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Latest on COVID-19 in MN: Deaths top 500, on pace for 1K by June

May 07, 2020 05:40AM ● By Editor
Medical workers administer drive-up COVID-19 tests outside the Sanford Worthington Clinic in Worthington, Minn., on April 18, 2020. Nobles County, where an outbreak centered around the JBS pork plant in Worthington, continued to have the largest outbreak outside the Twin Cities and the largest by far of any Minnesota county relative to its population.   Photo: Aaron Lavinsky | Star Tribune via AP file

From Minnesota Public Radio News - May 7, 2020

Gov. Tim Walz and state health officials Thursday detailed a new “battle plan” to safeguard Minnesotans living in long-term care facilities from COVID-19. They also braced Minnesotans to expect more cases and deaths across the state, and noted the disease is falling disproportionately on people of color.

Long-term, congregate care operations have concerned officials since the pandemic began, given the medical vulnerability of people living there. About 80 percent of the deaths from COVID-19 in Minnesota involve people living in long-term care. Almost all had underlying health problems.

The new focus includes expanded testing, more personal protective gear for health workers and ensuring “adequate” staffing levels when workers fall ill. 

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm called staffing a “chronic problem” even before the outbreak. Among the options under consideration: bringing in “strike teams” of health care workers furloughed from other jobs who could fill the breach at a facility in need. Walz also suggested National Guard members might be deployed.

1,000 dead by the end of May?

The new plans were unveiled hours after the Health Department reported Minnesota reached two more sad milestones. 

COVID-19 deaths rose to 508 Thursday — 23 more than Wednesday — and total cases since the pandemic began crossed 9,000. The number of patients still hospitalized (435) and in intensive care (182) remained relatively stable from the prior day.

“We are still building toward the peak” of overall COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, Malcolm said of Minnesota’s epidemic. “We are on the steep part of the curve and we’re just going to expect to see more and more cases each day. As we test more, we will find more."

Walz projected that Minnesota’s COVID-19 death toll would reach 1,000 by the end of May at the current pace. "We may be one of the last states to peak. But we're going to peak.”

Malcolm also acknowledged the disease is falling disproportionately on people of color in Minnesota. Case rates among black Minnesotans are twice their proportion of population as a whole and three times the hospitalizations compared to white population, she noted.

Meatpacking remains at the center of case jumps

Total confirmed COVID-19 cases hit 9,365, up 786 from Wednesday, the largest single-day jump in cases. It continues a string of days of accelerating case counts as testing for the virus intensifies.

Many of the recent outbreaks outside the Twin Cities metro area are focused around meatpacking plants. Officials have accelerated testing in those hot spots, uncovering more infections.

Southwestern Minnesota’s Nobles County, where an outbreak centered around the JBS pork plant in Worthington, continued to have the largest outbreak outside the Twin Cities and the largest by far of any Minnesota county relative to its population. 

About 1 in 20 people in Nobles County have tested positive for COVID-19. In mid-April , there were just a handful of cases. On Thursday, there were 1,153 confirmed cases as testing in the region ramped up. 

The JBS plant shut on April 20 and partially reopened Wednesdaywith expanded hygiene and health monitoring measures.

COVID-19 cases per capita in Minnesota counties

Similar problems have been reported in Stearns County, where COVID-19 cases tied to two packing plants — Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant in Cold Spring and Jennie-O Turkey in Melrose — have skyrocketed. An undisclosed number of workers at both plants have tested positive for the virus. 

There were 55 confirmed coronavirus cases in Stearns early last week. By Sunday, as testing intensified, there were 589. And by Thursday confirmed cases had jumped to 1,161, surpassing Nobles County.

Kandiyohi County in west-central Minnesota is also seeing cases jump two weeks after officials with the Jennie-O turkey processing plant there said some employees had tested positive for the coronavirus. The county had confirmed three COVID-19 cases back then. On Thursday, the Health Department reported 238 people have now tested positive.

‘Tiny bit of breathing room’ on medical gear

One of Gov. Tim Walz’s goals as the pandemic hit was controlling the spread of the disease so it doesn’t overwhelm the health care system. His administration argued that stay-at-home orders and other measures to keep people out of crowded public spaces bought the system time to secure supplies and prepare for the surge.

