Minnesota COVID model highlights importance of listening to experts

A presentation was given late last week on the modeling being used by public health experts in the state to make decisions related to Minnesota’s response to COVID-19. The Minnesota Department of Health in partnership with the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and a large team of epidemiologists have been using the data we have about COVID-19 to build models to determine the trajectory and impact of the virus on an ongoing basis.

The presentation was an opportunity to walk the public through the various scenarios officials are looking at and the associated outcomes that could take place depending on how many, or how few, social distancing measures are put in place. It’s important to note that models are used to determine the directional changes the disease will take to help officials anticipate capacity needs; they are not used to determine estimates for a specific point in time. Based on the presentation – the data we have is alarming and should prompt all Minnesotans to take this virus seriously.

Since the onset of the virus, many experts believed that for every one case of COVID there were nine more going undetected, but new analysis reveals that for every one case there are closer to 99 cases going undetected. With there being 1,912 confirmed cases in Minnesota at the time this article was written, this suggests there are nearly 190,000 cases total in the state – with roughly 188,000 of those cases going undetected.

Previous estimates suggested that for every one person infected, they would pass the virus to (on average) 2.4 individuals, which was already a higher rate of infection than the H1N1 pandemic seen in 2009; this modeling indicates this number is between 2.5 and 4.7 individuals, for an average of around 3.87 individuals. This would make the virus much more infectious than previously believed. For reference, for every one individual infected with smallpox, there would be between 3.5 and 6 additional people infected.

What does this data mean? It means COVID is likely much harder to suppress, test, and contain than previously believed, and it will require much more of the population to get infected before we have herd immunity in the state.

Experts have been looking at the various outputs of the model to determine how many ICU beds we will need in order to take care of all of the patients when the virus reaches its peak, which right now is expected to arrive between June and August. Governor Walz has taken considerable steps to increase ICU capacity so we are close to the number of beds we need, but the state believes we will still fall short of the number of beds required. How close we can get to that number depends on how much time we are able to buy through the use of mitigation like social distancing measures. If an individual who needs an ICU bed is unable to obtain one, the risk of mortality from the virus is 1.5 times to 16.5 times higher, depending on age.

The model will continue to be updated as data comes in, which will allow experts to refine the various mitigation scenarios on an ongoing basis. In addition to the modeling being done, Minnesota officials are also looking to federal guidance, data from other states, and traditional public health data to make decisions to limit the impact of the virus as much as possible.

Minnesota has the lowest rate of cases of COVID per capita in the country. This means we are doing better than every other state in controlling the spread of the virus, and it’s working because we are listening to public health professionals and their recommendations. Some politicians are choosing to make this virus a partisan issue, but Senate DFLers are committed to following the valid modeling and science guiding the governor and his team. We will continue to make decisions that put health first, that are backed up by science.