Updated 5:10 p.m.
Minnesota’s top health official on Friday defended extending the state’s stay-at-home order as necessary in the face of rapidly rising numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths.
While state leaders recognize the disruptions to daily life, “we do have sort of an index of caution around the fact that we’re seeing the case numbers increase rapidly” as testing ramps up, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters Friday.
Health authorities, she added, have been “very sobered” by outbreaks in southwestern Minnesota and other hot spots, and “at a time when we feel like we’re just getting our arms around the true spread of the disease, there’s some reluctance to open more broadly.”
Malcolm’s remarks came hours after her department reported 371 Minnesotans have now died from the disease, 28 more than Thursday; 369 remain hospitalized with 118 in intensive care. Total cases since the pandemic began leaped again by nearly 600, to 5,730, as testing accelerated.
The big jumps in cases discovered the past few days, driven by the testing increase, pushed down the percentage of people who’ve recovered from the disease since the pandemic began to around 40 percent. Prior to this week, recoveries had been running about half of total cases.
Noting that federal guidelines recommend states don’t start to reopen their economies before seeing a two-week downward trend in COVID-19 cases, Malcolm said: “We’re a long way from that.”
Stay-home order extended for two more weeks
The latest numbers come a day after Gov. Tim Walz extended his stay-at-home order but allowed some additional retail store operations. Bars and restaurants, however, remain takeout-only until May 18.
Retailers and other businesses will be able to offer curbside pickup of purchases starting Monday, putting up to 30,000 Minnesotans back on the job, the governor’s office said. Dog groomers can work, too, if pets are picked up and dropped off curbside.
Other customer-focused businesses, however, will likely remain disappointed. For example, salons and barbershops can sell products for curbside pickup but still can’t provide haircuts or other in-shop services.
“Even as we reopen it’s not going to be the same,” Walz said Thursday, but “there is every reason to be positive that Minnesota is going the right way.”
Earlier this week, Walz allowed some factory and office workers who don’t have customer-facing jobs back into their work spaces, with safeguards. On Wednesday, he expressed hope that smaller businesses could soon reopen with social distancing and other hygiene measures in place.
The governor, though, has made clear that places that depend on public crowds, including bars, eateries and big sporting events, would be among the last to return to normal business operations.
As restrictions relax and testing ramps up, health leaders said Minnesotans should expect to see the COVID-19 outbreak widen, but they expressed confidence that Minnesota’s health care system was prepared to deal with an expected surge of cases and hospitalizations.
A new effort between the state, Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota to dramatically ramp-up testing in Minnesota and quickly identify and isolate COVID-19 cases appears to be paying off.
The state on Thursday reported 3,279 completed tests from the prior day — the first time daily testing topped 3,000. On Friday, the state topped 4,000 tests for the first time, reporting 4,124 completed.
Walz said the state should be testing 5,000 people daily as part of the plan to reopen the economy.
Malcolm on Friday offered some good news on that front. She said federal officials have come through with supplies of nasal swabs crucial to the state’s testing ramp-up, which will help give Minnesota access to a total of 190,000 swabs during May.
Long-term care facility concerns
Most of those in Minnesota who’ve died from COVID-19 were living in long-term care facilities and and had underlying health problems. Because of that, state officials have made testing and investigation of those centers a priority.
Forty-seven deaths are tied to one facility, the St. Therese nursing home in New Hope, northwest of downtown Minneapolis.
There are more than 100 facilities in the state with at least one COVID-19 case, although many have only one or two cases. Twenty-one facilities have 20 or more cases said Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director.
“We’re seeing COVID in the facilities because it’s in the community,” said Ehresmann, noting one of COVID-19’s more alarming traits — people without symptoms can have the virus and spread it.
SW Minnesota outbreak, meat supply concerns widen
As testing accelerates, more cases are discovered. That’s especially true in southwestern Minnesota, where an outbreak centered in Nobles County around the massive JBS pork plant in Worthington continues to mushroom.
Confirmed cases in the county jumped from one on April 13 to 866 on Friday. It’s the largest outbreak in Minnesota outside the Twin Cities and the largest by far relative to the county’s population.
Beyond the ill and unemployed workers, the cascading effects of the shutdown of JBS and of the massive Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., are also hitting pork producers hard. With those plants down, farmers have few places to sell the animals and so are being forced to destroy them.
At a Wednesday press conference, Minnesota DFL U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson said state officials together with JBS executives and union leaders would be working on a plan that would allow the plant to reopen while keeping workers safe and tested as they enter.
Kandiyohi County in west-central Minnesota is also seeing cases jump a week after officials with the Jennie-O turkey processing plant said some employees had tested positive for the coronavirus.
A week ago, the county where the Willmar plant is located had confirmed three COVID-19 cases. On Friday, the state Health Department reported 135 people in Kandiyohi County have now tested positive.
Stearns County in central Minnesota is also reporting a big jump in coronavirus cases tied to two meatpacking plants.
The county started the week with 55 positive cases of COVID-19. On Friday, the number had mushroomed to 435 as testing intensified.
Pandemic could last two years, U scientists say
The COVID-19 outbreak will likely last 18 to 24 months, according to new report by University of Minnesota researchers.
COVID-19 appears to spread more easily than flu because of a longer incubation period and more spread among people who have no symptoms, the U’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy writes.
With only an estimated 5 to 15 percent of the U.S. population infected at this point, the country should expect more waves of illness, and it likely won’t end until 60 to 70 percent of the population is immune, the scientists said.
Deal near on elective surgeries, dental visits
Walz said Thursday that talks are underway with medical professionals about restarting elective surgeries and dental care visits.
