Minnesota officials and hospital leaders are preparing for an expected surge of COVID-19 patients, hoping their efforts to restrict public contact in the state the past few weeks will be enough to keep the health system from being overwhelmed.

Gov. Tim Walz said Tuesday that Minnesota had 243 adult intensive care beds as the number of COVID-19 infections continued to swell across the state.

The state Health Department on Wednesday confirmed 287 cases of COVID-19 after 6,365 tests. Twenty-six people were in the hospital with the coronavirus. The number of cases is likely at least 10 times as high as the number of testing-confirmed cases, however, and an increasing number of people will likely require hospitalization in the coming days and weeks, according to health officials.

Officials are weighing constructing makeshift hospitals in school gymnasiums if needed. "We're in good shape now but we need to be prepared to expand that system very quickly,” said the state's emergency manager, Joe Kelly.

As that planning continues, experts remain worried about the well-being of doctors, nurses and other health care workers as the virus spreads.

Infections among health care workers elsewhere in the world are a worrying sign as a surge of illness approaches in the United States, said Michael Osterholm, head of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

“We must never forget that we are going to lose some of the truest heroes in our country as health care workers are infected and die,” he told MPR News Wednesday. “We already have over 5,000 cases in health care workers in Italy alone. We already know of health care workers in this country (ill) because of inadequate protection.”

The U.S. needs to come up with a practical way to ease the burden on the health care system, he said, adding that Americans need to slow economic and public activity to stem the spread of the virus, but not in a way so onerous that people eventually disregard the danger.

Minnesota officials say early signs indicate that preventative measures are helping. Cellphone data and other information shows that social distancing is happening, Walz said, adding, “Minnesotans are taking this seriously.”

As of Wednesday, 122 coronavirus patients no longer required isolation, the Health Department said.

However, Walz cautioned that more waves of coronavirus cases will come and that continued mitigation efforts will need to last months.

“There is no doubt that this is going to take some time,” Walz said. “It's going to be well beyond Easter (April 12), and I don't think it does us any good to pretend that it's not.”

Walz contradicted President Trump, who, against the guidance and wishes of public health experts, said he "would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter."

The DFL governor also said in his Tuesday briefing that University of Minnesota researchers have been working on some modeling data, which would give state officials a better idea of when Minnesota will reach its peak number of COVID-19 cases. That information will help inform Walz and his administration on whether social distancing measures are working as they stand now, or whether adjustments need to be made.

Earlier Tuesday, the Minnesota Hospital Association said it was pulling together plans to gather medical masks and inventory ventilators. A Twin Cities team is working “to collect and get a visual on where this equipment is, where it should be warehoused, who needs it most and how to distribute it,” said Dr. Rahul Koranne, the hospital association president.

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