There was some good news Wednesday on that front: Officials say Minnesota appears to be doing better now securing the protective gear it needs for health care workers following an early, frustrating scramble for supplies at the start of the pandemic.

The market has stabilized somewhat and the state now had “a tiny bit of breathing room” to better consider the costs and risks of equipment purchases, Alice Roberts-Davis, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Administration, told reporters. Hospitals also seem to be getting the supplies they need through normal channels, she added.

She cautioned, however, that acquiring N95 masks and gowns, gear crucial to health care worker safety, was was still a challenge and that the “burn rate” through those stockpiles will increase as Minnesota hospitalizations continue to rise toward peak.

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

Of Minnesota’s total positive tests for COVID-19, 1,205, about 13 percent, have been health care workers, the Health Department reported Thursday.

Nearly all of those Minnesotans who’ve died from COVID-19 to date were living in long-term care facilities and had underlying health problems. On Wednesday, 391 of the 485 total deaths were people living in long-term care or assisted living facilities, according to the Health Department. 

Asked why Minnesota’s death rate for the disease appears higher than other states, Ehresmann said the state’s intense focus on older people in congregate, long-term care settings led the state to confirm more cases and deaths in that vulnerable population, and that other states may be missing deaths tied COVID-19.

Some businesses back to work, others frustrated

The governor has said about 91 percent of Minnesota’s workforce is now able to return to their workplaces with hygiene and distancing rules in place, under his tweaked stay-at-home order. Restrictions have also been loosed on some retailers, allowing customers to buy online and pick up goods curbside. On Wednesday, he gave the OK to restart elective surgeries and dental services. 

Still some Republicans and some businesses have prodded Walz to move faster.

Earlier this week a Twin Cities barbershop owner publicly defied Walz’s order and opened his shop to customers. Leaders in the town of Lakefield, in southwestern Minnesota, recently voted to support businesses that want to defy Walz’s order and reopen. In northwestern Minnesota, the Thief River Falls City Council asked for their city to be exempt from the order.

Walz on Thursday acknowledged the seeming unfairness that a small-town retailer would have to stay closed while a big-box store competitor nearby was allowed to stay open. He hinted that more latitude with retail business is coming down the pike. 

"I think they've done a heck of a lot of work towards that," he said.

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

Walz says fish near home for Saturday’s opener

The governor on Thursday reiterated the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources call for anglers to stay close to home for this weekend's fishing opener. Officials are asking anglers not to stay overnight, to bring all the supplies they need, and to only travel as far as they can go and return on a single tank of gas.

The DNR has already sold more than 350,000 fishing licenses this year. The department says it doesn't anticipate issuing citations and plans to continue to use an educational approach to enforcing the stay-at-home order.

Fishing resorts are open, although many are reporting large numbers of cancellations.

Walz said while Minnesota wouldn’t be setting up roadblocks at the borders to keep out anglers from the Dakotas and Wisconsin, but “our guidance is to stay close to home. The more people travel, the more the spread.” 

He also urged people who are driving north for fishing not to stop for gas or food.

“This is not about defying an order that I put out,” he said. “This is about defying public health warnings. This is about defying the science of how this spreads.”

Developments from around the state

Churches, small business owners sue Gov. Walz to end stay-home order

A group of small business owners and churches are plaintiffs in a lawsuit asking the U.S. District Court for Minnesota to strike down Gov. Tim Walz's stay-at-home order.

The churches are asking that they be allowed to hold in-person services. The businesses include a chain of hair salons, a gift shop and a mini-golf course in Blaine. They're arguing that Walz's orders violate the Constitution and that they deserve compensation.

Attorney Doug Seaton said the plaintiffs feel like they've been unfairly asked to close while businesses like liquor stores remain open.

"They're very upset about it, so they've lost income in the case of the businesses, and they've lost the ability to conduct services on the part of the churches,” Seaton said. “These businesses and churches can all select the CDC guidelines but they've been selected as the victims of the governor's orders even though equally positioned other businesses and organizations are carrying on their activities.”

