Gov. Tim Walz defended his COVID-19 policies for nursing homes during an interview Tuesday at the Minnesota State Fair.
Early in the pandemic, Minnesota had the highest percentage of COVID-19 deaths in long-term care facilities in the nation. A total of 5,990 long-term care residents have died of the virus, accounting for 45% of the state’s 13,078 total deaths.
Some have attributed these excess deaths to the state’s 2020 policy of transferring hospitalized COVID patients back to nursing homes.
The Star Tribune reported in May 2020: “Early in the pandemic, the Minnesota Department of Health turned to nursing homes and other long-term care facilities to relieve the burden on hospitals that were at risk of being overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients. Minnesota hospitals have since discharged dozens of infected patients to nursing homes, including facilities that have undergone large and deadly outbreaks of the disease, state records show.”
Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm defended this policy during a Minnesota Senate hearing just a couple weeks later.
“Staying in hospitals beyond the point where you need to be there is itself a risky thing,” she said. “We do believe that a skilled nursing facility is the right level of care for a lot of people leaving acute [hospital] care.”
These comments prompted calls for Malcolm’s resignation from advocates for the elderly, who began referring to the policy as a “virus pipeline.”
“Other states have learned not to transfer infected patients into nursing homes. They have found alternatives in order to better protect people. Minnesota still hasn’t,” Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life Executive Director Scott Fischbach said at the time. “There are no excuses. We are simply failing the most vulnerable members of our state. A change in leadership and policy at the Minnesota Department of Health is now long overdue.”
At the same time, the Walz administration was facing criticism for its refusal to release facility-specific data, a move the Department of Health defended by citing state privacy laws, MinnPost reported.
Former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer faced backlash for similar policies. In Cuomo’s case, his staffers took things one step further by intentionally obscuring the number of nursing home deaths in the state, according to reports. Cuomo later resigned amid a sexual harassment scandal.
Many Minnesota nursing home residents were left to die alone because of the Walz administration’s strict limitation on visitors.
Given a chance to distance himself from these policies during a Tuesday WCCO Radio interview, Walz doubled down.
“Well, I think the numbers are for all of us. I mean, those folks who want to say we shouldn’t have done anything, you guys didn’t do this [right]. One million Americans died. 13,000 Minnesotans died. This is unprecedented in the last 100 years,” the governor said.
He then claimed COVID-19 was worse than polio as justification for his policies.
“At the height of the polio epidemic, 3,500 people died in a year. At the height. So we’re talking about historic numbers. I think one of the things is at the end of the day measuring the deaths. If we would’ve done some of the things the folks who disagree with what we did, it’s absolutely in the data, the numbers would’ve been higher.”
Host Chad Hartman then asked: “So you’re OK with how you handled the nursing home situation?”
“With the information we had at the time and the results that we got, yes,” the governor replied.