March 22 update on COVID-19 in Minnesota: 169 confirmed cases, 28 counties, one death

Number of confirmed cases 'just the tip of the iceberg,' amid calls for blood donations

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

Updated: 2:25 p.m.

Health officials this weekend warned Minnesotans that COVID-19 is widespread across the state, in the wake of Minnesota's first death linked to the new coronavirus.

Meanwhile, efforts to get more masks and other protective equipment into the hands of medical personnel increased on Saturday.

Authorities said Sunday that there are 169 confirmed cases in Minnesota, in 28 counties. But Kris Ehresmann, director for infectious diseases at the Minnesota Department of Health, said in a briefing the previous day that for every confirmed case, there likely are at least 10 other cases in the state as testing remains limited.

"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. Don't think, 'Oh, there are [only] 137 cases in our state.' ... That's just the tip of the iceberg."

Ehresmann said Sunday that officials continue to see more household clusters of cases, as well as more cases linked to community transmission.

Two women sit at a table and speak.
Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm, right, speaks at a press conference alongside State Infectious Disease Director Kris Ehresmann in St. Paul on Friday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The state's first — and as of Sunday, only — known COVID-19 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.

Confirmed COVID-19 cases have now been reported in 28 counties across the state, from the Iowa border to St. Louis and Clay counties in northern Minnesota. Counties reporting their first cases on Sunday included Cass and Le Sueur.

The county with the most cases is Hennepin, with 57, followed by Ramsey (18), Olmsted (14) and Dakota (11). As of Sunday, 10 COVID-19 patients in Minnesota were hospitalized, with five of those in intensive care.

Officials said the state health lab has processed 4,680 tests so far. Mayo Clinic and other labs have processed additional tests, and their confirmed cases are included in the statewide total of 169.

Ehresmann said Sunday that thanks to help from Mayo Clinic’s lab, the state’s backlog of hundreds of coronavirus tests had been cleared — and she said she believes the state can now keep pace, at least on priority testing, in the days ahead.

Ehresmann also specifically noted two public health issues that she said are of concern:

  • Because many dental offices are closed, she said emergency rooms across the state are seeing more people coming in with dental emergencies. She called on Minnesota residents to reach out to their dentist in those cases, so they don’t take up space in ERs. She also asked dentists to make accommodations to provide emergency care.

  • Ehresmann said there is a “desperate need” for blood donations in Minnesota, with many of the usual donation options (workplace blood drives, etc.) no longer available. She said donating blood is safe, and blood banks have taken steps to ensure social distancing.

    American Red Cross sign on table as woman prepares to donate blood
    An American Red Cross worker prepares a blood donation from MPR News digital editor Chris Graves on Friday, March 20, 2020 at the office at 176 S. Robert St. in St. Paul.
    Chris Graves | MPR News

Meanwhile, the state of Minnesota and health care systems stepped up efforts Saturday to get more supplies of protective equipment into the hands of medical providers.

Gov. Tim Walz signed an executive order authorizing the National Guard "to transport personal protective equipment in storage at Camp Ripley to the Minnesota Department of Health warehouse in St. Paul," as well as assist with delivery of those supplies around the state.

Walz's office said the move "helps address the critically low supply of PPE in Minnesota’s hospitals and health care facilities, as well as the delivery delays from the federal government’s Strategic National Stockpile."

The Guard activation will remain in place for the duration of the COVID-19 emergency, Walz's office said.

And efforts were launched to get homemade masks to medical facilities.

MN Nurses Association launches a drive for N95 masks

The association accepts new masks outside its offices at 345 Randolph Ave. in St. Paul. That drive will continue each day from noon to 2 p.m. through March 29.

"Every mask collected means a nurse will be less afraid to go home to their families at night," MNA president Mary C. Turner said in a news release. "Reusing masks is potentially dangerous for both nurses and patients. And if we can't keep nurses safe, we won't have nurses to care for patients."

The St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that Securian Financial contributed more than 20,000 masks to the MNA's drive. All the masks collected will be distributed to the State Emergency Operations Center.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota and Allina Health announced a joint effort to collect both factory-made N95 masks, as well as "ear loop" masks made by skilled volunteers — and they distributed instructions on how to make them.

More information on making masks and a list of drop-off locations can be found here.

— Andrew Krueger | MPR News

Hennepin County collecting medical supplies

Hennepin County has created drop-off donation sites for medical supplies such as protective face masks, nitrile gloves, Tyvek coveralls and foot covers, and eye protection.

A drop-off site will be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, starting Sunday, at the Hennepin County Department of Community Corrections and Rehabilitation, 3000 N. Second St. in Minneapolis.

Starting Monday, two additional drop-off sites will be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily:

  • Adult Correctional Facility, 1145 Shenandoah Lane North in Plymouth

  • Southdale Library, 7001 York Ave. South in Edina

— Andrew Krueger | MPR News

Clay County sheriff halts evictions

The sheriff in western Minnesota's Clay County said he won't enforce any eviction notices during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sheriff Mark Empting refused to enforce a recent eviction notice for a mother and her three children. He says it's a common-sense decision.

"What happens if they get removed in the middle of this pandemic, then where do they go, what do they do? We can't be having them live out of their car when we're asking people to stay home as much as you can. ... That just doesn't make sense."

Empting said the courts are not currently holding eviction hearings. The sheriff also cancelled all foreclosure sales for the next week because he was concerned about people gathering at the sheriff's office for the sales.

— Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Disaster assistance available for small businesses

Small businesses in Minnesota are now eligible to apply for disaster assistance through the federal Small Business Administration, Gov. Tim Walz's office announced Saturday.

The assistance would cover economic injury from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The agency's Economic Injury Disaster Loan program provides small businesses with working capital loans of up to $2 million. Application information can be found here.

— MPR News staff

Hennepin County moves some people from homeless shelters to hotel rooms

Hennepin County said Saturday that 130 homeless people have been moved out of congregate shelters and into space that has been secured at local hotels.

Earlier in the week, the Hennepin County Board approved $3 million in funding for alternative accomodations for high risk individuals, and separate space for people who are ill or have tested positive for COVID-19.

As of Friday afternoon, the county said four people with flu-like symptons had been moved to separate living spaces and one was tested for COVID-19. As of Saturday there were no documented cases of COVID-19 in the Hennepin County shelter system.

— Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Western Minnesota health-care providers eye former prison for COVID-19 care facility

A private prison in western Minnesota that closed a decade ago is slated to reopen as a COVID-19 care center. Five health-care providers in western Minnesota's Swift, Chippewa and Lac qui Parle counties are joining forces to set up at least a dozen hospital rooms in the former Prairie Correctional Facility.

Officials: Coronavirus shouldn’t upend Minnesota road construction

Minnesotans are sticking close to home due to coronavirus precautions — and that could be a good thing for road construction crews. With fewer people on area highways, roadwork might happen more quickly. And with the snow gone in many places, the bulldozers and concrete mixers are about to move in.

Coronavirus shutdowns deal heavy blow to the arts

In the past week theater companies, museums and performance venues across Minnesota have been forced to shut their doors in order to comply with state and federal directives. For many artists and cultural workers, the shutdowns have meant an immediate end to their income for the foreseeable future.

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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