ROCHESTER, Minn. -- State legislators heard from an array of perspectives on Wednesday, July 8 as they sought out expert testimony on COVID-19 during a remote hearing of the House Select Committee on Minnesota's Pandemic Response and Rebuilding.
The hearing, chaired by House Speaker Melissa Hortman and House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, opened with examples of COVID-19 successes as told by Andy Slavitt, former Acting Administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and current chair of the Minnesota-based health policy think tank United States of Care.
"We can live with this virus, and we know that it's possible because it's been tamed in countries around the world," said Slavitt. "We've seen that from New Zealand, to Germany to the Czech Republic."
"Vietnam has 330 cases, no deaths, a very active testing regimen, and their economy is growing at 2.7%," he added.
Slavitt called for hypervigilance -- "not dismissing new cases as, 'oh, these are just young people,' because with asymptomatic disease, every case needs to be contained."
"If you don't do these things," he said, "you have what I would call a 75% economy -- an economy based on bars, delivery services and retail but not the things which really drive the economy, such as consumer spending, travel, people signing leases, people buying cars, people spending money on vacation. Those things just don't happen when people feel unsafe."
Slavitt cautioned that citizens should expect the best advice to shift on a regular basis.
"I know the news that comes out of this is confusing," he said. "The scientific process feels like two steps forward and one step back. It's hard to know what to believe when you're told masks don't work, and then that they work, that a drug works, and then that it doesn't work."
"This is normal, however. You are watching how science unfolds...It's important to get used to the fact that we're going to continue to see changing information."
Penny Wheeler, president and CEO of Allina Health, told the hearing that "we now treat people differently than we did before." Wheeler said Alina is seeing 75% of patients on ventilators now surviving, calling that "the inverse of what was seen early in New York."
Her position was largely contradicted by a pulmonary specialist on the front lines, as the committee heard from Dr. Sakina Naqvi of Doctors for Health Equity, who spoke of the bewildering nature of the illness.
"Physicians don't often find themselves in the position of being faced with the question of whether or not they know how to manage an illness," she said. "I have been humbled by this emerging pathogen. SARS-COV-2 seems to behave differently from one patient to the next.”
Naqvi saved her strongest warnings for the potential of the virus to devastate communities of color.
"In the ICU it has been frightening to watch this highly communicable disease run through households and take down families...The disease is very real and targeting those already disproportionately disadvantaged."
Naqvi told of a man a month ago who had been deemed near death, having been put on ventilation with oxygen saturation in his 40s, who had a huge clot in left side of the heart and was bleeding out of every orifice. "I must have spent 8.5 hours in this one patient's room," she said. "I wanted to let family come say their goodbyes, then we withdrew care."
"Three days later," she said, "he was walking around and talking."
For every case that surprises in a positive way, she described relentless deaths.
"We're used to holding people's hands to die in a dignified way," Naqvi said. "When we withdraw care, families aren't around, so respiratory therapists and health workers are all in the room so the patient doesn't die alone. It's very emotionally taxing for us."
"It just seems like whatever sacrifices we're making," she added with her voice briefly catching, "(we wonder) 'are they all going to be a wash if we need to re-open?' Which, thank God, I am not in a position where I have to make any decision like that."
At a daily press call, health officials warned that some people have begun floating the idea of so-called COVID parties, to intentionally become infected. "This is a really, really bad idea," said state director of infectious disease Kris Ehresmann.
"Not only is there a small risk of significant complications in young healthy persons, but that virus will be passed along to people in the community at higher risk."
"If you're thinking 'let's just do this and get it over with,' you're playing Russian roulette. We've already had at least three deaths in healthy 20 year-olds."
The Minnesota Department of Health reported 463 cases and 8 deaths from COVID-19 on Wednesday.
The eighth deaths occurred with one each in St. Louis, Ramsey, Dakota and Anoka counties and two each in Hennepin and Olmsted counties.
As if to underscore what Ehresmann had said, one Olmsted County deceased person was in their 40s, and one from Hennepin County was in their 30s.
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Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 hotline: 651-201-3920.
COVID-19 discrimination hotline: 833-454-0148
Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 website: Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) website.