Minnesota hospitals seek state cash grants amid coronavirus fears

Governor Tim Walz signs a funding package into law to help support coronavirus response. (FOX 9)

Gov. Tim Walz had barely put his pen to paper Tuesday, freeing up $21 million in emergency funding to deal with the coronavirus outbreak, when new concerns emerged at the state Capitol.

Across the street, Minnesota hospital executives were asking for state cash grants to fund their coronavirus response. Lawmakers grappled with the idea of providing public assistance to people who are forced to miss work, and Walz’s administration dusted off contingency plans in case an outbreak hits the Capitol and lawmakers must leave the building.

Up first: the public health response. In a matter of 24 hours, the House, Senate and governor signed off on the $21 million emergency funding package. 

“The speed with which the legislature came together to work with us is unprecedented in my memory,” said state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm, who then noted the speed of the coronavirus outbreak. “We’ve not seen something spread this quickly – really, it’s unprecedented in modern times.”

Walz signed the funding package into law while noting “we’ll be using one pen and not handing it around,” unlike the governor’s ceremonial practice of using multiple pens and then handing them to lawmakers who worked on the legislation. His administration has been warning Minnesotans not to shake hands to limit the spread of the virus.

The funding will allow the Minnesota Department of Health to increase testing for the coronavirus. As of Tuesday, 135 people had been tested, according to state data. Malcolm said the state has 1,500 available tests, which she said was enough to meet the current need.

But a case of coronavirus confirmed by state public health officials Tuesday called into question whether Minnesota is testing enough people for coronavirus. 

An Anoka County resident in their 30s developed symptoms Feb. 28 and initially sought medical help March 3, only to be evaluated and released, state health officials said. The person returned for medical care Monday and the state confirmed the case of coronavirus Tuesday.

Only the state is doing testing for now, Malcolm said. But she said the Mayo Clinic will soon be able to conduct tests.

Hospitals and clinics expect to eventually take over testing from the state, said Mary Krinkie, vice president of government relations for the Minnesota Hospital Association.

Lawmakers have proposed helping hospitals with a low-interest or zero-interest loan program. But Krinkie said loans would be more appropriate for renovations or construction projects, and said hospitals would need cash grants from taxpayers to get through the coronavirus.

“Our members are preparing right now for what I would call an extraordinary surge of patients that could potentially be coming our way,” she told lawmakers on the House Health and Human Services committee. “I just want to stress to you all that I think a loan program alone without a grant program is going to be insufficient.”

House Democratic leaders have largely been supportive of a loan program. But state Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein raised concerns about cash grants.

“I’m just a little concerned we would be giving public dollars that don’t need to be paid back, when perhaps some of these executives and some of these CEOS are making millions of dollars,” said Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton.

Lawmakers are also considering whether to create a public assistance program for Minnesota workers who run out of sick days and have to stay home from work.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, a Democrat, said it was a priority for her. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, a Republican, expressed skepticism while not ruling it out completely.

President Donald Trump’s administration has proposed a different plan to cut the federal payroll tax as a form of economic stimulus for workers.

Walz also revealed Tuesday that his administration has been reviewing contingency plans in case a coronavirus outbreak hits the state Capitol and lawmakers must evacuate. State law would need to be changed so lawmakers could vote from remote locations, he said.

“We’ve got to have continuity of services. We have got to protect the democracy to make sure we keep going,” Walz told reporters. “It’s just incumbent on us to plan for that worse-case scenario and certainly do everything we can to try to prevent that.”

The simplest prevention techniques are still the best, state health officials said. 

That includes staying home if sick, covering coughs and sneezes, avoiding touching your face, and washing your hands often for 20 seconds at a time.

“My daughter sings ‘Happy Birthday’ twice as she washes her hands as the way to make sure she’s doing it for the full 20 seconds,” said Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, whose daughter is 6 years old. “We encourage Minnesotans to do the same.”