Walz, health officials: Minnesota ready to fight virus but people should brace for outbreak

Workers disinfect subway trains against coronavirus in Tehran, Iran.
Workers disinfect subway trains against coronavirus in Tehran, Iran, in the early morning of Wednesday. Iran's government said Tuesday that more than a dozen people had died nationwide from the new coronavirus.
Ebrahim Noroozi | AP Photo

Gov. Tim Walz said Minnesota is prepared to deal with COVID-19 if the virus ends up spreading into the state. He said he's been getting daily briefings from health officials on the state's readiness to combat the spread of the virus.

"With the latest developments, what we saw in northern Italy, the cluster of cases in South Korea, we're starting to see things that it's becoming much harder to pin this back to central China in Hubei [Province]."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the coronavirus has yet to be labeled a pandemic by the World Health Organization. There are no vaccines for the virus, and no anti-virals on the market yet to fight it, though a possible treatment from Omaha, Neb., is in clinical trials.

"The fact that this virus has caused illness, including illness resulting in death, and sustained person to person spread is concerning. These factors meet two of the criteria of a pandemic," said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases with the CDC. "As community spread is detected in more and more countries, the world moves closer towards meeting the third criteria — worldwide spread of the new virus."

Minnesota has no confirmed cases of the virus. The state currently has one person being tested for the virus and three other tests have come back negative. In the U.S. so far, 53 people with the virus have been quarantined, as have others who may have been exposed.

But the spread in Iran, Italy and Asia over the last few days seems to have changed the way officials are talking about the virus. Messonnier said people should start putting plans in place in case of a pandemic.

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"We are asking the American public to work with us to prepare for this in the expectation that this could be bad,” she said, “I continue to hope that in the end we'll look back and feel like we're overprepared, but that is a better place to be than underprepared."

Being prepared as individuals means several things. First, there are preventative measures like washing hands and staying home if you feel sick.

Cheryl Petersen-Kroeber, director of preparedness and response with the Minnesota Department of Health, said people should make sure to have enough food, prescription drugs and cleaning supplies in their house in case they need to stay home for a couple of weeks. She also suggests checking out Ready.gov for tools people can use for emergency situations.

Petersen-Kroeber said while some have wondered if all this talk about the virus is spreading more fear than necessary, the key is preparation.

"I feel like we're not fear-mongering, we're empowering them to take actions and steps that should this come to the point of community transmission, they will be better positioned to care for themselves and their families," she said.

Companies also should be thinking through plans to allow people to work remotely and to have meetings that don't put everyone in the same room, Petersen-Kroeber said. Schools should have in place plans for both cutting down class sizes to prevent quick spread through classrooms, but also have plans ready in case school is called off, she said.