March 27 update on COVID-19 in Minnesota: 52 new cases, 4 dead, more expected

Governor's 2-week stay-home order starts Saturday

A sign on the door of the YWCA
A sign on the door of the YWCA in St. Paul asking people who are sick to stay home Thursday, March 26, 2020.
Megan Burks | MPR News

Updated 5 p.m.

Minnesota authorities have been bracing the public to expect more deaths linked to COVID-19. That came into clear focus Friday as the Health Department reported four Minnesotans had died in the pandemic, up from two Thursday, while the number of cases jumped to 398 from 346.

All four who died in Minnesota were in their 80s, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters Friday afternoon. Three had been living in group care facilities. Two have died in Ramsey County, one in Hennepin County.

Gov. Tim Walz said the state has 1,268 adult ventilators on hand for intensive care cases and is working to secure more, believing they will be needed; 14 COVID-19 patients in the state remain in intensive care. Overall, 34 people remain hospitalized in Minnesota, 180 have recovered, the Health Department reported Friday.

The new numbers on cases and deaths comes as officials continue to call on Minnesotans to stay home to help slow the disease’s spread. Restaurants remain takeout-only; public school buildings are shuttered now until early May.

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Walz’s two-week, stay-at-home order kicks in Saturday. Rosedale, Burnsville and HarMar malls are expected to close over the weekend. The Mall of America is already closed.

Authorities said they would close vehicle services offices at the end of business Friday through April 10 to comply with Walz’s order. The state will extend expiration dates for licenses and permits set to expire in this period. Vehicle registration can be renewed online or by mail.

Also on Friday, state emergency management director Joe Kelly asked Minnesotans not to call 911 with general coronavirus questions and instead contact the state hotline at (651) 201-3920 or 1-800-657-3903 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Some 911 centers were being inundated with coronavirus calls, he said.

Besides working to slow the spread of the virus so it doesn’t overwhelm the health care system, state leaders are trying to confront the economic toll created by tens of thousands of Minnesotans thrown out of work. About 28 percent of working Minnesotans will be temporarily jobless the next couple of weeks.

State lawmakers Thursday backed a $330 million rescue plan that aims to head off some economic, health and spillover consequences of the pandemic. Together with an earlier package, the Legislature has OK’d more than $500 million, with Capitol leaders saying more actions will follow.

Beyond the pandemic and the strain it’s causing on the state’s health care and economy, Walz and state leaders are wrestling with other tough issues.

For instance, the governor and others are urging Minnesotans not to head for their cabins in greater Minnesota to ride out the pandemic, warning that could overwhelm rural stores and hospitals if people get sick in lake country or spread the virus there.

He’s also said that while he hopes the Minnesota State Fair will go on as planned in late August and early September, it’s still too early to make a definitive call.

He remains worried about the spread of hate. Reports of Minnesotans of Asian descent being targeted for hate speech or discrimination are rising in the state, apparently because of the outbreak’s initial epicenter in China.

The governor and health commissioner on Friday also faced questions about the computer models officials have been using to chart a course for the state through the pandemic. Walz has said previously the modeling had projected more than 70,000 Minnesotans would be expected to die if nothing were done to check the spread.

Asked what the current projections showed given the stay-home efforts and other measures to check the spread, the governor and health commissioner would not be specific.

“I know there will be more deaths,” Walz said. “It’s agonizing, and I find it unacceptable … unfortunately, there will be more of that.”

2 Mpls. Red Cross workers quarantining after symptoms

The American Red Cross Minnesota said Friday that two of its Minneapolis blood donation center employees recently became ill with coronavirus symptoms.

The two workers experiencing the symptoms are self-quarantining at home; they both passed temperature screenings March 17 when they last worked, said local Red Cross spokesperson Sue Thesenga.

Four other employees who worked closely with the pair are also self-quarantining as a precaution, Thesenga said, adding that the Red Cross shut down and thoroughly cleaned the Minneapolis donation center, which reopened Wednesday.

