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Latest on COVID-19 in Minnesota: Hospitals brace for rapid expansion

Mar 25, 2020 06:02AM ● By Editor
People load boxes of N95 masks on Tuesday in St. Paul. The collected masks are being taken to the State Emergency Operations Center to be distributed to hospitals.  Photo: Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

From Minnesota Public Radio News - March 25, 2020

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

Constructing makeshift hospitals in school gymnasiums or hotels was an option the state's emergency manager, Joe Kelly, put on the table as 15 Minnesota coronavirus patients remained hosiptalized with the need for beds and health system capacity was expected to increase in the coming days.

"We're in good shape now but we need to be prepared to expand that system very quickly,” Kelly said.

Over 260 cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed as of Tuesday, but the actual number of cases is likely at least 10 times higher, according to Health Department officials. 

Seven coronavirus patients are currently in intensive care, Walz said Tuesday, which is why it's critical people continue taking measures aimed at “bending the curve.”

There were 88 coronavirus patients who tested positive but no longer need to be isolated, according to the state Health Department. 

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.”

However, he 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. 

Developments from around the state

Overnight curfew imposed on the Red Lake Reservation

The Red Lake Band of Chippewa is imposing a nighttime curfew in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. The resolution from the tribal council prohibits people from being outside from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. unless they're going to or from a job or they have a medical emergency.

Red Lake Tribal Secretary Sam Strong said businesses on the reservation are closed at night anyway, so there's not much reason for people to be out.

"We do have an at-risk community here. And so we are very much inclined to take actions that protect the well-being of our elders and those most at risk for complications," said Strong.

The council will decide whether to continue the curfew in about a month.

Around 8,500 people live on the northern Minnesota reservation. Strong says he knows of no confirmed cases of COVID-19 on the reservation.

— Matt Sepic | MPR News

Cook County board asks tourists, second-home owners to stay away — for now

The Cook County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved an advisory on Tuesday, asking tourists and seasonal property owners not to visit the North Shore county.

The commissioners say Cook County, which lies at the tip of Minnesota's Arrowhead region and borders Canada, Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters, lacks the health care infrastructure to care for visitors. And more than a quarter of its population is 65 or older, the second highest percentage in the state.

The advisory is not legally enforceable. It's modeled after a similar advisory passed by Bayfield County in northwest Wisconsin.

Most resorts in the region have closed or have announced plans to temporarily shut down. Tourism makes up more than 80 percent of the economy in Cook County, which includes four state parks, the Gunflint Trail, and the towns of Lutsen, Tofte and Grand Marais.

"As much as we love these people and we need them there and they’re an important part of our community and economy, right now is not the time for them to be here,” said Jim Boyd, the executive director of the Cook County Chamber of Commerce, which supported the move.

— Dan Kraker | MPR News

Attorney General Ellison cracks down on price-gouging

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison says his office began its enforcement efforts immediately after the governor’s executive order banning price-gouging on essential goods during the COVID-19 peacetime emergency went into effect Saturday.

Ellison said so far, his office has received more than 300 price-gouging complaints on goods and services. Those include toilet paper, rice, cleaning products, face masks, eggs, butter and water. Ellison's office has made more than 70 visits to Minnesota retailers during the past four day to check prices and investigate complaints of price-gouging.

Ellison’s office on Tuesday said it has sent a warning letter to the Eau Claire, Wis.-based retailer Menards, following complaints of price gouging on cleaning supplies, bleach and face masks. The attorney general also said that it forced a St. Paul tobacco shop to reduce prices after allegedly charging $80 for a 36-pack of toilet paper.

“I will do everything in my power to help ensure Minnesotans can afford their lives and are protected from pandemic profiteering by people who are trying to line their pockets during this crisis at Minnesotans’ expense,” Ellison said in a statement. The Democratic attorney general said anyone who sees price-gouging on essential goods should report it to his office immediately.

— Matt Sepic | MPR News and The Associated Press

Jobless claims continue to jump

Minnesotans claims for unemployment insurance continue to soar following the closure of many restaurants and other businesses because of the coronavirus outbreak.

“We're up to 149,443 applications for unemployment insurance, about a third of those in the food preparation services industry,” Steve Grove, commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development, said Tuesday.

Not everyone who applies for benefits may qualify, including people who are self-employed.

During the Great Recession, the number of people collecting unemployment benefits peaked at about 111,000 in June 2009, according to data collected by Grove’s agency. Minnesota’s unemployment rate hit 8 percent during the Great Recession and reached nearly 9 percent in the early 1980s.

— Martin Moylan | MPR News

To read the original story and read related COVID-19 reporting, follow this link to the MPR News website.

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