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Health panel hears bill to distribute free masks, COVID-19 antigen tests to Minnesota residents

Is the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic behind us or is it yet to come?

Although some of us are breathing a sigh of relief now that the pandemic seems to be waning, we can’t let our guard down, said Rep. Liz Boldon (DFL-Rochester).

“We don’t know what the future holds. Worldwide, less than 59 percent of the population is fully vaccinated and this leaves the door open for new variants and future waves.”

She sponsors HF3862, which would direct the Department of Health to distribute free COVID-19 tests, masks, and respirators to Minnesotans.

The House Health Finance and Policy Committee laid the bill over, as amended, Friday for possible omnibus bill inclusion.

The department would ship the free COVID-19 antigen tests, masks, and respirators — including KN95 respirators — directly to individuals, but they could also be distributed through local health departments, COVID community coordinators, and other community-based organizations.

“Providing these tools to those who want them will allow Minnesotans to take the actions we know will keep each other safe,” Boldon said.

The Health Department may prioritize distribution to communities and populations disproportionately affected by COVID-19 or who have difficulty accessing COVID-19 tests, masks, or respirators.

The bill would make a yet-to-be-determined appropriation in fiscal year 2022 to fund the program.

“My colleagues and I know all too well the threat that COVID still poses to Minnesotans of all ages,” said Dr. Caleb Schultz, an anesthesiologist at Hennepin Healthcare and a Twin Cities Medical Society board member.

The virus will change quickly, and public health agencies must also be prepared to change quickly in response, he said.

“While we all hope we are done battling with COVID-19, hope is not a strategy,” Schultz said. “We must remain vigilant, and our state must be prepared for future surges.”

Sen. Melissa Wiklund (DFL-Bloomington) sponsors the companion bill, SF3904, which awaits action by the Senate Health and Human Services Finance and Policy Committee.

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