Press conference

Gov. Tim Walz stands during a press conference where officials urged the public to take steps to combat the spread of COVID-19 Monday in St. Paul. (Christine T. Nguyen/MPR News)

State health officials joined Gov. Tim Walz Monday to plead with Minnesotans to stay home — especially on Thanksgiving.

It was an about-face from health officials’ guidance the previous week, in which they urged scaling back, suggesting if people must gather, that they keep things small and include a limited number of households.

Since then, the situation — and the messaging — has changed dramatically, with Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm warning that, at the current rate cases are rising statewide, Minnesota will see 10,000 new COVID-19 cases per day by Thanksgiving.

She called on Minnesotans to celebrate with people only within their immediate households.

“The ground is really shifting under our feet and we need to adapt quickly,” Malcolm said.

With the new guidance come lots of questions. Here are answers to a few, as you reconsider your Thanksgiving plans.

Did we miss something? Share your questions here, and we’ll add them — with answers — to the list.

What’s the new guidance around Thanksgiving?

Simply put: Don’t gather with anyone outside of your immediate household for the holiday or any time in the near future.

“As tempting as it is to stick with our cherished traditions this year, we need people to reconsider and not gather with other households,” Malcolm said, noting that the state is at a crisis point in the disease’s progression. It’s an assessment she doesn’t make lightly. The whole country is currently a COVID-19 hot spot.

Malcolm said the state’s updated guidance is consistent with messaging from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends celebrating virtually or only with members of your own household who are consistently taking their own measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

It’s a shift from the recommendations state health officials have made up to this point. But the coronavirus spike — in positive cases, hospitalizations and ICU care — statewide has forced the change. And it’s changing state guidance in many areas.

“The plans we thought were OK a few weeks ago are now unsafe,” Malcolm said.

Last week, the state capped gatherings at no more than 10 people from three households. On Monday, they began asking people to skip gathering with other households altogether.

This new guidance includes college students who may have been planning to travel home for the holidays. Health officials urged Minnesotans to avoid travel.

For those who do travel, Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, said Minnesotans should stay at home as much as possible ahead of travel to limit possible exposure, get tested a few days before they plan to leave, and if it comes back positive, stay put.

“Adjustments we make to our holiday plans are a short-term temporary sacrifice,” Malcolm said. “A big one, to be sure.”

Are there new mandates?

Not yet, though Walz and health officials hinted that new restrictions are a definite possibility.

On Monday, officials said they’ve seen double-digit outbreaks in high school sports, including football, basketball and volleyball. The Health Department is expected to post new guidance on winter sports soon.

In the meantime, Walz hearkened back to current guidelines in his pleas for Minnesotans to meet the surge with prevention, acknowledging that not everyone agrees with the mandates.

“Wear your mask and stay healthy if, for no other reason it’ll keep you healthy enough to vote against me in two years, if that’s what it takes,” he said. “Just keep yourself healthy, and keep others healthy. Whatever motivates you for that, that’s simply the best thing we have at this point in time and will make this better for everyone.”

What’s prompted the new messaging?

Several factors have prompted the change: record case growth, deaths and hospitalizations — as well as the ripple effects of those numbers. Health care systems are experiencing staff shortages as workers are exposed to the virus in daily life, not necessarily at work.

More and more medical staff are having to stay home from work, because they have the virus, have been exposed to the virus or are taking care of someone at home who’s experienced either.

As COVID-related hospitalizations go up, hospitals still need to provide care for people who arrive for other reasons, like strokes, heart attacks and accidental injuries.

While Minnesota has extra beds, space and supplies on hand to expand the physical capacity of its health care system, there isn’t an abundance of extra workers that the state or hospitals can bring in to help care for patients in those beds.

“It is no secret that the country, and especially the Upper Midwest, is in the darkest parts of this pandemic,” Walz said.

What about college students?

State health officials for weeks have said that young adults are more likely than others to be asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus. They’re urging college students to keep that in mind as they make holiday plans.

Infectious disease director Ehresmann said college students who live on campus stay there and order in dinner with friends or visit with family virtually.

She said if students do decide to go home for Thanksgiving, they need to stay there.

Ehresmann urges everyone traveling to follow a now well-known mantra: Lay low before you go.

“Please stay home or in your dorm, and interact only with people in your household or dorm for at least 14 days. Start laying low now, then get tested several days before you travel or visit family so you can isolate on campus before going home if you’re positive,” Ehresmann said.

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