March 20 update on COVID-19 in MN: 115 cases confirmed, no shelter-in-place yet

Gov. Tim Walz speaks into a microphone
Gov. Tim Walz (right) and MDH Commissioner Jan Malcolm provide an update to the state's response to the new coronavirus on Friday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Updated: 8:29 p.m. | Posted: 5:30 a.m.

The Health Department on Friday confirmed 115 cases of COVID-19 in Minnesota through 3,856 tests Gov. Tim Walz signed an executive order prohibiting price gouging during a peacetime emergency.

Schools and many businesses remain closed, or with limited hours or access — and measures to contain the spread of coronavirus could soon become more extreme. Walz said he's not ready yet for a shelter-in-place order, but that could change at any moment as new information comes in.

Two Minnesota patients are in intensive care, Walz said. The Health Department identified 15 cases of COVID-19 community transmission, but said there’s likely many more than that across the state.

Walz and other state officials gave an update Friday afternoon:

The continued national shortage of coronavirus testing supplies has state health officials cautioning that the number of COVID-19 cases is much higher than the data show — and that the life-threatening virus is spreading across Minnesota. Minnesota leaders say people should still stay home as they’re able and practice social distancing.

People who are sick and still choose to go out in public “are undermining all we as a community are trying to accomplish" with mitigation efforts, said Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm.

Walz said there was a queue of more than 1,800 samples waiting to be tested earlier in the week, but by Friday 1,291 remained.

Many Minnesotans have shared stories online about trying to get tested, but not qualifying for such a test as the state rations its supplies for those at greatest risk.

Malcolm said people who have symptoms they can manage at home should do so. “It is not necessary to have a COVID-19 diagnosis,” she said.

Twenty-one Minnesota counties have confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Friday: Anoka, Benton, Blue Earth, Carver, Chisago, Clay, Dakota, Filmore, Hennepin, Martin, Mower, Nicollet, Olmsted, Ramsey, Renville, Rice, Scott, Stearns, Waseca, Washington and Wright.

Other updates from state leaders:

  • The Health Department is working to model how many intensive care beds and ventilators Minnesota has vs. how many could become necessary in the outbreak.

  • More than 95,000 people have applied for unemployment benefits this week, Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove said. About 85 percent of them had never applied for unemployment benefits before, he said, and a third are from restaurant, bar or entertainment workers.

  • Unemployment is “not a catch-all tool,” Grove said — his agency is trying to figure out ways to help freelance and 1099 workers.

  • Walz said he’s working to get legislative assistance to to get help for child care providers — both schools and centers — so they'll be paid in real time because they are on the edge. "My intention is to get them the money as quickly as possible,” he said.

  • The Education Department is seeking a waiver on testing for this school year.

  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency is now the lead federal agency on COVID-19, Walz said. "We have great confidence in FEMA and our local partners," Walz said, adding that he's hopeful the agency will help "break the logjam" on personal protective equipment shortages.

  • Walz has asked President Trump for permission to activate the Minnesota National Guard under a law that has the federal government paying the bills.

  • State lawmakers say they will meet in session again when necessary to pass legislation related to the state’s COVID-19 response. So far, nothing is scheduled. Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka says he believes senators will need to vote in person and they have a plan for keeping people safe while voting.

Minneapolis Mayor Frey signs new paid leave policies for city employees

Mayor Jacob Frey on Friday signed two city emergency regulations to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus and its impact on businesses. Under the new policy, the city’s full-time emergency responders, such as public safety, fire, law enforcement and emergency medical employees, will be granted up to 80 hours of additional paid leave related to COVID-19 until April 18.

Frey also signed another regulation to temporarily suspend renewal fees for liquor, wine and beer licenses in Minneapolis.

— Jiwon Choi | MPR News

Minnesota to shift funding from congregate site meals to home delivery for senior citizens

The Minnesota Board on Aging said Friday it is allowing flexibility to shift funding from congregate site meals to home delivery. A spokesperson said the board is also seeking greater flexibility from the federal government in the use of funds for senior nutrition programs.

— Dan Gunderson | MPR News

The Y expands child care for school-age children of essential workers in Minnesota

Starting Monday, 38 Y locations in Minnesota will be open for children in kindergarten through sixth grade while schools are shuttered due to the coronavirus outbreak. Minnesota's list of essential workers has been expanded to include grocery store workers, teachers, utility workers and child-care educators themselves.

Gov. Walz said on Friday that partnership with the Y was needed because some school districts were not able to accommodate families who qualified for the care.

— Laura Yuen | MPR News

3M, Medtronic ramping up production of equipment, materials to fight COVID-19

The medical device maker says it has increased ventilator production by more than 40 percent so far and is on track to more than double its ventilator manufacturing capacity. High-performance ventilators are critical in the care of patients with severe respiratory illnesses, such as COVID-19, that impair breathing.

Meanwhile, 3M has doubled its worldwide production of N95 respirators to nearly 100 million a month. The company hopes to further boost manufacture of the protective masks by over 30 percent over the next year. 3M is also maximizing production of a wide range of other products, including hand sanitizers, disinfectants and filtration products.

High-performance ventilators are critical in the care of patients with severe respiratory illnesses, such as COVID-19, that impair breathing. A ventilator allows a patient’s lungs to rest and recover while the ventilator supplies oxygen and simulates the actions of breathing. Without a ventilator, some people with severe respiratory disease may die.

