COVID-19 in Minnesota: 77 cases statewide; 1,700 samples await testing amid shortage

Nicollet Mall is almost deserted amid COVID-19 outbreak.
The popular Nicollet Mall during the lunch hour is almost deserted in downtown Minneapolis Wednesday. As a result of the coronavirus, many retailers are closing or cutting back hours. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some, it can cause more severe illness.
Jim Mone | AP Photo

Updated: 7:22 p.m. | Posted: 6 a.m.

There are 77 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Minnesota, according to the Health Department’s latest count released Wednesday. That’s up from 60 cases the day before.

However, state health officials caution that there are more cases than the number of positive tests show. Overall, more than 2,700 people have been tested for the new coronavirus in Minnesota as of Wednesday.

Health officials have tightened criteria for testing amid a national shortage of materials — tests are reserved mostly for health workers, people with underlying conditions and those who live in “congregate living” situations, like nursing homes.

There are confirmed cases in the following counties: Anoka, Benton, Blue Earth, Carver, Dakota, Hennepin, Martin, Nicollet, Olmsted, Ramsey, Renville, Scott, Stearns, Waseca, Washington, and Wright.

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However, state health officials believe there are additional cases of COVID-19 in Minnesota.

“We're seeing cases across the state,” said Kris Ehresmann, the director of infectious diseases for the Health Department. She added that employers should not require their workers to have a positive COVID-19 test to take sick leave — it’s important they stay home.

Gov. Tim Walz and other state officials provided updates on Minnesota’s response to COVID-19 at a news conference Wednesday afternoon.

"Days matter," Walz said, pleading for public patience about the shakeup to their lives, businesses and schooling arrangements. "We're asking a lot of sacrifice but it is worth it. It will save lives."

When asked about potential use of the Minnesota National Guard, Walz said he is planning for possibility of using the Guard to assist in the health response, corrections and food delivery.

"They are part of the emergency operations center,” he said. “They are prepared."

During the news conference, Walz also said he needs the Legislature's help in responding to some urgent issues, including child care waivers and extension of a monthly sales tax collection deadline for businesses.

As for the possibility of shelter in place, which has been in place in San Francisco, the governor said while the option is in his toolbox, he's not going to pull that tool out — at least for now.

Watch the news conference:

Of the 77 confirmed cases so far, seven people have been hospitalized. Three have been released and four remain in the hospital — one in critical condition, according to Ehresmann.

The Minnesota House on Wednesday reported that a person who works for the chamber presumptively tested positive for the coronavirus. It’s unclear whether the person was a lawmaker or staff member but the House human resources officials said they’ll be in touch with anyone the person has had contact with. For the time being, the State Office Building has been closed.

Thirteen cases are in health care workers, Ehresmann said, but they appear to have acquired the virus while traveling.

Still, there is community spread of COVID-19. Six confirmed cases are considered due to community transmission, Ehresmann said.

There’s a shortage of testing supplies at “several levels,” she said, including reagents, tips used for extraction and more.

Walz said he’s pleading with federal authorities for more help, adding that there are 1,700 samples frozen, awaiting testing, due to inadequate supplies.

"The lack of testing capacity is still hampering us,” he said. "It's important on an individual basis to get a confirmation for treatment."

Ehresmann said testing is less important than people staying home when sick.

“When we do have evidence of community transmission, it becomes less important that individuals [get] tested for COVID-19,” she said. "There is no treatment, and so the testing is not necessary."

If you have a fever or respiratory symptoms, Ehresmann said to isolate for at least seven days — and at least three days without having a fever.

And any household or intimate contacts of the sickened person should stay out of the public for 14 days — the incubation period for the coronavirus.

The story of the coronavirus’ spread in Minnesota continues to develop rapidly:

  • Health care workers say some health care facilities aren’t prepared to handle expected coronavirus patient surge and that hospital administrators have been slow to implement COVID-19 strategies.

  • In just one day, the state tightened its criteria for COVID-19 testing, limiting it to the most critical cases; allocated millions of dollars in emergency funding to address the pandemic; and opened its unemployment benefits to workers whose jobs have been affected by the pandemic.

  • On Wednesday, Steve Grove, the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, said 50,000 unemployment applications have come in this week.

    He projected $1.5 billion in the unemployment insurance trust fund could sustain 12 weeks of unemployment of 10 percent. Grove added that unemployment insurance taxes will not increase for employers whose workers are idled amid the pandemic.

  • As many state employees begin working from home, disruptions in some services provided by state agencies are expected, including getting or renewing a driver’s license, Walz said.

    “It has nothing to do with the old MNLARS system,” the governor said during the Wednesday news conference. “We are trying not to put you in a bad situation. You’re not going to get a ticket for having a license that had expired during this time.

  • Walz said that 32 Minnesotan passengers from the Grand Princess are back home after completing their quarantine period. Another 10 Minnesotans from the cruise ship have yet to return, and the governor said his administration is working on those cases.

