Minnesota quietly releases new COVID-19 scenario: Stay-at-home through May

Minnesota has quietly released a new modeling scenario for fighting the coronavirus: extending the stay-at-home order through May. 

The new scenario projects more deaths and intensive-care usage than the course Minnesota is currently taking. Health officials argued the projections should be ignored because they relied on old modeling data, instead of Minnesota's new model that health officials plan to release this week.

The additional scenario threw more uncertainty on a pivotal week, as Gov. Tim Walz must decide whether to extend Minnesota's stay-at-home order. Walz's current order runs through Sunday, and the governor has not said how he plans to deal with a possible extension.

"It (the additional scenario) was just a bit of an afterthought," Stefan Gildemeister, the state health economist at the Minnesota Department of Health, told reporters Monday. "I think it might be best to set it aside."

The additional scenario projects that extending the stay-home order through the end of May would lead to 25,000 deaths and 4,000 ICU beds in use at peak. Both numbers are slightly higher than under the scenario that Minnesota is currently following, which suggests 22,000 deaths and 3,700 ICU beds in use at peak.

Extending the stay-home order would delay the peak by two weeks, until July 27. 

Gildemeister said health officials ran the new scenario on April 28 after a request from Walz's office. It wasn't released publicly until May 4, when state Sen. Michelle Benson asked to see it. Benson, R-Ham Lake, chairs the Senate Health and Human Services committee. Then, in recent days, health officials put it online.

Health officials did not say why reporters were never briefed on the additional scenario -- known as "Scenario 5" -- or why it had not been made public two weeks ago.

"Scenario 5 was kind of out of date as soon almost as it was posted because the model itself is being updated with new criteria," health commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters. "So, whether it would continue to show that with a new run, we can’t comment on that until we see that new run."

Health Department officials have created a "Version 3.0" of the state's model with University of Minnesota researchers. Malcolm said it would be released later in the week, but did not say which day. The updated model will also include a projection of what would happen if the stay-home order was extended through the end of May, Gildemeister said.

Republicans made an issue of the new scenario while debating a business reopening bill on the Senate floor Monday. The legislation, which allows businesses to reopen as long as they follow public health guidance, passed 39-28 with four Democratic senators joining the GOP.

"What’s a little confusing for me is, which model is the governor telling us, so we can understand and participate," Benson said.

Senate Democrats defended the Walz administration and said the first-term Democratic governor was acting appropriately to keep the state safe.

"We all are frustrated. I wish we didn’t have this virus. But we’ve got to be clear that it’s not the fault of the governor," said state Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis. "The governor did not solicit this pandemic. He did not create it. And it isn’t his fault."

The vote on the business reopening bill was purely symbolic, as neither the Democratic-controlled House or Walz is likely to go along with the legislation.

As of Monday morning, 591 Minnesotans have died from the coronavirus and an additional 194 were in intensive care.

Nearly 80 percent were residents of long-term care facilities.