The governor had put a hold on those procedures to preserve crucial protective gear and equipment needed to respond to a surge in COVID-19 cases. On Thursday, he said that hospitals, so far, have enough gear to handle the cases.
On Friday morning, Walz told WCCO radio that an announcement on elective medical procedures would probably come on Monday.
State officials also said it’s possible that restarting routine dental visits could also be on the same timeline as elective surgeries.
Developments from around the state
Nurses at Children’s Minnesota vote on furloughs, wage freeze
A tentative agreement between nurses and Children’s Minnesota would result in a wage freeze and furloughs for 181 full-time positions. Nurses at the hospital are voting on the agreement Friday.
Jennifer Olson, Children’s Minnesota’s senior vice president, said the state’s halt on elective surgeries is a challenge. Pediatric hospitals like Children’s, Olson said, are in a unique situation.
“We don’t anticipate treating a large number of COVID-19 positive patients,” Olson said. “So, our revenues are down. Our volumes are down. And we’re in the position of making decisions for both contract and non-contract workers — to say, we have to trim some of our expenses.”
Doreen McIntyre, a nurse at the hospital’s Minneapolis campus, said there’s still plenty of need for nurses, especially in long-term care facilities, and she’d like to see them put to use.
“I think it would be great to come together as a state — the hospital association and everybody pitch in where they’re needed so they can stay working,” McIntyre said.
If the agreement is accepted, nurses will go on furlough until August. McIntyre said they will get two days notice, if they can be brought back before then.
— Brandt Williams | MPR News
Mpls. City Council approves budget cuts to help fund PPEs
Minneapolis City Council members on Friday voted to cut their office budgets in order to free up more than $60,000 for protective equipment.
The city will use the money to buy masks, hand sanitizer, thermometers and other items that can help fight the spread of COVID-19. Council members say low-income residents will be first in line to get the goods. The pool of money also includes $10,000 from Mayor Jacob Frey’s office budget.
According to the most recent data, 487 Minneapolis residents are infected with the virus and 61 have died from it.
Frey has acknowledged the virus is hurting the city’s most vulnerable populations. He says more than 80 percent of confirmed fatalities in Minneapolis have occurred in senior care centers and other congregate housing facilities.
— Brandt Williams | MPR News
St. Cloud State has first confirmed COVID-19
St. Cloud State Unversity is reporting its first positive case of the coronavirus.
In an email to faculty and students, St. Cloud State President Robbyn Wacker said only that a member of the university community has reported being diagnosed with lab-confirmed COVID-19.
University officials wouldn’t provide any details about the person’s condition or when they were last on campus.
But Wacker’s email says the Minnesota Department of Health has determined that the risk of exposure at the university is low.
A St. Cloud State spokesperson says the university continues to clean and sterilize the facilities that are open. He said they’re working with the Health Department to identify any close contacts of the person who tested positive.
— Kirsti Marohn | MPR News
Minneapolis Public Schools to have virtual graduation ceremonies
Seniors graduating from Minneapolis Public Schools won’t be walking across a stage to get their diplomas this spring, but they’ll still get their rite of passage. The district announced Friday that graduation ceremonies will be going virtual for the first time.
Officials say they plan to air the ceremonies for each high school on Facebook Live and on a Minneapolis cable-access channel.
Other schools are also hosting virtual ceremonies during the COVID-19 pandemic. Winona State University announced it will honor its 1,400 graduates in a virtual celebration May 8.
— Brandt Williams | MPR News
Walz OKs food trucks at highway rest stops
The governor on Friday signed an order permitting food trucks to operate at up to six highway rest stops in Minnesota.
With restaurants shut across the country, making food trucks available at rest stops will aid long-haul truckers “who play a critical role in supporting the supply chain and depend on eating their meals on the road,” the governor’s office said.
— MPR News Staff
State’s jobless aid fund feels the pressure
Minnesota’s unemployment insurance trust fund is already down one-third from the balance it was at when a wave of layoffs began in response to coronavirus measures.
In mid-March, the head of the Department of Employment and Economic Development said the account used to pay state jobless benefits had $1.5 billion in it. As of this week, agency spokesperson Jacob Loesch said that balance has shrunk to about $1 billion.
It’s just one measure of the economic toll stemming from COVID-19 related business restrictions or closures. The state is nearing 600,000 applications for unemployment assistance since mid-March.
The strain on the account could ease a bit as more businesses come back on line. And Commissioner Steve Grove has said Minnesota probably wouldn’t exhaust its account for several months.
If Minnesota’s fund were to be depleted due to high payouts, the state would borrow from a federal unemployment trust fund with some interest.In Minnesota, the maximum weekly benefit is $742. But the federal government has tacked on $600 more per week and is footing those costs.
— Brian Bakst | MPR News
Family’s illnesses suggest coronavirus may have been in Minnesota longer than thought: Kate Austin came home from Japan in late January with a strange illness she couldn’t seem to beat. Her arrival caused a chain reaction of sickness among friends and family that ultimately ended in a coronavirus diagnosis.
This year, farmers markets aim to offer comforting tradition. Plus produce: With their outdoor space and flexible layouts, farmers markets may be able to adapt more easily to the needs of shoppers during a pandemic.
Judge orders Corrections Department to respond to Moose Lake allegations: A judge has ordered the Minnesota Department of Corrections to demonstrate that it has sufficiently protected inmates at the Moose Lake prison from COVID-19. The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota filed a lawsuit in mid-April alleging that the Corrections Department and the Moose Lake prison have failed to implement sufficient measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
MN Senate passes GOP tax bill that delays payments: Republicans in the Minnesota Senate, along with five Democrats, passed a $327 million tax relief measure aimed at helping businesses survive COVID-19 closures.
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.