Latest on COVID-19 in Minnesota: 60 confirmed cases, including health workers

Empty shelves.
Shelves where toilet paper used to sit remain empty inside of the downtown Minneapolis Target on Tuesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Updated: 8:57 p.m. | Posted: 9 a.m.

In Minnesota, the count of confirmed cases of COVID-19 continues to rise. On Tuesday, the state Health Department confirmed 60 cases, up from 54 the day before and said that total includes some health care workers. Overall, more than 2,300 people have been tested for the new coronavirus in Minnesota.

Other developments as of Tuesday, March 17:

  • Governor signs emergency funding bill: Minnesota lawmakers took swift action and unanimous votes early Tuesday to direct $200 million toward a health care response fund aimed at helping front-line workers respond to the COVID-19 outbreak.

    The money it contains can be used to pay staff, set up temporary testing and treatment units, purchase protective gear and make other changes aimed at slowing the spread of the contagious virus.

    “Our health care facilities are Minnesota’s first line of defense against COVID-19,” Walz said in a news release. “I am proud of this urgent, bipartisan action to support our state’s health care infrastructure during this unprecedented public health event.”

  • Health Department confirms positive COVID-19 cases include health care workers: State epidemiologist Kris Ehresmann didn’t release details but said “we’re working with those facilities” affected. Hennepin Healthcare later confirmed one if its staff members tested positive after recent domestic travel. Officials said the person is doing well at home and that everyone who may have had a medium or high-risk exposure has been identified and contacted.

  • Governor closes bars, restaurants, gyms: Gov. Tim Walz’s latest executive order requires bars, restaurants, gyms, coffee shops, breweries and other venues to close to dine-in guests as of 5 p.m. Tuesday. It extends until 5 p.m. March 27 — but Walz said it’s likely that this is just the beginning.

    The measure allows businesses to continue takeout and delivery services. It does not cover grocery stores, convenience stores or pharmacies, the governor said. But, some Minnesota lawmakers are asking Walz to reconsider his executive order, calling it premature and that the move will be devastating to small businesses.

  • Mall of America to temporarily close: Days after many major Minnesota museums and attractions closed, the Mall of America now says it will do the same. The megamall will shut its doors from 5 p.m. Tuesday until at least March 31. “Complying with Governor Walz’ order is the right thing to do for the state, for our tenants, guests, and our team members,” said a statement posted to the mall’s website.

  • Workers affected by coronavirus can apply for unemployment benefits: Workers can file for benefits if they had their hours reduced or lost their jobs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The state agency says people should apply for benefits as soon as possible. Delaying may result in some benefit losses.

  • Minnesota hospitals warn of a possible surge: There are about 130 hospitals in Minnesota with around 11,100 beds, not counting state-run facilities, Veterans Affairs hospitals and Indian Health Service hospitals.

    Rahul Koranne, president and CEO of the Minnesota Hospital Association, told the Legislature earlier this month that Twin Cities hospitals have approximately 5,000 acute care beds, 500 ICU beds and approximately 450 ventilators though that can be expanded slightly if needed. The number of available beds has hovered around 5 percent for the last few weeks, prior to reports of the first COVID-19 cases.

  • Frustration, confusion over limited access to COVID-19 tests: Reports abound from people saying they or a loved one have been sick with symptoms similar to those associated with COVID-19, and have been denied testing for myriad reasons. It highlights an issue of grave concern for providers and state health officials: That a shortage of COVID-19 tests may mean they’re missing cases among people with mild symptoms — who could be spreading the virus without even realizing it. Walz said the state needs a minimum of 15,000 tests per month. So far, Minnesota has tested only 2,300 people.

  • Health officials issue detailed guidance for prioritizing COVID-19 tests: The Minnesota Department of Health said its lab is only testing samples from hospitalized patients, ill health care workers or people living in nursing homes or other group facilities.

    The department directed health care systems to send samples to commercial laboratories or test samples in-house. People who are sick but unable to get the test should isolate themselves as much as possible, and everyone in the household should monitor symptoms and limit outside activities for 14 days.

    “With the resources we have right now, we have to prioritize testing in a manner that protects the most vulnerable among us,” Ehresmann said.

  • Minnesota Judicial Branch takes steps to reduce courthouse visits: In an effort to cut down on nonessential visits to court buildings, the court system won’t issue late penalties on unpaid citations or suspend driver’s licenses for failing to show up to court hearings. This will also mean a halt to referrals of past-due payment cases for debt collection. The order lasts for 30 days.

  • No road tests for 10 days: Minnesota's Public Safety Department has canceled driver’s license road tests that were scheduled beginning Wednesday until March 27. The state agency says examiners and drivers would be sitting at an unsafe distance during the 20 to 45 minute test. The department’s Driver and Vehicle Services Director Emma Corrie acknowledged the inconvenience but said it was an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19. DVS offices will continue to offer services like driver’s license applications and other testing.

President Trump recommended Monday that Americans continue to practice “social distancing,” and limit gatherings to 10 or fewer people — a recommendation dramatically stricter than federal authorities’ issued guidelines.

In the meantime, health officials continue to urge people to wash their hands — for at least 20 seconds; work from home, if possible; avoid large groups of people and maintain about 6 feet of distance from others when in public, as they work to blunt the rapid spread of the disease.

Map: Confirmed COVID-19 cases across Minnesota

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