In the meantime, communities and industries continue to adjust to the new collective reality of fighting the spread of the disease;

Children sit around tables.
Children sit around tables at the St. Paul Midway YMCA Early Childhood Learning Center.
Courtesy of the YMCA

Many MN child care centers remain open, putting parents and workers in tough spot: The state has encouraged day care centers and preschools to keep looking after young ones, but owners say they need more support.

Minnesota tightens criteria for COVID-19 testing: State health officials Tuesday said the move will allow them to focus on highest-priority patients: Health care workers, patients already being hospitalized and those who live in what the department calls “congregate living” situations, such as long-term care facilities or nursing homes.

State workers ordered to work from home: Gov. Tim Walz issued an order Tuesday night that ensures that any idled worker will be compensated, perhaps through paid leave if they have to stop working to care for children or other dependents. But he also asserted his ability to use “flexibility to hire staff, schedule, assign, and reassign employees without adherence to existing limitations in collective bargaining agreements.”

Retailers shift hours, limit number of customers in stores due to outbreak: Minneapolis-based Target says it will close its stores at 9 p.m. and add staff for cleaning checkout lanes and other areas that guests contact. The company will also reserve the first hour of operations on Wednesdays for elderly and medically vulnerable shoppers. Beginning Monday, Richfield-based Best Buy will limit how many people are allowed inside stores to fewer than 15 people.

As health care workers prepare for COVID-19, medical students pitch in on the home front: The University of Minnesota medical students may be too early in their education to have the kind of clinical experience needed to treat patients, but they’re stepping up to help doctors and nurses with everything from babysitting to grocery shopping. “We also are hungry to help,” said one U of M student who has been organizing volunteer shifts for babysitting, dog-walking, and grocery shopping. “This is what we signed up for.”

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.

A woman putting food in a bag in a warehouse.
Bethune Community School kindergarten teacher Greta Callahan helps pack bags of food for children at Sheridan Story on Sunday. About 15 members of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers volunteered at the food program aimed at feeding kids when school lunches are not available.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

From closures to cancellations to aid for those who have lost their jobs, here’s a look at what’s happening around Minnesota:

Bethesda Hospital to specialize in coronavirus care

M Health Fairview is converting a long-term care hospital in St. Paul into a facility to care for COVID-19 patients.

Bethesda Hospital is just north of the State Capitol and dates back to the 1880s. It has most recently been a long-term, acute care hospital with about 90 beds, although M Heath Fairview had been planning to cut that number as a cost saving measure.

The health system says now, rather than cutting beds, it will transfer its existing patients to other facilities and reconfigure Bethesda to serve as a care site for acutely ill COVID-19 patients. The hospital will have 35 beds assigned to intensive care patients and 55 medical-surgical beds.

The move will allow the hospital to establish medical teams to treat patients acutely ill with the coronavirus, using ventilators and specialized care — and possibly prevent some secondary infections in other care settings.

— Tim Nelson | MPR News

Ramsey, Hennepin counties set up quarantine for homeless residents

Ramsey and Hennepin counties have both approved multimillion-dollar plans to set up isolation and quarantine facilities for the homeless.

The temporary facilities would allow people with the coronavirus to leave shelters in downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Max Holdhusen is the manager of housing stability for Ramsey County. He said the county is looking at two vacant buildings in St. Paul as possible sites for the temporary facility. The buildings would need heat, water and other utilities — as well as staff — before they could begin operating.

“We’re going to have meals, basic hygiene, showers, snacks, some clothing items available for residents as well,” Holdhusen said. “The residents who experience homelessness are already a hard to serve population, and so add this on top of that and you can see how those needs just amplify.”

At Catholic Charities’ downtown St. Paul campus, staff are pushing dining tables apart and lining bunks with plastic to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

— Tim Nelson | MPR News

Driving tests canceled

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety has canceled all drivers license road tests scheduled to be held Wednesday until March 27.

The agency said it’s postponing the tests because examiners and drivers would be sitting at an unsafe distance during the 20- to 45-minute assessment. Driver and Vehicle Services Director Emma Corrie said she realizes it's an inconvenience for many people, but said it's part of the department’s efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19.

DVS offices will continue to offer services like drivers license applications and other testing, though several of the department’s offices have temporarily closed in the wake of the virus’ spread.

— Perry Finelli | MPR News

Hospitals limiting elective procedures

The list of hospitals around the state limiting their elective visits in response to the COVID-19 pandemic is growing.

Mayo Clinic in Rochester, M Health Fairview on the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus and CentraCare in the St. Cloud area have all announced they are temporarily adjusting their approach to elective procedures.

Mayo says it will defer the elective care that can be deferred for eight weeks or more, starting March 23. That includes elective surgeries, procedures and office visits. These rules apply to Mayo sites around the state and the country.

M Health Fairview facilities will postpone elective, nonurgent surgeries beginning Wednesday.

Also starting Wednesday, CentraCare will reschedule patients who have elective procedures, surgeries or exams.

All three hospitals said that emergency rooms visits and urgent surgeries will continue.

