 beds, 1,075 of which are currently in use. But only 193 of the in-use ICU beds are COVID-19 patients. 

All in all, the first wave of the outbreak has not pushed all Minnesota hospitals to the brink of being filled, though some in the Twin Cities have had to utilize surge capacity. 

But what seems like overkill now may be a blessing of sorts in the future, when Minnesota is dealing with both COVID-19 and an annual influenza outbreak. 

"We had our first case in March, then we moved quickly to a stay-at-home order which basically eliminated our influenza activity," Kris Ehresmann of the MDH said of the recent months with COVID-19. "Coming into the fall, we're going to really be pushing for influenza vaccination, but we'll likely have concurrent COVID and influenza which will push greater demand on our healthcare." 

"We're not done with COVID yet," Ehresmann added. 

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