Minnesota officials report first death linked to coronavirus

Samples are tested for COVID-19.
Samples are tested for COVID-19 on March 3, 2020, at the Minnesota Department of Health.
Courtesy of Minnesota Department of Health

Updated: 8:30 p.m.

State health officials Saturday announced the first death in Minnesota linked to COVID-19.

The death occurred Thursday. State officials said it was a Ramsey County resident in their 80s who had recently tested positive for COVID-19, and was a family member of an earlier confirmed case. That earlier patient had a history of international travel.

State officials said the person who died had underlying medical conditions, in addition to the risk factor of age.

“We've certainly all been watching the numbers rise, the numbers of cases and the numbers of deaths in other countries and other states. But this strikes closer to home and closer to heart,” Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said in an afternoon media briefing. “And this first Minnesota death just underscores once again how important it is for all of us to continue working, doing what we can do individually and collectively to protect each other and our loved ones.”

Gov. Tim Walz again called on Minnesotans to stay safe.

“Gwen and I extend our deepest sympathies to the loved ones during this time of loss,” Walz said in a news release. “As COVID-19 continues to spread in Minnesota, we must all do what we can to keep each other safe.”

The Minnesota Department of Health in its afternoon briefing reported 137 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state on Saturday, up from 115 on Friday. (An earlier report from state officials said there were 138 cases.)

Among the new confirmed cases, the youngest to date: a 10-year-old. State officials said that child was home-schooled, and did not attend a larger public or private school building.

The age range of confirmed cases in Minnesota is 10 to 94, with a median age of 44. As of Saturday six COVID-19 patients were hospitalized in Minnesota, with four in intensive care.

The new cases announced Saturday include the first confirmed case in St. Louis County. County officials said the patient "is a woman in her late 60s who is currently recovering at home. Her infection is linked to domestic travel, and not the result of community transmission."

“At this point, there has been no request for the county to provide any essential services," Amy Westbrook, St. Louis County Public Health Division Director, said in a news release. "It is believed she has had no contact with anyone outside her family. Close contacts have been asked to quarantine themselves for 14 days from their exposure date and will be monitored for fever and respiratory symptoms."

Other counties reporting their first cases on Saturday were Wabasha, Jackson and Steele, in southern Minnesota.

Steele County officials said the two cases reported were "a person in their 40s and a person in their 50s with apparent transmission (from) traveling to other states ... These patients are in isolation at home and recovering."

The vast majority of cases in Minnesota have been in the Twin Cities metro area, with 52 confirmed cases in Hennepin County and 17 in Ramsey County.

However, health officials said the actual number of coronavirus cases statewide is much higher — they’ve completed 4,090 tests, rationing them to the most vulnerable people, amid a national shortage of supplies.

“If a county has not had a case identified, that does not mean there is not COVID-19 circulating,” Kris Ehresmann, director for infectious diseases at the Minnesota Department of Health, said Saturday afternoon. "… I want to emphasize again that shift to community transmission and how important it is that everyone realize that we are continuing to see spread in our communities. And so taking heed of our community mitigation recommendations is very important."

Ehresmann said Saturday that for every confirmed case, there likely are at least 10 other cases in the state.

"Tenfold sounds like, 'Wow, that's a lot' — but it could be as high as 100-fold,” she said. “I think the bottom line is that there is a lot of COVID- 19 circulating in Minnesota and that's why it's so important that people take the community mitigation measures seriously."

State leaders continued pleading with the public to practice social distancing and to stay home whenever, especially if feeling sick.

“The measures that each individual can do are really the front line and most effective thing we can do to flatten that curve and stop COVID-19 from having the impact on our country that would be devastating,” Walz said in a Friday news conference.

There were nearly 1,300 frozen samples awaiting coronavirus testing on Friday. Malcolm said people with symptoms — which include a fever and cough — should manage them at home if they’re able. “It is not necessary to have a COVID-19 diagnosis,” she said.

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, she said.

Malcolm said the state is working with Minnesota businesses who might have manufacturing capacity to address a critical shortage of essential equipment.

The state is looking for ways to expand production of protective gear like masks and gowns for medical workers, and ventilators that help critically ill patients breathe.

Malcolm said that traditionally, the state's first resource for those essential items has been the federal government's national stockpile.

"It doesn't seem to be working as well, at least right now," she said. "We appreciate the the global nature of the supply chain challenges, which kind of does suggest that it's time for us to really be creative and see what we can do to create some of our own capacity here."

California, New York and Illinois have ordered residents to stay home except for vital reasons. Walz Friday said he’s not ready to issue such a shelter-in-place order, but that could change at any moment as new information comes in.

Nationwide, there have been more than 15,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 201 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control data from Friday.

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.

  • 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.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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Coronavirus forces pregnant women to change birth plans

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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.”

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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