March 26 update on COVID-19 in MN: More deaths expected; too soon to say on State Fair

A person walks past a sign that reads "Be kind. Stay safe."
A pedestrian walks past Grandview Theatre, which features an uplifting message Wednesday in St. Paul. The movie theater temporarily closed on March 17 in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Updated: 7:14 p.m.

State officials said Thursday that a second Minnesotan has died from COVID-19 and that the number of residents testing positive for the disease jumped to 346, from 287 on Wednesday.

The second death involved a resident of Ramsey County in their 80s, the Health Department said. Last week, officials announced the first death linked to the disease was also a Ramsey County resident in their 80s.

The total number of people hospitalized from the disease stood at 31, up from 26 Wednesday. The state said 12,950 tests have been completed.

Talking to reporters Thursday afternoon, Gov. Tim Walz said the age range of those affected in Minnesota runs from five months to 104. He urged Minnesotans again to stay home and help “break the chain” of the virus’ spread.

He also raised concerns about reports that Minnesotans of Asian descent are being targeted for hate speech or discrimination in the state, apparently because of the outbreak’s reported origin in China. “This virus is not going to discriminate and we’re not going to either,” he said.

The jump in cases from Wednesday to Thursday was among the largest single-day increases the state’s seen since the pandemic arrived. Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said officials were bracing for more cases and casualties.

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“I’m sorry to say we know we’ll be reporting more deaths in the days to come,” Malcolm said.

Thursday’s updated numbers came a day after Walz ordered Minnesotans to stay at home for two weeks, effective Saturday through April 10. Walz said the goal wasn’t intended to lessen the number of COVID-19 infections in the state, but rather to help Minnesota push off and brace for the coronavirus’ inevitable peak.

The governor said he expects COVID-19 to reach all of Minnesota’s 87 counties before the pandemic ends. “The circle is spreading.”

At the Capitol, the Minnesota House and Senate on Thursday passed a $330 million rescue plan that aims to head off some economic, health and spillover consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. Gov. Walz is expected to sign it soon.

The proposal, which came together in private, is the second COVID-19 related bill to get swift action from lawmakers in the past two weeks. Together, the two packages shell out more than $500 million, with top legislators saying there will be more actions to come.

Officials believe the number of COVID-19 cases is likely at least 10 times as high as the number of testing-confirmed cases and that an increasing number of people will likely require hospitalization in the coming weeks.

As Walz continued to call on Minnesotans to keep their distance to help slow the spread of the disease, reporters asked him whether the Minnesota State Fair might be at risk of being called off or postponed from its historical late August-early September run.

The fair puts hundreds of thousands of people close together each year; Walz and other officials have expressed concerns that Minnesota and other states will be dealing with coronavirus cases through the summer.

“Minnesota does need the State Fair,” he said, adding that it was probably too early to make a call. "It would certainly be my hope by the time we got to that point, we'd have a handle on this thing.”

Minnesota lawmakers pass a bill to fund child care providers across the state

The state House and Senate passed the $330 million package that includes nearly $30 million for early-childhood educators.

Minnesota has about 9,000 providers, including many that have struggled to keep their doors open since the COVID-19 crisis hit. Ann McCully, the executive director of Child Care Aware of Minnesota, said with so many parents withdrawing their children from day care, it leaves providers with less money to serve essential employees, including those in health care.

“This is something that we've been asking for since the governor first released the first executive order, frankly,” she said. “If we're going to ask our child care communities to step up, we need to try to help them cover the cost of that because there is no other funding stream except for what parents can pay.”

It's still unclear how the grants will be dispersed — or which providers will be first in line for the funding. Some early childhood programs that have closed during the coronavirus pandemic may not benefit from the new funding. Early childhood educators say they would be eligible for grants if they reopen to serve critical workers.

Licensed child care centers, in-home providers as well as tribal programs are eligible to apply for $4,500 monthly grants. Some programs that are willing to open overnight and on weekends to serve emergency workers are eligible for an additional $1,000 monthly.

— Riham Feshir | MPR News

Digi-Key says it’s poised to help make ventilators

A northwestern Minnesota electronics distributor says it has the parts to help make thousands of low-cost ventilators to help meet an expected surge of patients desperately ill with COVID-19.

Digi-Key in Thief River Falls is partnering with the University of Minnesota on a low-cost, easy to build substitute for ventilators that will help hospital patients with the most difficulty breathing. The university built a prototype and Digi-Key has a computer-controlled motor that can make it run.

The university and the company are looking for more manufacturing and supply partners and federal approval in what state officials say may be a race against time as the coronavirus spreads and the need for critical care outstrips available hospital beds and life saving equipment.

— Tim Nelson | MPR News

Klobuchar’s husband, a coronavirus patient, is improving

Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said Thursday afternoon that her husband John, who’s been in a Virginia hospital with coronavirus, “took a good turn” and has now been released and is recovering at home.

