‘If we don’t act now, God help us’: Minnesotans urged to stay home amid COVID-19 spike

    Gov. Tim Walz at a press conference announcing a new executive order that eases restrictions on restaurants, gyms, and other areas of the economy on June 5, 2020 in St. Paul, Minn. Photo by Anthony Souffle/Star Tribune.

    As Minnesota sees an unprecedented surge in COVID-19 cases, Minnesotans who have been affected by the coronavirus — including a former Republican lawmaker — joined Gov. Tim Walz Tuesday to urge people to stay vigilant against COVID-19 through the holidays.

    COVID-19 hospitalizations reached another record high in Minnesota Tuesday, and the state’s positivity rate is nearly 15% — triple the rate that indicates controlled spread of the virus. Officials say community spread is rampant, and hospitals statewide are strained as growing numbers of health care workers are unable to work due to COVID-19 infection or exposure.

    “The country is in the grips of the worst surge of COVID that we’ve had. The numbers are horrific and sometimes hard to wrap your mind around,” Walz said. “I don’t want to lose the humanity that’s in the middle of this.”

    Walz and public health officials are asking Minnesotans not to gather with members of other households during Thanksgiving because even relatively small gatherings could lead to a steep climb in cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

    Former state Rep. Nick Zerwas, a Republican who represented Elk River from 2013-2019, is still recovering from COVID-19. Eight days ago he came down with symptoms that he assumed were from a cold, until he realized that he was too short of breath to stand after walking down a flight of stairs.

    Zerwas spent four hours in the emergency department while doctors worked to find another hospital with an open ICU bed in case he needed to be transferred, he said.

    “I was stunned when I became so overwhelmed and ill from this virus. It happened so quickly,” he said.

    Zerwas said he feels lucky to have made a “miraculous turnaround” after receiving supplemental oxygen and steroids. Now, he wants Minnesotans to protect themselves and their families from going through the same thing.

    Zerwas was a vocal critic of the stay-at-home order in the spring, but Minnesota is facing a drastically different situation now, he said.

    “Everything has changed. The virus is here,” he said. “If we don’t act now, God help us.”

    Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan’s brother died of COVID-19 in the spring, and she said she doesn’t want any more people to endure the grief her family experienced. Flanagan said she understands that it will be difficult not to see extended family during the holiday and implored Minnesotans to take the pandemic seriously.

    “I have seen remarkable cruelty towards myself and towards others who have experienced the loss of a family member due to COVID. My brother had cancer, yes, but he also had a fighting chance,” Flanagan said. “When people simply brush aside folks who have died from complications (of underlying conditions) due to COVID-19 … they still had life left to live, and COVID stole years from them.” 

    Sarah Winston’s 17-year-old daughter was in the ICU for a week after she came down with COVID-19. The teenager was a healthy athlete with no underlying conditions, but she still developed heart failure, liver distress and kidney failure, Winston said. 

    “Her body literally was shutting down. There was a point when both my daughter Ella and I thought she wasn’t going to make it,” Winston said.

    Dr. John Cole, who works in the emergency department at the Hennepin County Medical Center, said his family canceled a trip to Florida in the spring just days before he and his wife began to develop symptoms of COVID-19. Their four children got sick as well.

    The family recovered without needing hospitalization, but it was still a “miserable two weeks,” Cole said. As someone who has had COVID-19 and a doctor who sees firsthand how stressed the health care system is, Cole said it’s essential for Minnesotans to stay home, wear masks, social distance and get tested if they have symptoms.

    “I think about that decision me and my family made to not get on that plane,” he said. “There are times when I think that I helped more patients and helped my community more by just staying home from that trip than by all of the patients I’ve cared for in the emergency department.”

    Rilyn Eischens
    Rilyn Eischens is a data reporter with the Reformer. Rilyn is a Minnesota native and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.