The organization said it notified 19 donors of the situation and none have reported falling ill.

Regional Red Cross officials say they've had to cancel more than 300 blood drives in Minnesota and the eastern Dakotas since the coronavirus outbreak. Still, they continue to ask for blood donations.

Memorial Blood Centers, a Minnesota-based, independent nonprofit, says thanks to strong donations and the cancellation of elective surgeries, blood supplies are currently adequate, but they too are encouraging donations.

— Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

North Dakota reports first death linked to COVID-19

North Dakota health officials Friday reported the first confirmed death of a North Dakota resident due to COVID-19 — a man in his 90s from Cass County, home to Fargo, who had underlying health conditions and acquired the disease through community spread, meaning the source of infection was unknown, authorities said.

— MPR News Staff

Friday morning at Costco: Searching for staples, redefining normal

There was a mostly full parking lot and a steady stream of customers heading into the Woodbury Costco as soon as it opened at 10 a.m. Friday.

Customers were met with signs alerting them to staples that were in stock — paper towels and butter, for example — and a longer list of what was not: toilet paper, spaghetti and sanitizer among them.

Despite the crush of customers, the aisles were eerily quiet as people piled items into their carts, many wearing gloves and some in face masks. The checkout lines snaked down the main aisle as shoppers kept distance from those in front and behind. Membership cards were scanned from a distance by clerks behind plexiglass screens.

“It’s going to be busy today,” a clerk with a name tag reading Brett said, looking down as he breezed items across the checkout.

— Brian Bakst | MPR News

St. Paul fire department speeds new grads

Seventeen St. Paul firefighters will graduate Friday, a month early, to help with the City's COVID-19 response.

All the firefighters graduating in advance of their original graduation date have completed proper certifications and have previous experience, said Roy Mokosso, the deputy chief.

“Those who choose to serve and wear a uniform and help others in their time of need, you don't know what that time of need looks like” he said. “For firefighters, the automatic assumption is it will be a fire or car accident but as EMS providers it could be anything.”

— Nina Moini | MPR News

Minnesota Orchestra cancels summer tour to Asia

The Minnesota Orchestra on Friday canceled its summer tour to South Korea and Vietnam. In addition to concern about spreading the virus through international travel, there was also the risk to musicians and crew members, and to audiences gathered at concerts, orchestra leaders said.

Like all other arts organizations in the state, the orchestra is now on hiatus.

-- Euan Kerr

Aid bill would boost child care providers

Minnesota early childhood educators may benefit from new funding dedicated to child care providers. The funding package that lawmakers passed Thursday in response to the coronavirus pandemic includes $30 million for child care providers.

"There are a number of early childhood faith-based programs that have had to close and because they are exempt from paying into unemployment because they are in churches, they have no recourse right now. They can't access the unemployment benefits," said Sara Benzkofer, executive director of the Minnesota Association for the Education of Young Children.

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

-- 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 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

Legislature backs COVID-19 rescue plan. The state House and Senate backed a $330 million bill to help head off some economic, health and spillover consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. Capitol leaders saying more may follow.

St. Paul hospital quickly converted to COVID-19 aid. In a flurry of construction, most of it over 72 hours, Bethesda Hospital has become a specialty center for the most severe COVID-19 cases. The first patients may arrive from other M Health Fairview facilities beginning Thursday afternoon.

Shelters struggle to provide safety, distance. Homeless advocates in Minnesota, bracing for surging needs, are pleading for more state resources to help protect the vulnerable population in crowded shelters and emergency centers.

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.

In the midst of a pandemic, in-home care providers face new challenges, stresses: Among the people who are still allowed to go to work during the coronavirus pandemic are personal care assistants and other in-home helpers. They provide essential living services to people who are elderly or who have disabilities. But the virus has created a new set of challenges for an industry that's already short-staffed and underpaid.

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.

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.