— MPR News Staff

Minnesota K-12 schools prep for online instruction

Minnesota’s experiment with remote learning is about to get its first test as the state falls under the governor’s two-week stay-at-home order.

School buildings were shut two weeks ago in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. State officials directed public schools to turn immediately to caring for children of health care and other essential workers. Districts got two weeks to plan to resume instruction without face-to-face contact.

State Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker says she’s confident educators will make it work. "They've been really digging into their distance learning plans and and they're getting ready to go on Monday,” she told MPR News Thursday.

The state has nearly 900,000 public school students in about 2,500 schools in a normal school year.

— Tim Nelson | MPR News

Minnesota weighs expanding absentee voting, mail ballots

With an eye on the current coronavirus pandemic, state elections officials are looking at options to let more people vote in the upcoming election without having to show up at a polling station.

Those options include statewide ballots that could be completed at home and returned by mail and an expansion of absentee voting along with a reduction in polling stations, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said Thursday.

“I've heard from many Minnesotans who wonder how, or even if, we will vote in this high-stakes election year. My answer is clear: The 2020 statewide elections should go on as scheduled,” he said in a statement.

— MPR News Staff

Advocates say homeless need more help

Homeless advocates say they need more state resources to help protect the vulnerable population from COVID-19, but they say conditions at already-busy shelters make it difficult to provide a safe environment.

"We are operating field hospitals for the poor,” said Tim Marx, CEO of Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “Social distancing, sanitary conditions and other things that keep people safe from the virus and keep them from spreading the virus simply are very difficult if not impossible to make happen in our shelters."

Marx said the state should provide more funding for housing and services, and get the elderly out of shelters and into hotels.

Separately, Ramsey County and its partners said they’ll open a “respite facility” downtown for unsheltered single adults displaying symptoms of COVID-19. The location will provide round-the-clock symptom monitoring, meals, security and transportation to and from the site for individuals experiencing homelessness, the county said.

— Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

Volunteer during the pandemic? Minnesota wants you

Minnesotans looking to help during the COVID-19 outbreak can visit the State Emergency Operations Center website for a list of ways they can take action, officials said Thursday. That site includes information for businesses as well as individuals looking to donate supplies or volunteer.

Joe Kelly, the state’s emergency management director, told reporters Thursday that food banks and food shelves need volunteers, and that Minnesotans could also give blood or make a financial donation to help others.

— MPR News Staff

Union calls for protection, support for workers at MSP during COVID-19

The union representing 1,500 passenger service workers at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport says it's vital they aren't forgotten in any bailout of the airline industry.

Service Employees International Union Local 26 president Iris Altamirano says the janitors, cabin-cleaners, cart-drivers and wheelchair agents at the airport receive low wages and few benefits. She called upon Congress and airport commissioners to make sure such workers are protected financially during the pandemic.

"What we are asking for in response to the COVID-19 crisis is comprehensive health care coverage, paid sick and paid family medical leave, and then lay-off protections via pay back or wage replacements for airport workers,” Altamirano said.

Altamirano said most of the workers earn just $11 an hour. Eighty employees of one MSP contractor have already received layoff notices, she said.

— Euan Kerr | MPR News

House, Senate back COVID-19 aid bill: The proposal, which came together in private, is the second COVID-19 related bill to get swift action from lawmakers. Together, the two packages shell out more than $500 million, with top legislators saying there will be more actions to come. The House passed the new bill on a 99-4 vote Thursday. The Senate vote was unanimous.

Minnesota schools are closed until early May — Here are 9 things you need to know: Many parents across the state are learning that it'll be another five weeks — at least — before they can send their kids back to school again. On Wednesday, Gov. Tim Walz ordered Minnesota schools to remain closed through until May 4 as the state grapples with the COVID-19 outbreak. Here are the top nine things you need to know about schools’ plans.

With COVID-19, desire for fast internet connections accelerates: Many people are working at home now in an effort to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus. Speed, capacity and reliability of internet connections determine how well remote-working goes. Some telecommuters zip along in the fast lane, others not so much.

Veterans, VA brace for COVID-19 impact: As more cases of COVID-19 develop across the U.S., military veterans are among those most at risk for falling seriously ill from the disease. They’re also bearing the brunt of many measures aimed at stopping the virus’ rapid spread.

Clinics shifting as much as possible to telemedicine: Amid the coronavirus pandemic, kids and adults are still getting infections and other maladies that have nothing to do with COVID-19. Health care providers are urging people to seek care if they need it, but whenever possible, they’re using telemedicine visits to treat patients.

Walz emergency orders have some questioning whether he has too much power: While Republicans have generally supported Walz’s moves to curb the coronavirus spread, several state GOP leaders questioned the DFL governor’s new state-home order Wednesday. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said that while he shared Walz’s concerns about health and safety, he had “grave concerns” about the order’s effects on Minnesotans.

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.