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Latest on COVID-19 in MN: Death toll increases to 24; state releases list of affected long-term care facilities

Apr 04, 2020 05:54AM ● By Editor
In St. Paul's North End, a homemade lawn sign praises people who must work during the coronavirus pandemic.  Photo: Paul Tosto | MPR News

From Minnesota Public Radio News - April 4, 2020

State health officials reported Saturday that 24 people in Minnesota have died from COVID-19, up from 22 the previous day.

Meanwhile the overall number of confirmed cases in the state increased to 865 on Saturday, up from 789 on Friday. It’s the largest single-day increase in cases so far in Minnesota.

Among other updated numbers released Saturday by the Minnesota Department of Health:

  • 95 people are hospitalized due to COVID-19, with 42 in intensive care.

  • 440 people with confirmed cases of COVID-19 have recovered to the point of no longer needing isolation.

  • State and private labs have completed 25,423 tests, about 1,200 more than on Friday.

Cases have now been reported in 58 counties across the state, though officials said that limited testing means the coronavirus is certainly more widespread across Minnesota than testing indicates. About a third of cases have been attributed to “community transmission” — meaning there was no clear link to travel or other known cases.

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

The Minnesota Department of Health on Saturday started releasing the names of long-term care facilities with COVID-19 cases.

It's the first time health officials have released a list identifying the affected facilities; they had previously cited data privacy concerns for withholding the names. 

According to the new list on the health department's website, 32 facilities in 14 counties have had at least one resident or staff member test positive for COVID-19. Most of those listed are in the Twin Cities metro area, but facilities in Clay, Crow Wing, Faribault, Freeborn, Martin, Olmsted, St. Louis, Wilkin and Winona counties have also had cases.

The list does not include facilities with fewer than 10 residents. Officials said COVID-19 cases at long-term care facilities represent just 3 percent of the state's total confirmed cases.

Gov. Tim Walz on Friday acknowledged the social isolation and economic hit many Minnesotans 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.”

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

In a livestreamed address that seemed equal parts pep talk and PowerPoint, Walz unveiled a new state website to track ICU beds, ventilators and health care worker supplies. He said officials continue to prepare for a surge as well as a likely second wave after hospitalizations peak, adding, "as one Minnesota, we will get through this.”

Later in his regular media briefing, Walz emphasized that the success of the campaign against COVID-19 still rested on the daily actions of Minnesotans willing to stay out of close public contact and slow the spread of the disease so it doesn’t overwhelm the state’s health care system.

While he said he hasn’t made a final call on whether to extend his stay-at-home order past April 10, he indicated Thursday that he was unlikely to reopen public school buildings this spring. On Friday, he noted that current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance calls for stay-at-home efforts to run through April 30. Walz said he is considering whether to alter the restrictions to allow for more outdoor activities, including for landscaping crews and golf courses.

Confirmed COVID-19 cases by age
A graph showing the median age of Minnesota COVID-19 patients

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

Walz and state health officials also acknowledged growing questions in Minnesota and the nation about whether citizens should be wearing non-medical grade masks when they go out in public. Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said that such masks can offer some protection to people around the mask wearer, but she urged people to avoid using the kind needed in medical settings.

State officials continue scrambling to find masks, medical and laboratory supplies in anticipation of a coming surge. 

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. 

Officials on Friday 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 system is implementing a "stay with unit" policy, keeping inmates within the same living unit, rather than letting them commingle. He said system leaders are reviewing cases of nonviolent offenders within 90 days of release for step-down programs that would ease prison crowding.

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.

Beyond his livestreamed remarks and press briefing Friday, Walz is expected to deliver his State of the State speech Sunday at 7 p.m., delivering via YouTube from the governor’s residence.

Developments from around the state

Sanford Health launches 90-minute rapid COVID-19 testing

Sanford Health says it is expanding COVID-19 testing at its four locations using a faster testing method. Sanford says the tests return results in about 90 minutes, making it much easier to manage cases. Previous test results took 24 to 48 hours.

Dr. James Volk, vice president at Sanford in Fargo, N.D., says hospitals in Fargo and Sioux Falls, S.D., will each be able to run 475 of the rapid tests every week.

"That's why at the beginning we're limiting it to inpatients and health care providers where those turnaround times are going to be especially important,” Volk said.

Sanford hopes to expand the testing to Bemidji, Minn., and Bismarck, N.D., next week, adding a total capacity of 15,000 tests per week.

— Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Minneapolis to provide $5M to help low-income families, small businesses

The city of Minneapolis on Friday announced a $5 million funding plan to help small business owners, renters and others struggling financially because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The package includes $2 million dollars for emergency housing assistance for low-income Minneapolis families who have lost significant income because of COVID-19. It also includes zero-interest loans for small businesses.

Mayor Jacob Frey said he hopes the city plan will help fill the gaps in state and federal aid.

"These are a really important first step for helping our communities to hold on. This will be a marathon, and we are just in the starting blocks now," he said.

Frey said the funding package does not require approval by the City Council. The city of St. Paul approved a similar plan earlier this week.

— Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

Hy-Vee adopts one-way grocery aisles

Grocery chain Hy-Vee says it's adding signs to make the aisles in its stores one-way.

It's among several more safety measures the chain announced Friday amid the coronavirus pandemic. The aim of the one-way aisles is to keep shoppers from passing each other and promote social distancing. Signs will be installed over the weekend.

Hy-Vee also is adding more clear plastic panels at checkouts to protect cashiers and customers. And starting Monday, it's asking shoppers to follow a one-person-per-cart rule, to minimize the number of people in stores.

Hy-Vee has more than two dozen grocery stores in southern Minnesota.

— MPR News staff

Hennepin Co. opens third shelter for COVID-19 isolation

Hennepin County has opened a third temporary shelter that can be used as an isolation space. The hotel site is being used exclusively for homeless people and others who are living in congregate arrangements who are awaiting coronavirus test results or who have already tested positive.

The shelter accommodates 44 people in 44 rooms, said David Hewitt, director of the county's Office to End Homelessness."We are expecting to need it," he said. "We know that we need to continue moving rapidly because this is a rapidly evolving crisis and we know we want to have these options before we need them."

So far, there haven't been any positive COVID-19 cases identified among the county's homeless population. But 37 homeless people have been isolated due to possible exposure to the virus and 18 individuals remain sheltered in isolation, said Hewitt.

— Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

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

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 article and see more COVID-19 reporting, follow this link to the MPR News website.

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