March 19 update on COVID-19 in MN: 89 cases; virus continues statewide spread

A blue closed signed taped to a glass window.
A “closed” sign is mounted on the front doors of Hennepin County’s Central Library in downtown Minneapolis on Thursday.
Brandt Williams | MPR News

Updated: 3:47 p.m. | Posted: 5:30 a.m.

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Minnesota increased to 89 on Thursday, according to state health officials, up from 77 the previous day.

But the actual number of people sickened by the novel coronavirus is likely much higher as the state grapples with a shortage of testing supplies. As of Thursday, the Health Department had tested over 3,100 patients.

“We really believe that there is widespread community transmission of COVID throughout the state,” Kris Ehresmann, director of infectious diseases for the Health Department, told reporters Thursday.

Minnesota officials and public health experts continued their pleas for people to stay home whenever possible, practice social distancing and isolate if feeling ill.

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The following counties have confirmed COVID-19 cases: Anoka, Benton, Blue Earth, Carver, Clay, Dakota, Hennepin, Martin, Mower, Nicollet, Olmsted, Ramsey, Renville, Rice, Scott, Stearns, Waseca, Washington and Wright.

Schools remain closed statewide, as do bars, coffee shops and restaurants, aside from offering take-out. Ehresmann has said employers should not require their workers to have a positive COVID-19 test to take sick leave — it’s important they stay home.

There were six confirmed cases of COVID-19 contracted via community spread as of Thursday in Hennepin, Ramsey, Dakota and Martin counties. But the Health Department says community spread is more prevalent than the data indicate.

Four Minnesotans remained hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Thursday afternoon. Ehresmann said the seven coronavirus patients who have been hospitalized in Minnesota so far span all age ranges. Overall, the cases are in people aged 17 to 94 with a median age of 49.

Minnesota is continuing to struggle with limited supplies to test for the coronavirus.

“We're not choosing to limit testing,” Ehresmann said — the issue is with a lack of supplies. She said the Health Department is hearing that commercial diagnostic labs don’t have necessary supplies either.

However, Ehresmann said private labs are allowed to test anyone they'd like, if they have necessary supplies. Buying COVID-19 tests through private labs is costly for individuals and it’s mainly wealthy people who have access to those tests.

The Minnesota Health Department is rationing tests to mostly the highest-risk people — health workers and people with underlying health conditions who are already hospitalized, plus people in “congregate living” situations, like long-term care facilities or nursing homes.

Gov. Tim Walz said Wednesday that it’s important for individuals to get tested. He said he’s pleading with federal officials for more aid — the governor said 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."

Nineteen Minnesota counties now have confirmed coronavirus cases. One week ago, there were nine confirmed cases in just three counties.

While the coronavirus pandemic is serious, Ehresmann said people who are stressed can take solace in the fact that most cases — around 81 percent — are considered mild.

“We don't want people to feel panicked,” she said. “We're concerned about people's mental health.”

And on the other end of the spectrum, Ehresmann said there are people who believe the severity of COVID-19 is being exaggerated. That’s not the case, she said, and all people should heed public health officials’ guidance on staying home and practicing social distancing.

Gov. Walz orders halt to elective surgeries

Gov. Tim Walz has ordered a halt to elective surgeries or procedures if they’re not deemed essential to saving a life, preserving organ function or dealing with diseases such as cancer.

The executive order is just the latest in a string of drastic measures being taken to slow the spread of COVID19 in Minnesota. In ordering providers to put off procedures, Walz said it would free up medical capacity and reduce contact between patients and doctors as the coronavirus situation worsens.

It kicks in on Monday and will last indefinitely.

Exceptions include surgeries to save an organ system function or prevent permanent dysfunction of an extremity, including jaws and teeth.

It applies to both inpatient and outpatient procedures.

Willful violations of the order could result in jail time or fines.

— Brian Bakst | MPR News

MnDOT sees noticeable slow in traffic

Roads are devoid of traffic.
Interstate 94 is quiet with few cars on the road during typical morning rush hour on Thursday in Minneapolis.
Chris Juhn for MPR News

If you’ve been on a Minnesota road lately, the drop in traffic has probably been noticeable.

According to the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the statistics reflect it. MnDOT says it has seen a 27 percent decrease in traffic volume on the freeway system.

The agency says that road congestion in the Twin Cities metro area is essentially nonexistent as more people stay at home due to coronavirus fears. MnDOT says its freeway incident response team is still at the ready, but it too has seen a decrease in incident calls.

