Gov. Walz doesn’t need to keep his emergency powers

Last week saw a bipartisan vote in Minnesota’s state senate to end the emergency powers that Gov. Walz has used to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. On Friday, the House voted to maintain the emergency powers, keeping them in place until at least mid-July. This will bring us to 120 days under Gov. Walz’ personal rule, the longest that Minnesota has lived under a state of emergency since World War II. How do we return our government to normal?

Does Gov. Walz need his emergency powers?

Data from the Minnesota Department of Health in Figure 1 shows a rolling 7 day average of positive Covid-19 cases. The story it tells is very clear. From mid-March to mid-April new cases crept up, from mid-April to the end of April new cases rose rapidly, from the beginning of May to May 24th cases crept up again, and since then the number of new cases has collapsed.*

Figure 1: Positive Covid-19 tests, rolling 7 day average

Source: Minnesota Department of Health

As I wrote last week, the number of positive cases is only part of the story. What is also important is the ratio of positive tests to total tests carried out. In the seven days ending April 20th, Minnesota carried out an average of 1,367 Covid-19 tests; in the seven days ending June 5th, it carried out an average of 8,649 tests. As Figure 2 shows, the number of these tests turning up positive results has been falling pretty constantly since the end of April.

Figure 2: Positive Covid-19 tests as a % of all tests, rolling 7 day average

Source: Minnesota Department of Health

On April 8th, Gov. Walz extended his stay-at-home order (SHO) to May 4th. He did so based Version 2 of the SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) Model produced by the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and Department of Health. This forecast a peak Intensive Care Unit (ICU) use of 3,700 beds on July 13th. At that time, there were 64 people in ICU with Covid-19. On May 13th, the state government unveiled Version 3 its model. This forecast that with the SHO in effect to May 18th – the measures then in place – Minnesota would see a peak ICU useage of 3,397 beds on June 29th.

There are now 186 Minnesotans in ICU with Covid-19, down from a peak of 263 on May 30th. If we assume exponential growth, then, as Figure 3 shows, we should have 1,459 Covid-19 patients in ICU at present, not 186.

Figure 3: Covid-19 ICU hospitalizations, forecast and actual

Source: Minnesota Department of Health

We have already seen a similar story with mortality:

On May 13th, the state government unveiled Version 3 of the SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) Model, produced by the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and Department of Health. This forecast that with the stay-at-home order (SHO) in place to May 18th – which it was – Minnesota would see 1,441 Covid-19 deaths by the end of May.

That seemed pessimistic to me. Up to that point, Minnesota had suffered 638 deaths from Covid-19 so to reach 1,441 by May 31st the state would need to suffer 45 deaths a day. Then, the record high of fatalities in one day was 30 (May 6th) and the average for the previous 18 days had been 22. In other words, the model which has been driving state government policy in response to Covid-19 forecast that the average daily death rate for the last 18 days of May would be double the average daily death rate for the previous 18 days.

Yesterday, the Minnesota Department of Health announced that the state suffered 14 deaths from Covid-19 on May 31st to bring the total to 1,040. Instead of averaging 45 deaths daily, our state averaged just 22. Indeed, on no date did Minnesota see the 45 Covid-19 deaths a day the state’s model forecast. The state forecast was off by 401, or 28% lower than forecast…

Figure 4 shows the state’s forecast for total deaths and the actual number of total deaths. We were nowhere near the model’s predictions. Two weeks later, we are still below the mortality the state’s model forecast for May 31st.

Figure 4: Total deaths from Covid-19, actual and forecast

Source: Center of the American Experiment

How we can end Gov. Walz’ personal rule

Back in April when he extended his SHO to May 4th, Gov. Walz said: “We cannot rest easy…This thing can explode overnight.” But what, then, is the endgame? We can’t keep the state under his personal rule indefinitely on the off chance that Covid-19 will ‘explode’ in a way it currently isn’t doing. Under what circumstances will Gov. Walz give up his dictatorial powers and return Minnesota to democratic government? What we need is a verifiable benchmark which allows us to say: These emergency powers are no longer needed.

We have one. Gov. Walz has claimed throughout this crisis that he is being guided by the science and data. His model is a central part of that. Its forecast that, without mitigating measures, Minnesota would see 42,000 Covid-19 deaths by the end of May was a key factor in prompting him to take those mitigating measures. As Figure 4 shows, we have seen how, in the event, that model’s forecasts were way out when it came to total mortality.

On June 29th, we will see if the same applies to its forecasts for ICU usage. If current trends hold and Covid-19 ICU usage is in the region of 250-300 when the model forecasts 3,397, we will have every reason to junk the model and the many of the measures its has justified. This includes Gov. Walz’ emergency powers.

*The data runs up to June 5th. Due to delays in reporting, numbers after that date may be incomplete.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.