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Minnesota Legislature speeds $21M in coronavirus money



ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Minnesota Legislature voted unanimously Monday to earmark nearly $21 million to reinforce the state’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, putting the bill on the fast track to Gov. Tim Walz’s desk.

“They’re working in a totally nonpartisan manner, trying to work out just a few technical details,” the Democratic governor told reporters shortly before the 64-0 vote in the Republican-controlled Senate.

“This is a bipartisan effort and it’s the way government should work,” said GOP Sen. Jerry Relph, of St. Cloud, the lead author in the Senate.

The Democratic-controlled House, passed the bill soon afterward, 133-0, sending it back to the Senate for what was expected to a quick concurrence with a technical language change. Walz is expected to sign the bill Tuesday.

Walz said it’s highly likely that Minnesota will need to come up with more than the money under discussion Monday, but he said that’s what state agencies think they need for now. Several lawmakers agreed that more money eventually will be needed as the outbreak spreads.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover. In mainland China, where the virus first exploded, more than 80,000 people have been diagnosed and more than 58,000 have so far recovered.

The bill adds $20.9 million to a public health emergency account that already contains $4.6 million. The new money could only be used for responding to the current outbreak, while the older money could also be used for future disease outbreaks. The Minnesota Department of Health plans to use the money for staff costs, expanded testing and protective equipment.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, of Brooklyn Park, said committees in her chamber this week will consider additional legislation to address the crisis, starting Tuesday.

One of those bills would expand the governor’s power to declare peacetime emergencies to include public health emergencies. It would also set up a loan fund for health care providers that struggle to cope with the epidemic.

The department has recorded two cases of COVID-19 in Minnesota, a Ramsey County case that was confirmed Friday and a Carver County case confirmed Sunday. On Monday, the department said as many as 20 Minnesotans might have had contact with the second patient before that person knew they were infected, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, of East Gull Lake, said after the Senate vote that it’s important to take the threat seriously, but to remain calm. He pointed out that the seasonal flu has resulted in many more illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths in Minnesota and nationally.

“We expect more cases but we’re going to be able to navigate through it if people just follow the guidelines that they do for the flu,” he said. “Cover your cough when you’re coughing, wash your hands, if you’re sick stay at home.”

Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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