— Brian Bakst | MPR News

Duluth to launch online story time next week

Mayor Emily Larson said the city's librarians plan to introduce the virtual reading events on the library's Facebook page.

Larson said she will be reading a book, along with the fire chief, police chief and others

“We are in the process of selecting books to read. We are creating a schedule. We are working with publishers to have permission to read those books and share those with kids,” the mayor said.

Duluth and many other cities around the state have closed public buildings, including libraries, to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Larson said it's important to maintain connections during this time.

— Dan Kraker | MPR News

Animal Humane Society to close until May

The Animal Humane Society says it is closing to the public and ending animal adoptions at least through May 2.

The animal welfare agency says it will start with closing its locations in the face of the coronavirus outbreak, to keep staff and visitors safe. The Coon Rapids facility will shut Thursday evening, St. Paul Friday, Woodbury on Saturday and Golden Valley on Sunday.

Janelle Dixon, AHS’ executive director, says they have nearly 100 animals ready for adoption before the shelters close, and they hope adoptions can make room for more animals that will likely arrive.

“We are staying open to respond to urgent and emergency surrender and stray animal situations,” she said. “We are going to try to work with clients to delay surrender until May, when possible. We’ll also offer affordable medical services that might help with surrender prevention.”

Dixon says some staff are being furloughed, but there will be staff available to care for animals as well as veterinary staff. She said many animals are being sent to live with foster families temporarily.

— Tim Nelson | MPR News

Coronavirus at the State Capitol

Minnesota House leaders announced Wednesday that they have a case of COVID-19 within their ranks.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman said an individual who works for the Minnesota House of Representatives has a presumed case of COVID-19. She did not say if the person is a legislator or a member of the staff. Citing health privacy laws, Hortman said she would not disclose any additional information.

A human resources letter to staff said it was possible that employees working at the State Office Building and the Capitol may have been exposed.

Hortman said the House is continuing to follow Department of Health guidelines to keep legislators and staff safe during the pandemic.

— Tim Pugmire | MPR News

Twin Cities archdiocese suspends Mass

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is suspending Mass in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Archbishop Bernard Hebda said the decision to suspend Mass in the Twin Cities came after learning a priest in another U.S. diocese tested positive for COVID-19, possibly putting his parishioners at risk.

In his announcement, Hebda said he will reevaluate the move in two weeks.

He says priests and deacons are also committed to expanding possibilities for larger church spaces to facilitate appropriate social distancing in the future. Exceptions will be granted for a funeral or wedding mass, if needed.

The Diocese of St. Cloud made a similar decision, suspending Mass through Easter, prohibiting funeral Mass during that time and requiring weddings get dispensation from the bishop.

— Nina Moini | MPR News

The story of the virus’ spread in Minnesota continues to develop rapidly.

The coronavirus' economic impact will be felt widely, but unevenly. Few sectors will escape economic pain from the coronavirus outbreak. Some economists, however, are hopeful things can return to normal by the end of the year.

A Duluth distillery is turning spirits into sanitizer. Tucked away in the back of the Vikre Distillery building, past the empty cocktail room and copper stills and fermenters, the company has set up its makeshift hand sanitizer production area.

In Little Falls, bus drivers are bringing meals, smiles to home-bound students. Schools across Minnesota shut their doors this week amid the COVID-19 outbreak, and districts are scrambling to provide meals to students who depend on them. Little Falls is one of several districts using bus drivers to deliver breakfast and lunch to school-age children.

Minnesota’s schools are closed for learning, but open for emergency personnel child care, planning. Most states in the country have or are planning to close schools to slow the spread of COVID-19. Minnesota’s governor — a former teacher — is instructing districts to open their doors to the children of health care and emergency workers.

Working at a grocery store right now is risky — and vital. Thousands of grocery store workers have found themselves on the front lines of the pandemic spreading nationwide. They’re around people all day long, breathing air other people breathed first, touching things other people have touched and reaching for the hand sanitizer every few minutes.

Minnesota health care workers are raising concerns about the response to the coronavirus. Those on the front lines 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.

Many state employees are being urged to work from home. Thousands of workers are being ordered to work at home while others could get new assignments. Some consumer facing services are being scaled back.

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

Correction (March 19, 2020): Due to wrong source information, a previous version of this story misstated that Wadena County reported a confirmed case. As further investigation by MDH revealed the person lived in Clay County, this story has been updated.