In distinct shift, Walz says COVID-19 is close to 'endemic'

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz's first term will be defined partly by his response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, as his re-election looms, he's reframing the virus as less of an immediate threat.

Walz said the pandemic was transitioning to endemic as he toured St. Paul College's nursing training facilities Tuesday. The often-confused "endemic" term means COVID will be present but at more predictable levels. Variants make the future of the virus uncertain.

The DFL governor's administration has made a series of strategy shifts this week. Minnesota is winding down an at-home testing program at the end of March. Then, state officials said that Minnesota had finally hit a goal of recruiting 1,000 certified nursing students, making the state better prepared for future strains on the health care system.

"I do think we’re close to the endemic stage because I think we have to learn, how do we continue to live with it," Walz told reporters, using an analogy that people use umbrellas when it's raining and put the umbrellas away when the rain stops. "You can’t be in that surge mode constantly. You have to be able to adjust to it, and you have to be able to quickly drawdown."

Minnesota's infection rate bottomed out last week after weeks of improvements following the omicron peak in January. At that time, the state was confirming more than 10,000 new infections per day. Now, the number is in the hundreds.

But China and Europe are seeing a new wave of infections caused by the so-called stealth omicron variant. Scientists consider the strain more transmissible but no more deadly than omicron, which itself caused less serious health outcomes than the earlier delta variant. Minnesota has traditionally lagged waves in other parts of the world by a few weeks.

In the meantime, Walz said the at-home testing program run by Vault Health had become too expensive. The demand for tests was one-tenth what it had been in January, the governor's administration said this week. 

Starting Tuesday, the state instead made 500,000 COVID-19 test kits available on a first-come basis online. People can request a maximum of two kits.

"We just think this is a more efficient and easier way for people to do it now, where they’ll be able to get on and get these tests sent to them," Walz said.

Health care staffing caused concern during this winter's COVID-19 surge, but the Minnesota National Guard exited long-term care facilities weeks ago as the virus ebbed. When soldiers were called up, state officials pledged to recruit 1,000 certified nursing assistants by Jan. 31 to relieve a staff shortage.

Tuesday, state officials said 940 adults have enrolled in courses and 338 high school students have taken classes as well. That means the state has finally reached the 1,000 benchmark, albeit two months behind the original goal.

"It was an incredibly aggressive goal," Minnesota Higher Education Commissioner Dennis Olson said. Some students are still taking classes, he said. 

Walz's supplemental budget proposal includes additional money for recruiting and training nursing assistants. Lawmakers in both parties in the House and Senate have pledged to address the staffing issues.

Brenda Garcia was among the St. Paul College students at work during the governor's tour. She got laid off from her certified nursing assistant job at the start of the pandemic and worked at Home Depot, but always wanted to return to school and to a health care career. Garcia will start a new job in long-term care on Friday while attending classes, she said.

"It is nerve wracking, but it is really exciting," she said. "One thing that I love to do is help people, so I’m looking forward to anything in this field."