Some good news and potential paths forward were shared during an online meeting hosted by the MetroNorth Chamber of Commerce Tuesday, Dec. 8.

Chamber members heard from legislative and health care representatives on issues related to the pandemic during the event called “Coming Out the Other Side of Covid-19.”

Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, shared some of her opinions about how the state should be handling the pandemic. She started off criticizing Gov. Tim Walz, saying businesses have been surprised by decisions made by him during the pandemic.

“Our businesses kind of got blindsided, as has been the pattern during the Walz administration response to the pandemic,” Benson said. “They think they’re on the same page, and then several days later there’s this abrupt decision that they didn’t really have good visibility on.”

She criticized Walz’s most recent executive order, which limited social and outdoor recreation activities among other things, in response to questions about why such a blunt approach was taken to shutting down bars and restaurants. Benson shared that she wants to shift the state’s reaction model to an outbreak-by-outbreak model of approach once the current executive order expires Dec. 18. She would like to see adjustments made by county based on the percentage of positive cases.

“When Kandiyohi was upwards of 30%, they needed a different treatment than a county that had remained, you know, under the 6% mark,” Benson said.

She argued that outbreak-by-outbreak approach, would make local businesses responsible for their own safety protocols. Businesses associated with an outbreak would be shut down and would have to undergo retraining and improvements to their safety protocols before they could reopen.

Benson said she doesn’t have confidence the executive order will be lifted by Dec. 18, in part because the Walz administration is not sharing which data they are looking at to determine when to reopen.

Federal action

At the federal level Legislative Director Landon Zinda, with Congressman Tom Emmer’s office, discussed some of the upcoming bipartisan efforts to aid Americans.

Zinda hinted at a $908 billion dollar bill with bipartisan support in the federal government. That could include almost $300 billion for small businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program, $45 billion for transportation, $25 billion for rental assistance and $35 billion for health care providers. It could also include another $160 billion for state and local governments, Zinda said

“What’s interesting is that prior to the election the administration had offered a $1.8 trillion package, which was rejected, and now we’re talking about half of that money that appears to be a compromise,” Zinda said.

Zinda said there is over $130 billion still in the Paycheck Protection Program, however, it is legally barred from use. But there is a bipartisan effort to reopen the fund, Zinda said.

Hospitals stressed by surge

On the health care front the Dr. Ryan Else, vice president of medical affairs at Mercy Hospital, shared some of what the health care system has struggled with — as well as some positive news about vaccines.

Else stressed the significant numbers of cases they are dealing with, saying that Mercy Hospital itself is caring for about 10% of the hospitalized COVID-19 patients in the state. Since Nov. 1, Allina has seen an 85% increase in COVID-19 cases submitted to the hospital, according to Else.

“We are definitely experiencing a pretty high surge for the past month,” Else said.

“Last week we were at capacity, and we had several patients waiting in our emergency room for a hospital admission,” he said.

In response to the surge Allina has expanded virtual care. It has also increased ICU capacity by 20% and is aiming for a 40-50% increase by the end of December. Allina also has had to delay surgeries that are safe to delay, such as elective hip or knee replacements, to increase capacity.

Else said that while the system has been able to provide health care coverage, it has had to work with staffing models and agencies to do so.

“We do have health care workers that have been exposed that need to isolate at home,” Else said.

Allina EMS is operating at 120% of its normal capacity and has added eight new ambulances to its daily coverage in an attempt to meet the increased needs due to COVID-19, Else said.

One effort to reduce the strain on the hospital system has focused on home health care, allowing people to be treated at home instead of at the hospital.

“It’s basically a way of expanding our ability to take care of patients at home rather than a hospital for something that would have, several months ago, would have required hospitalization,” Else said.

Else said Allina expects to receive vaccines on Dec. 14 or the 21, and then weekly into the future. He expected vaccinations in the U.S. to begin within seven to 14 days.

However, Else doesn’t expect to receive enough vaccines for everyone. He said that in the first few weeks the hospital system will be able to offer the vaccine to health care workers and then to the highest risk patients.

“We obviously want to vaccinate those at highest risk of contracting or suffering from the illness, and then over successive weeks and months going to less and less risky patients,” Else said.

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