— Martin Moylan | MPR News

Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity donates masks to medical personnel

The organization has donated 7,500 masks to Hennepin Healthcare and M Health Fairview.

Habitat normally uses the masks on construction sites to protect volunteers and staff against dust particles and other debris at home construction sites. N95 masks for the medical market are designed to resist the splash and splatter of blood and bodily fluids and prevent the wearer from exhaling viruses and bacteria. But mask manufacturers say nonmedical N95 respirators are effective in protecting health care workers against coughs and sneezes.

M Health Fairview will use the masks at Bethesda Hospital, a designated specialty care facility in St. Paul for COVID-19 patients.

— Martin Moylan | MPR News

Hennepin County aims to secure shelter for homeless

Hennepin County Board Chair Marion Greene announced on Twitter that county staff are working to move 150 people in shelters to a hotel.

Greene said the new site has enough space to allow the proper amount of separation for people — especially seniors — who are homeless and are most at risk to the virus. She said the county acquired the hotel using $3 million allocated under an emergency declaration which the board ratified earlier this week.

The acquisition of the hotel is not a permanent fix and she stressed that the county's partner agencies are working to provide stable housing for those in need.

Brandt Williams | MPR News

Hy-Vee say no reusable bags for now

Grocery store chain Hy-Vee says that for now, customers may not bring in reusable bags because it's too hard to make sure they are clean.

The Iowa-based company says it also plans to install temporary window panels at checkouts. Hy Vee says that's where customers, cashiers and other store employees come in closest contact. Panels are in place in Des Moines stores and are coming to others in the next few days.

— Nancy Lebens | MPR News

Groups prep to deliver meals to seniors’ homes

Organizations across the state are gearing up to provide more home-delivered meals to seniors.

This week, senior center sites where daily meals are served are shutting down as the state moves to curb the spread of the coronavirus. So the organizations that provide those meals now need to increase home delivery, or offer curbside pickup sites.

Darla Waldner with the Dancing Sky area agency on aging oversees meal programs in 21 western Minnesota counties. She’s hoping the state can ease regulations that would allow more flexibility in using funds to provide more home-delivered meals.

“We actually get one pot of money that’s for congregate dining and one is for home-delivered and there's just some rules in place that you can't transfer back and forth,” she said.

Waldner said organizations like hers are also going to need more volunteers to deliver meals, because most of their volunteers are seniors themselves — members of the age group most susceptible to the highly contagious coronavirus.

— Dan Gunderson | MPR News

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

Coronavirus forces pregnant women to change birth plans

As the number of COVID-19 cases mounts in Minnesota, pregnant women and their medical teams are scrambling to adjust their plans for prenatal care, labor and delivery and postpartum follow-up.

The changes come with their own share of stress and uncertainty.

Amid COVID-19 pandemic, small businesses try to find new ways to stay afloat

With the ongoing threat of the novel coronavirus, small businesses have taken a huge hit with Gov. Tim Walz temorarily halting dine in services, and many other stores have closed for the time being. From curbside pickup to free local delivery, workers and owners of small businesses across Minnesota have come up with some creative, unprecedented ways to cope with the new reality.

Senior meal plans adjust, add deliveries as centers close amid COVID-19

Organizations across the state that provide meals for senior citizens are scrambling as places where people gather for meals are shutting down and there’s more need for home delivery.

Demand is now increasing as the pandemic grows, and many are concerned the organizations that provide those meals are going to need community support

Testing shortages make it tough for health officials to understand COVID-19 spread

In response to a shortage of testing supplies nationwide, Minnesota earlier this week said it would prioritize hospitalized patients, health care workers and those living or working in places like nursing homes and long-term care facilities for COVID-19 testing. The move — and shortage of testing supplies overall — creates immense challenges for public health officials as they work to understand how widespread the virus is in Minnesota — and try to prevent its spread.

“In an ideal world, that’s why we would like to see more testing. It does give us more information about the spread, more data to understand what’s happening,” said Bonnie Brueshoff, public health director for Dakota County, where seven positive cases have been identified. “But meanwhile, the reality we are living in is that testing has to be limited because there’s not enough.”

Ag commissioner: 'Minnesotans should be confident in our food system'

The bare shelves at grocery stores may have some worried: Is there enough food? Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen says the answer is yes. “The first thing we want Minnesotans to know is that we have a very safe food supply,” he said. “We're working to keep it affordable and also accessible.”

Coronavirus' economic impact will be felt widely, but unevenly

Minnesota workers will feel a lot of pain and misery from the coronavirus — even if they don’t get sick. “It’s not really a question of which sectors of the economy get battered, “but what sectors are not going to be hurt,” said University of Minnesota economist Timothy Kehoe. “Because most are going to be.”

At the front of that list is anyone who gets close to people, like dentists or hairdressers. And anyone whose job involves large numbers of people getting together somehow — bartenders or artists, for example.

Laura Zabel, executive director of Springboard for the Arts, a nonprofit that supports artists with education and aid, said because artists are typically self-employed or contract workers, many don't qualify for unemployment insurance.

Gazelka warns against unchecked executive orders

The top Republican in the Minnesota Senate is telling Gov. Tim Walz that the Legislature is ready to do its part on matters related to the COVID-19 pandemic. With executive orders from the governor piling up, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said Senate Republicans are ready to come back into session and pass legislation to respond to the health crisis.

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

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