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Latest on COVID-19 in MN: Deaths top 300; total cases top 4K

Apr 28, 2020 05:46AM ● By Editor
A dog checks out a health worker who talks to a driver in line for a coronavirus test at People's Center on Monday in Minneapolis during expanded coronavirus testing as Gov. Tim Walz tries to get the numbers of tests up.   Photo: Jim Mone | AP Photo file

From Minnesota Public Radio News - April 28, 2020

Minnesota farmers are being force to euthanize hogs with nowhere to sell the animals now that COVID-19 outbreaks have shuttered several regional pork processing plants. 

That’s among the latest of the ever-growing economic toll from the coronavirus. Minnesota’s average daily death toll from the virus is doubling in about a week’s time, indicating that the state hasn’t reached the pandemic’s peak — let alone the two-week decline that federal health officials recommend before significantly loosening restrictions. 

While the food supply is stable, the hog farmers face a “very precarious situation,” said Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen. So do many other Minnesotans — nearly 300 of whom are in the hospital for COVID-19.

The latest coronavirus statistics

  • 3,816 cases confirmed via 61,268 tests

  • 286 deaths

  • 861 cases requiring hospitalization

  • 292 people remain in the hospital; 122 in intensive care

  • 1,842 patients recovered

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

Nobles County continues to be the largest COVID-19 cluster outside the Twin Cities. The outbreak there is focused around the JBS pork processing plant in Worthington, which has since closed. 

With major processing operations in Minnesota and South Dakota idled, Petersen said officials are “looking for homes” at smaller processors for 100,00 to 200,000 hogs a week.

"The decision to euthanize animals is very emotional,” he said.

Confirmed COVID-19 cases in Nobles County home to Worthington

Testing increase slowed by ‘logistical’ issues

Minnesota health officials continue to say that limited coronavirus testing means that confirmed cases are only a small piece of the disease’s true spread.

Last week, Gov. Tim Walz unveiled plans for testing many more people — as many as 20,000 a day. However, current increases in testing have been more limited. 

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Monday that the laboratories and health care providers were still dealing with “logistical issues” tied to the ramp-up but that officials were still shooting to complete 5,000 daily tests by next week.

The laboratories and health care providers were still dealing with “logistical issues” tied to the testing increase, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Monday, but officials are still shooting to complete 5,000 daily tests by next week.

Increased testing will be critical in Minnesota leaders’ decisions to reopen Minnesota. While Walz has issued a a new set of standards for certain manufacturing, industrial and office workers to return to the job, it’s unclear how quickly businesses will move. 

"What we're basically hearing from the largest employers to the smaller-size employers is that they're going to move pretty cautiously. They're still working through their own internal protocols about how they would invite people back into the office,” said Steve Cramer, CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council.

Walz’s current stay-at-home order lasts until May 4, and he will announce this week whether the restrictions are going to last longer.Minnesota’s COVID-19 toll continued its grim ascent Tuesday, with the Health Department reporting 15 more deaths tied to the disease, putting the total at 301 since the pandemic began.

The number of people currently hospitalized jumped to 314, although those needing intensive care dipped slightly to 120. The state’s recorded 4,181 total positive tests for the disease with about 46 percent recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.

The newest numbers come a day after Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen made clear the economic woes the state’s hog producers face as COVID-19 keeps two major pork processing plants shuttered. With those plants down, farmers have nowhere to sell the animals and are starting to destroy them.

While the food supply is stable, the hog farmers face a “very precarious situation,” he said.

More big decisions this week

Walz will announce this week whether he’ll continue or end his stay-at-home order that runs through May.

The same goes for restrictions on bars, restaurants that have been closed to all but takeout and delivery since the middle of March. 

Both sets of curbs are due to end next Monday, barring extensions. Right now, travel that isn’t considered essential is still discouraged and workplaces that aren’t explicitly exempt should stay closed. And for now people can’t get a drink or a bite to eat in a restaurant, only to-go.

Even as factory and some office workers return to their job sites this week, Walz has made it clear that places that depend on public crowds, including bars, eateries and big sporting events, will be the last ones to return to normal business operations.

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

SW Minnesota outbreaks and the meat supply

Nobles County continues to be the largest COVID-19 cluster outside the Twin Cities. The outbreak there is focused around the JBS pork processing plant in Worthington, which has since closed. 

Cases leaped on Tuesday, with 477 cases reported. That jump in COVID-19 discoveries is being driven by the jump in testing in the region and the Health Department’s focus in identifying cases there.

The county has the largest number of cases by far in Minnesota relative to its population.

COVID-19 cases per capita in Minnesota counties
COVID-19 cases per capita in Minnesota counties
David H. Montgomery | MPR News

With JBS and a nearby massive South Dakota facility idled, Petersen said officials are “looking for homes” at smaller processors for 100,00 to 200,000 hogs a week. The reality, though, is that thousands of hogs will have to be destroyed before they get to market.

"The decision to euthanize animals is very emotional,” he said.

On Tuesday, President Trump ordered meat processing plants in the nation to stay open during the pandemic. The parameters of that weren’t clear, but Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said the idea seemed “problematic to say the least” given how the spread of the disease in Nobles County is tied at least partly to the JBS plant.

Testing increase slowed by ‘logistical’ issues

Minnesota health officials continue to say that limited coronavirus testing means that confirmed cases are only a small piece of the disease’s true spread and that a massive ramp-up in daily testing is needed to help manage the spread while reopening sectors of the economy.

Last week, Gov. Tim Walz unveiled plans for testing many more people — as many as 20,000 a day — under a partnership with Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota. 

Malcolm said Monday that the laboratories and health care providers were still dealing with “logistical issues” tied to the ramp-up but that officials were still shooting to complete 5,000 daily tests by next week.

On Tuesday, the state reported more than 2,500 tests completed in the prior day for COVID-19 infections, a sign that efforts to boost testing for the disease are taking hold.

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

More testing, more cases

State health leaders emphasized that the cases will rise significantly as testing jumps in coming weeks, and that the public should not be alarmed by that.

They also acknowledged that Minnesota doesn’t have the capacity yet to test everyone they want to test. 

"We're not where we need to be on testing,” Dan Huff, the state’s assistant health commissioner, said Monday. “We know this is a ramp-up. This is not something you flip a light switch and it comes on."

The department, he added, was also working to add investigators, known as contact tracers, who track down those who’ve come into contact with someone discovered to have COVID-19. With state government currently in a hiring freeze, people within the Health Department and local public health units are being trained.

Malcolm and others have said they have a goal in the next few weeks of testing everyone showing COVID-19 symptoms. Some of the biggest concerns continue to be long-term care facilities. While those have been a priority for the Health Department, Malcolm said the agency was not in a position yet to test every person in those facilities.

"We're still in the position of needing to set some priorities for testing,” said Malcolm. ”In complete candor it would not be something we would be able to do immediately."

Officials also cautioned the public to temper expectations of antibody testing that might show an immunity developed in some people to COVID-19.

The research hasn't been completed yet on the level of COVID-19 immunity in patients who’ve recovered or how long that immunity lasts, said Dr. Ruth Lynfield, the state epidemiologist.

Even for those people who’ve developed antibodies, "we cannot say you are not going to get infected again because we do not know that, Lynfield said.

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