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Walz: Minnesota must keep its guard up as COVID-19 surge approaches

Apr 03, 2020 02:27PM ● By Editor
Governor Walz spoke via teleconference from his home.  Photo:  MPR

From Minnesota Public Radio News - April 3, 2020

Gov. Tim Walz on Friday acknowledged the social isolation and economic hit many are taking in the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented and painful. But he urged the state to hang tough to continue slowing the disease’s spread, warning “this thing will come roaring back.”

Speaking to the state via livestream, Walz’s remarks were equal parts pep talk and PowerPoint. 

He said the state was rolling out a website to track ICU beds, ventilators, health care worker supplies, and provide information for people dealing with the illness. Officials continue to prepare for a surge and a likely second wave after hospitalizations peak, he added.

"Slowing COVID-19 absolutely saves lives,” he said. “Building up that capacity in hospitals gives us the time necessary to start moving this further down the road so we get closer to antibiotics."

Twenty-two Minnesotans have died from COVID-19, up four from Thursday, while 86 are hospitalized — 40 in intensive care; 789 Minnesotans have tested positive since the pandemic began, with more than half recovered to the point they no longer need isolation.

Walz and state health leaders are now briefing reporters on the latest efforts to slow the disease’s spread so it doesn’t overwhelm the state’s health care system.

Of the four latest deaths, three were people living in group care facilities while the fourth had underlying health problems, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said. 

Officials also noted cases of COVID-19 in two state prison system facilities, including 20 prisoners and two staff at the Moose Lake facility who either have the disease or are presumed to have it. Two corrections staff members at the juvenile facility in Red Wing also tested positive.

Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell said the prison system is implementing a "stay with unit" policy, the equivalent of a "stay at home" plan, that would keep people within the same living unit, rather than letting them co-mingle.

Walz has a number of decisions coming up that will affect the state, including whether to extend his stay-at-home order beyond April 10. 

While the governor on Friday didn’t say whether he’d extend the order, he noted repeatedly that efforts to keep people out of close contact in public places had pushed back the expected peak of hospitalizations, buying more time for officials to secure needed supplies and make preparations.

“The danger is still here,” he said. “The peak will come to Minnesota.”

A graph showing the number of COVID-19 positive cases to date

He must also decide whether to keep public school buildings closed beyond early May. On Thursday, he conceded there was only a "relatively slim" chance of Minnesota school buildings reopening this year, calling it a "heartbreaking" situation for families and students, especially those in the 2020 graduating class. 

Walz did say Friday that he’d spoken with Minnesota food and farming leaders earlier in the day and that the state's food supply chain is "solid."

State officials continue scrambling to find medical and laboratory supplies as COVID-19 continues sending more Minnesotans to the hospital. 

Beyond the updates of cases and deaths, the Health Department Friday reported:

  • Among those who have died in Minnesota, ages run from 58 to 95. 

  • 56 of 87 Minnesota counties have a confirmed COVID-19 case.

  • An estimated 32 percent of COVID-19 cases have likely come from community spread, the greatest probable source of exposure to this point.

Martin County on the Minnesota-Iowa border continues to account for the largest number of cases outside of the Twin Cities metro area and Rochester. The total number of Martin County cases rose to 32, up from 29 Wednesday and Thursday. Officials said earlier in the week that three deaths in the county were tied to COVID-19. 

State officials continue to work to try and ease the financial burden falling on many Minnesotans with much of the consumer economy on hold. Walz has expressed hope that state and federal aid packages will be enough to keep people afloat.

On Thursday, Minnesota Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley said Minnesota’s major health plans — including Blue Cross, HealthPartners and Medica — have agreed to waive in-network cost-sharing for policy holders needing treatment tied to COVID-19, at least through May.

"If you get sick with COVID-19, your focus should only be on getting better and recovering,” he said “You shouldn't have to worry about getting a bill that could ruin you financially, especially during this difficult time.”

The health plans have not committed to cover sharing costs for out-of-network service but the Commerce Department continues to talk with them about it, Kelley added.

A graph showing the percentage of cases tested and their current status

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Developments from around the state

MOA to host blood drives

The Mall of American remains closed for shoppers because of COVID-19 but it will soon be used as a temporary blood drive site.

The mall will host American Red Cross blood drives April 7-8 and 17-18 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the north atrium. Organizers say the largest mall in North America provides a spacious place to practice safe social distancing guidelines.

People donating must make an appointment ahead of time on the American Red Cross website.

The Red Cross says it supplies 40 percent of the country's blood supply, which has been reduced because of the coronavirus pandemic.

— Nina Moini | MPR News

Minneapolis park pools, beaches won't open this summer

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board announced Thursday that it won't open the city's beaches, wading pools and water parks this summer because of the coronavirus outbreak.

In a statement, the park board said "the level of public congregation that takes place at aquatic facilities and the level of staff required to operate these facilities will make it impossible to open and manage these facilities safely this summer."

Restrooms in city parks also will remain closed, though some portable toilets will be available.

Officials also announced that all Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board spring and summer events are canceled through Aug. 31, including spring and summer sports leagues that can't follow social distancing rules. And most seasonal and temporary summer jobs in Minneapolis parks will not be filled this year.

The Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden also will remain closed, because its narrow paths don't allow for social distancing.

Parks and trails, including off-leash dog parks, remain open in Minneapolis, though officials urged people to follow social distancing rules. Find more information here

— Andrew Krueger | MPR News

U plan to refund student fees draws scrutiny

University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel will present a proposal to regents on Friday for refunding student fees after some students complained about being shortchanged. 

The university earlier said it would issue a flat credit of $1,200 for housing and dining fees to students who had to move off campus due to the COVID-19 outbreak. 

But U of M students typically pay more than $5,000 per semester for room and board. Some students circulated online petitions urging the U to refund a larger amount. 

One state legislator said he planned to draft a bill requiring Minnesota's colleges and universities to refund at least 90 percent of students' unused room and board costs.

— Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

Sheriff's office offers to check seasonal properties

The sheriff in western Minnesota's Otter Tail County says deputies will check on seasonal properties — if those property owners stay away during the coronavirus pandemic.

Sheriff Barry Fitzgibbons said his office has an online form property owners can fill out, and deputies will respond when they aren't busy with more urgent calls.

"Now it's just an exterior property check; we're not going in anybody's property, of course," he said. "But (we're) just trying to help out those seasonal property owners that want to come up and check their property. We will assist with that" so they can stay home.

Otter Tail County officials said there are about 8,500 seasonal properties in the county.

"Please, please with sugar on top — wait to come to your seasonal properties," said Nick Leonard, deputy county administrator. "Our health care providers have been really clear. They can't address the COVID issue and see an influx of 30,000, 40,000 people at the same time."

— Dan Gunderson | MPR News

To read the original stories and see more COVID-19 reporting follow this link to the MPR website.

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