Walz, Senate GOP outline contrasting approach to rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations

By: - October 6, 2021 5:05 pm

Gov. Tim Walz visited a Maplewood elementary school on Oct. 6, 2021 to learn about school district efforts to mitigate COVID-19 infections. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer

Senate Republicans and DFL Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday outlined drastically contrasting approaches to managing the ongoing pandemic, setting up a protracted legislative impasse as the governor calls on lawmakers to act on a raft of COVID-19 mitigation measures. 

Walz is calling for mandatory vaccination of long-term care workers, teachers and other school staff, among other recommendations he outlined Tuesday afternoon. But he is limited in his authority to act alone. In July, he reached a compromise with lawmakers to end his peacetime emergency declaration, giving up his emergency powers.

Senate Republicans, who have long opposed pandemic restrictions and mandates, used a human services committee hearing Wednesday to criticize Walz administration officials over their rollout of a vaccine mandate for state workers.  They also appeared cool to the Walz pandemic requests, which also include waivers to address workforce shortages in hospitals and nursing homes.

The apparent impasse comes as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations remain stubbornly elevated, especially in areas with lower vaccination rates.

The conflict will likely worsen the gridlock gripping the divided Legislature, which is trying to reach agreement on how to divide up $250 million of pandemic bonus pay for some 667,000 essential employees who worked despite the risk of catching the virus. 

Republicans want to give a larger check to a smaller pool of employees, including health care, long term care, personal care assistants and prison guards, while Democrats say the total amount should be larger so that a larger pool of workers — like janitors, bus drivers and meat processors — can be included. 

In addition to COVID-19 mitigation policies, Walz wants assurances that the GOP majority Senate won’t fire Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm in any special legislative session. New Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller said no such assurances are forthcoming. Drought relief for farmers is also on the table. 

Without agreement soon, lawmakers and Walz face the prospect of election year negotiations, with the first-term DFL governor expected to run for reelection in a year when all 201 legislative seats will also be up. 

Walz on Wednesday visited a Maplewood school to learn about mitigation strategies that school officials are undertaking to allow students to attend classes in-person. Kelly Ayd, health services supervisor for Independent School District 622, showed Walz the rapid COVID-19 tests available to students who are showing symptoms.

Walz recently ordered that the state’s more than 36,000 public workers either show proof of vaccination or provide regular proof of testing to return to on-site work settings. More than 10,000 workers are working remotely, leaving about 25,000 workers subject to the new policy. 

Kristin Batson, deputy commissioner of Minnesota Management and Budget, said 523 state workers — roughly 2% of those affected — have not submitted proof of vaccination or consented to testing. 

State Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, chair of the Senate Human Services Reform Finance and Policy committee and longtime vaccine skeptic, invited some state employees that object to the mandate to testify at the Senate hearing Wednesday. 

Abeler said he had spoken with 40 state government workers who oppose the new workforce rule. 

Liz Schwanke, a state employee who helps provide community-based services, said she opposed the testing and vaccination rules on the grounds of health privacy concerns. “Testing should be done across the board (regardless of vaccination status),” she said, 

Abeler said the committee would not be debating the underlying merits of vaccination, and said he believed workers’ individual rights should be protected. “The governor has unequal bargaining power on this,” he said. 

Schwanke and others warned that the vaccination rule could drive away state workers, as well as workers in long-term care facilities who do not want to be vaccinated. 

Walz told reporters on Wednesday that while he is concerned about attrition because of the policy, he likened it to banning indoor smoking.

“I would guess we lost workers when we said you couldn’t smoke in the building anymore,” he said. “This is about protecting others.” 

He also said that objections to regular testing should be weighed against the risk of hospitalization. “This is a reasonable request,” he said.

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Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez

Ricardo Lopez was a senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.