The governor's office says he was forced to take drastic action, but that it's well within his authority and similar to what other states are doing to protect citizens. State Attorney General Keith Ellison said in a statement Wednesday that his office hasn’t seen the lawsuit, but “I don’t need to see the specifics of the lawsuit to know that it’s a distraction from what we all need to be focused on — fighting the pandemic.”

“Let’s be clear that they’re choosing to play politics rather than focus on keeping people safe,” Ellison said.

— Jon Collins | MPR News

DNR to anglers: Stay close to home for Saturday’s fishing opener

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is urging anglers to stay close to home for this weekend's fishing opener. Officials are asking anglers not to stay overnight, to bring all the supplies they need, and to only travel as far as they can go and return on a single tank of gas.

Commissioner Sarah Strommen said the point is to protect rural communities.

“We know that that travel is one of the ways that the [corona]virus can spread that’s particularly true for some of our rural communities that may have more virus vulnerable populations,” Strommen said.

The DNR has already sold more than 350,000 fishing licenses this year. The department says it doesn't anticipate issuing citations and plans to continue to use an educational approach to enforcing the stay-at-home order.

Fishing resorts are open, although many are reporting large numbers of cancellations.

— Dan Kraker | MPR News

MN Senate staffer tests positive for COVID-19

A Minnesota Senate staff member has tested positive for COVID-19, leading to the self-quarantine of senators and staff who might have been in contact with the person.

Senators and staff were alerted to the case within the past day and told that the Senate Republican caucus employee helped with contact tracing to determine who might have been in proximity to the infected person.

“All staff and senators who may have come in contact with this individual have been notified and have been advised to self quarantine,” one of two emails to Senate employees and members said. MPR News reviewed both emails.

It’s not clear how many staff members or lawmakers are being instructed to stay away from the Capitol and for how long. A Senate Republican spokesperson said she did not have that information Wednesday.

The disclosure comes as the Legislature moves into its busiest period with the May 18 adjournment bearing down. Many lawmakers and legislative aides have been working remotely since March as a precaution, but some have had to come to the Capitol to help develop and pass bills.

In March, a Minnesota House employee was presumed to have been infected and similar isolation steps were put in place.

The Capitol has been undergoing additional cleaning, lawmakers have been spread out during sessions and other social distance measures have been in place for several weeks.

— Brian Bakst | MPR News

Minnesota OKs using food aid to buy groceries online

People who get federal food assistance in Minnesota will be able to shop online for groceries as soon as next month.

The state’s Department of Human Services has a green light from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make the benefits available for online ordering at local grocery stores.

Assistant Commissioner Nikki Farago said recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits can already use Walmart or Amazon in other states under federal rules, but the expansion will make it available in Minnesota and at many other stores.

Farago said her agency is working with stores and its electronic benefit transfer card provider to make changes to the system, likely to go into effect in June.

About 378,000 low-income people in Minnesota get SNAP benefits, about 40 percent of them children.

— Tim Nelson | MPR News

Top headlines

Pork processing resumes at JBS plant shut down by pandemic: The move comes a week after an executive order from President Trump designed to get the country’s meat supply chain back up and running.

Minnesota resorts worry about their survival: Many vacationers are canceling resort reservations because of the coronavirus pandemic. Some resorts have chosen not to open at all. Those that do are having to reimagine the summer experience in the era of social distancing.

Pandemic brings fewer drivers, more speeding to Minnesota highways: The rush in speeding shows up in multiple ways in an MPR News analysis of speeding tickets issued by the Minnesota State Patrol, which enforces traffic laws on Minnesota highways.

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Health officials for weeks have been increasingly raising the alarm over the spread of the novel coronavirus in the United States. The disease is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.

Government and medical leaders are urging people to wash their hands frequently and well, refrain from touching their faces, cover their coughs, disinfect surfaces and avoid large crowds, all in an effort to curb the virus’ rapid spread.

The state of Minnesota has temporarily closed schools, while administrators work to determine next steps, and is requiring a temporary closure of all in-person dining at restaurants, bars and coffee shops, as well as theaters, gyms, yoga studios and other spaces in which people congregate in close proximity.

To read the original article and see more CVOID-19 reporting, follow this link the MPR News website.

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