— Catharine Richert | MPR News

Minnesota courts suspend some penalties

Minnesota's courts are taking a series of steps to reduce courthouse traffic during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The state's courts announced Tuesday they won’t issue late penalties on unpaid citations or suspend drivers licenses for failing to show up to court hearings. They will also halt referrals of past-due payment cases for debt collection.

The administrative action will last for 30 days.

The State Court Administrator said the goal is to discourage any nonessential visits to court facilities.

Chief Justice Lorie Gildea previously decided that civil and criminal jury trials that have begun will continue until finished. So will high-priority cases, although the courts are being asked to use remote technology where possible.

— Brian Bakst | MPR News

Need for blood donations continues amid coronavirus

Health officials are urging the public not to forget about the ongoing need for blood and blood product donations, even as they take precautions to avert the spread of the coronavirus.

The Red Cross and Memorial Blood Centers in the Twin Cities say they have a critical need for donors now.

And, according to state health officials, it’s safe for anyone to donate, as long as they’re healthy.

"Blood banks are now prescreening individuals by checking temperatures before they are allowed to provide blood, as they are doing with their staff and volunteers,” said Kris Ehresmann, head of infectious disease control for the Minnesota Department of Health. “They have also set up social distancing."

The Red Cross also requires blood donors to sanitize their hands often and checks temperatures multiple times.

Blood banks say rules about public gatherings, business closures, and fear of transmission of the coronavirus are cutting into the usual stream of donors.

— Tim Nelson | MPR News

Two people sit at a table with laptops.
David Jaycox, left, and Nicole Pierce work together on unemployment applications Tuesday in Minneapolis. Both are production technicians, putting on shows and live events, many of which have been canceled or postponed with the COVID-19 outbreak.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The impact of the coronavirus has Minnesotans filing for unemployment compensation at a record clip.

Walz's order closing bars, restaurants and other places where people gather is costing a lot of people their jobs. But it's part of a larger effort to help fight the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus.

Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development commissioner Steve Grove said the state is seeing a surge in applications for unemployment benefits. As of Tuesday, applications had hit 2,000 an hour, up from 50 an hour just days ago.

“It's really the biggest spike we've seen in the state's history,” Grove said.

Unemployment payments cover about half the lost wages of eligible workers, up to a monthly maximum of $740 for 26 weeks. The federal government may provide funds to extend benefits for a longer period.

The hospitality sector employs hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans. Also at risk of job loss are workers whose jobs depend on getting close to people or working where many people gather. That would include everyone from hairdressers and dental hygienists to flight attendants and pilots.

— Martin Moylan | MPR News

St. Cloud limits access to some city buildings

St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis announced new restrictions related to the COVID-19 outbreak Tuesday.

Some city buildings, including the convention center, he said, will be open by appointment only.

Kleis asked residents to conduct city business online or by phone. He said if they must come to city hall, they'll be met in the council chambers or atrium.

"It allows for some social distancing,” he said, “but it still keeps the people's house open — but in a way that protects not only public safety, but protects the folks who are who are working on your behalf here at the city."

Kleis also said he’s planning to hold a virtual town hall on Friday and allow people to submit questions or concerns.

— Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

Ramsey Co. allows work-release inmates to stay home

The Ramsey County Correctional Facility is trying to help slow the spread of the coronavirus by releasing inmates who are on work-release programs.

Those who already had approval to go to work in the community can stay at home with an ankle bracelet, rather than returning to the workhouse.

The facility houses less-serious offenders who have been sentenced to a year or less. The release, which comes by way of a judge's order, is in effect until April 15 and does not apply to violent offenders.

There have been no known cases of COVID-19 at the workhouse.

— Alisa Roth | MPR News

Hennepin Health to close walk-in clinic

Hennepin Health has temporarily closed its walk-in clinic to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. The clinic has asked people to call instead.

Meanwhile, hospitals are limiting elective procedures. Mayo Clinic in Rochester, M Health Fairview on the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus, and CentraCare in the St. Cloud area have all announced they are temporarily adjusting their approach to elective procedures.

Nancy Lebens | MPR News

Metro Transit suspending overnight service

A person wearing gloves cleans a fare box.
A worker disinfects a Metro Transit bus fare box. Metro Transit has stepped up efforts to clean buses, trains and public facilities to help prevent the possible spread of COVID-19.
Courtesy of Metro Transit

Metro Transit, which operates public transportation in the Twin Cities metro area, is ending its overnight train and bus service in the face of the coronavirus outbreak.

The transit agency announced that, as of Tuesday night, it will pull in its buses and trains at 11 p.m. nightly, and stay off the roads and rails until 4:30 a.m. The agency said it is responding in part to reduced ridership, as well as staff shortages as operators fall ill, need to attend to children out of school, and other factors.

Metro Transit said ridership is lowest overnight, and the pause will also allow cleaning crews to better disinfect the agency's buses and light rail trains, in the face of what health officials say is the spread of COVID-19 person-to-person in Minnesota — largely in the Twin Cities.

The agency is asking people who do ride transit to use it only for essential travel and to respect social distancing while they're on board, to keep from exposing themselves or other riders to infection.

— Tim Nelson | MPR News

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.

Map: Confirmed cases across the state