Gaps in the medical industry supply chain, emergency preparedness and access to broadband internet have all surfaced as the coronavirus pandemic has swept across the U.S.
Those were among the topics that U.S. Rep. Angie Craig, D-Eagan, and Dakota County officials touched on during a town hall meeting on Facebook Live on Saturday morning, as people were able to pass along the comments and questions online.
Testing for COVID-19 has been in high demand in Minnesota, across the U.S. and the world, and it’s revealed weaknesses in how such tests are supplied and administered.
Christine Lees, Dakota County Public Health’s disease prevention and emergency preparedness supervisor, said Minnesota has the capacity to test for COVID-19, but there is a shortage in the re-agents used in the test.
She said several private laboratories have been helping produce these tests, but it is still difficult to meet the demand.
As a result, testing is focused on health care workers and those who have experienced complications with or been hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms.
The number of COVID-19 cases in Minnesota and Dakota County have been on the rise in the past week. The last count put the those numbers at 235 and 17, respectively, as of Monday. Those numbers were 169 and 11, the day before.
Only one death, a person in their 80s from Ramsey County, has been reported, as of Tuesday.
“The most important thing in this situation is that we are honest with the people of Minnesota,” Craig said. “You will not likely be able to get a test. The issue is the supply chain.”
The supply chain is also affecting the availability of personal protection equipment for health care workers.
Gov. Tim Walz ordered on Monday non-hospital entities to inventory their PPE, ventilators, respirators and anesthesia machines; report the result to the state; and either donate such equipment to a local coordinating entity or preserve it. He also directed the National Guard to transport PPE from storage at Camp Ripley to the Minnesota Department of Health.
Craig said every manufacturing company is attempting to come to the aid of the country to manufacture PPE.
“3M, they are doing everything in their power to ramp up production,” she said. “They want to make sure they are part of the solution.”
She said she was also urging the federal government to release its supply of PPE to the states.
Lees said the pandemic has shown the importance of looking at supply chains and what products are being manufactured in the U.S. and abroad.
Many of the world’s supply of N-95 masks, used to protect medical personnel, are made in China and other parts of the world. China has ramped up its efforts to make the masks, but many of them were being used in that country where the worldwide outbreak started.
Craig said the situation has shown the country what it takes to respond in a pandemic emergency.
She said the CDC was slated to have its preparedness activities reduced in the most recent budget by 40%, and the federal government’s global health team, which was formed to respond to pandemics among other tasks, was disbanded two years ago.
She acknowledged that the past could not be redone, and the best way to address the issue is to work together.
“We are going to have to be willing to work together and we are going to have to compromise,” Craig said. “We have to come together as a country to support it.”
As Congress negotiated a settlement on the stimulus bill, there was a delay in its approval as Democrats said they were concerned about how a provision for $500 billion in grants for businesses would be allocated.
Craig said she understands there is concern and uncertainty for a number of people, especially those in closed schools, businesses and nonprofits.
She said she is working on bills to give people two weeks of paid sick leave and provide funds for furloughed workers.
One of her efforts would be to include nonprofits in any stimulus package approved by Congress.
Craig said the aid package would aim to keep people on the payrolls with their benefits, so they know they have a job when the pandemic subsides.
As claims for unemployment rise in Minnesota, Craig said there needs to be a huge infusion of money into the state’s unemployment insurance fund for the people who are just trying to pay the rent.
Lees said on Saturday that the state was in a critical moment to stop coronavirus spread.
She said what they are trying to avoid are the severe cases that could require ventilator support in a hospital that could overwhelm the health care system.
“Social distancing is the most effective tool,” Lees said. “This situation is changing daily and we are learning more about COVID daily.”
She said the next possible stage Minnesota could move to would be “shelter in place,” which several other states have implemented as of Tuesday.
The state had not moved in that direction as of Tuesday, even as Gov. Tim Walz went into self-quarantine on Monday as he was exposed to a person who tested positive for the virus.
Lees said such an action would allow people only to travel from their homes for interaction with others for food and medical care. There are some exceptions for people with jobs that would require their travel outside the home.
Dakota County Board Chairman Mike Slavik said that two-thirds of county staff is working from home, as all public-facing services have been closed.
He said the 5,000 acres of county parks would continue to remain open for people to get outside, and library services have offered online storytime for children and e-book availability was being expanded.
“We want to provide those services that we have in the past to the best ability as we can,” Slavik said.
The county has expanded Wi-Fi into the parking lots around its libraries, and Craig said the pandemic has also shown the disparity in community access to high-speed internet in rural areas with so many students needing distance learning.
She said there are many parts of the 2nd District in the rural areas that don’t have high-speed internet. She said it’s possible funding to expand rural broadband could be included in the emergency spending package.