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Osterholm: 'It's time' for Minnesota mask mandate; physically distancing most important to limit COVID-19 transmission

The state epidemiologist backs Gov. Walz ordering a mask mandate.

Nearly five full months since COVID-19 was first detected in Minnesota, Gov. Tim Walz is expected to issue a statewide mask mandate during a press conference at 2 p.m. Wednesday. 

"It's time," said Dr. Michael Osterholm, speaking on WCCO Radio Wednesday morning. The director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota added that wearing a cloth mask is "surely something you can use that will provide potentially some protection." 

But as helpful as masks and face coverings can be to limit transmission of the novel coronavirus, Osterholm offered a reminder during the radio interview about the No. 1 thing people need to do to protect themselves and others: Physical distancing. 

"The most important protection you provide yourself and others is distance. It's distance and distance and distance. The further you are away from someone, the less time you spend in someone else's airspace, the more you protect yourself and you protect others," he said. 

Osterholm recommends that if people are going to gather together, they should elect to do so outdoors whenever possible because "the virus dissipates into the air quickly" and "if you're not in crowds outdoors you can walk around quite safely." 

M Health Fairview: Mask mandate will save lives

If Walz does announce an all-encompassing requirement, he'll have the support of M Health Fairview, which issued a statement Wednesday saying mask-wearing protects those who are most vulnerable to severe symptoms from COVID-19. 

“Wearing a face mask is an act of kindness,” said M Health Fairview Chief Quality Officer Abe Jacob. “It will help protect everyone around you, especially the most vulnerable.”

Jacob added: “Our priority is to stop the spread of COVID, reduce the burden of the disease and save lives. The evidence is clear that universal masking is critical to achieving these goals." 

The support from M Health Fairview comes while the Minnesota Medical Association and the Minnesota Hospitals Association have urged Walz to use his executive power to demand mask-wearing in Minnesota. 

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Minnesota's neighboring states don't have mask mandate

Twenty-eight states have sweeping face mask requirements, according to CNBC, though none of Minnesota's immediate neighbors – Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota – have one. 

While Minnesota's COVID-19 cases and testing have been increasing in recent weeks – after a decrease in cases in June – Minnesota has not seen the spike currently happening in Wisconsin or southern states where COVID-19 restrictions are looser.

On Tuesday, the Wisconsin Department of Health reported a single-day record 1,117 new cases. It was the eighth straight day with at least 800 cases. More importantly, Wisconsin's positive test rate, based on Johns Hopkins' 7-day rolling average data, is up to 7.74%. That's above the World Health Organization's 5% threshold that it says is key to keeping businesses open. 

In early to mid June, Wisconsin had a stretch with a positive test rate hovering around 3%. It's been rising steadily since then, with the current 7.74% the highest it has been in Wisconsin since early May. 

Minnesota's positive test rate, based on the same 7-day rolling average, is 4.32%, a number that has slowly risen for since reaching a low of 1.6% in the middle of June. 

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