March 31 update on COVID-19 in MN: 12 dead, 26 in ICU; possible late May peak

A person walking in a skyway in a quiet downtown.
Few pedestrians walk along Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis on Monday, the first weekday of the state's stay-at-home order.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Updated: 8 p.m. | Posted: 5:20 a.m.

Twelve people have died from COVID-19 in Minnesota, up from 10 reported on Monday, while the number of cases in the state since the pandemic began has jumped to 629, state officials said.

Twenty-six people remain hospitalized in intensive care. Of the 629 people testing positive to date, 288 have recovered to the point where they no longer need to be isolated, the state Health Department said.

Updating reporters Tuesday, Gov. Tim Walz said the state’s modeling suggests the peak for hospitalizations could be pushed into late May in Minnesota, although that could happen two weeks earlier or later.

Officials expect to update the projections, but Walz said the state needed to be ready now in case the surge came earlier. “Sometime here in the next four weeks, we need to be prepared for that to be upon us,” he said.

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Reports show the virus surfacing in counties across the state, including Martin County on the Minnesota-Iowa border, where 25 people have tested positive for COVID-19 and two have died.

A graph showing the number of COVID-19 positive cases to date.

“I definitely have the sense that the community is scared,” said Chera Sevcik, community health administrator for Martin and Faribault counties. While it’s not clear why the area has the highest number of cases outside the Twin Cities, Sevcik said she and local leaders are meeting regularly on ways to check the spread.

Other cases include a central Minnesota drug and alcohol treatment and recovery program in Brainerd reporting a confirmed case of COVID-19. A local college president in southwestern Minnesota became the first confirmed case in Brown County.

The age range of those infected with COVID-19 in the state runs from 4 months to 104 years. Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, said Tuesday the 4-month-old is doing well now.

Minnesotans from 58 to 95 years old have died from the disease, the Health Department said Tuesday.

Emergency management leaders continue to prepare for a surge of COVID-19 patients, scoping out sites that could become makeshift hospitals as the need for beds and intensive care units is expected to increase. The goal is to add 2,750 beds, with 1,000 of those in the Twin Cities metro area.

Authorities have OK’d five sites so far that would be able to accommodate some 600 beds, Joe Kelly, the state’s emergency management director, said Tuesday. He didn’t disclose their locations but said the plan was not to build out and stock all spaces immediately, adding, “I hope that we never need any of these care sites we’re working on.”

Walz said Minnesota continues to secure medical equipment and supplies it will need as peak illness and hospitalizations approach.

Most of the coronavirus deaths in Minnesota have been in group care facilities, which remain a primary concern. Jan Malcolm, the state health commissioner, said Tuesday that 39 such facilities now have at least one case of COVID-19 confirmed, up from 31 Monday.

Ehresmann said 173 health care workers in the state have tested positive for COVID-19 but that only a few of those so far involve spread to the worker from a patient or group living resident.

Meanwhile, state economic officials continue to work through a surge of 250,000 unemployment claims driven by layoffs in the hospitality industry.

So far, the state has been notified of eight companies with layoffs of 50 or more, generating just over 4,000 layoffs. "Many of them are temporary, which is good,” said Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove.

2 cases at MN prisons; lawmakers urged to take action

Gov. Tim Walz and Minnesota’s new prison ombusman are asking lawmakers to consider a proposal to reduce Minnesota's prison population to slow the spread of the coronavirus. A Moose Lake inmate and a staff member at the Red Wing juvenile facility each tested positive for the coronavirus over the weekend, according to the state Corrections Department.

State prison ombudsman Mark Haase said it's difficult to maintain social distancing behind bars and inmates who are due to be released soon should be let out early.

"Unless we thin out the population in our prisons, I'm really concerned that we're not going to be able to manage the situation," he said.

Haase said Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell should have more authority to limit the number of incoming prisoners and to put inmates on supervised release six months early.

Walz says he'd consider an executive order to do that, but would prefer to have approval from the legislature. The DFL governor said at least one inmate has already been released ahead of schedule.

— Matt Sepic | MPR News

MSP airport nearly empty as COVID-19 slams air travel

Traffic at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport has plummeted in recent days.

Last weekend typically would have been part of the peak of spring break travel, but security screenings were down 94 percent compared to last year. Airport officials say travelers are using just 2 percent of the airport’s parking spaces.

Spokesperson Pat Hogan said the downturn may not be quick to reverse.

“There are about 35 domestic routes that have been suspended, 33 international routes that have been suspended, hopefully those will all come back some day,” Hogan said. “But the question is how soon that will be. Even once we get past coronavirus, how soon will people be ready to get on planes and travel across the country or around the world.

While the airport is undergoing a major terminal makeover, which will continue, airport officials are already cutting expenses and putting off other airport improvements, since their funding is largely dependent on fees from travelers.

— Tim Nelson | MPR News

MN Attorney General Ellison: Beware of coronavirus scammers

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison says his office has seen an increase in reports of price-gouging for essential items, as well as online phishing attempts to get people's information.

"That email may say if you don't call immediately, your computer is going to break down or you don't, or they may say where we have a mask that you can get or we have tests that you can get to the COVID-19 or some sort of really enticing offer,” Ellison said that's over the top or some sort of threatening, scary situation that makes people feel that they really have to respond."

Susan Adams Loyd, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota, said people also should be wary of fraudulent offers related to the upcoming federal stimulus checks.

Ellison urges people to call the attorney general's office or the Better Business Bureau if they are suspicious about a call or email.

— Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

Bumpy start for Minnesota schools on first day of distance learning

Many schools experienced high volumes of tech trouble Monday as Minnesota schools went online for statewide distance learning. Several districts reported that teachers and students were not able to log in to virtual classrooms like Schoology or Seesaw throughout the day on Monday.

In an email, a Schoology spokesperson said the number of concurrent users on Monday was the highest ever in its 10-year history.

As of Tuesday morning, some districts said the technical issues with both Schoology and Seesaw appeared to have been resolved.

Other teachers have reported issues with the web conferencing platform Zoom, saying strangers were logging into sessions with students and posting profane and sometimes pornographic content. Zoom says on its blog that it's recommended adjusting privacy settings to protect virtual spaces.

— Elizabeth Shockman | MPR News

3M ramping up N95 face masks production to meet coronavirus demand

Maplewood-based 3M says it’s taking steps to expand and protect the supply of respirator masks medical personnel need to protect themselves from the coronavirus.

By June, the company expects to produce 50 million N95 respirators a month in the U.S. The company says in the past week it has delivered 10 million of the devices to health care facilities across the country. Distribution is being coordinated in partnership with federal officials.

Meanwhile, 3M engineers are collaborating with several companies to find a way for hospitals to safely sterilize, reuse and extend the life of the respirators. The company has also established a hotline to take reports of any price-gouging or counterfeiting related to its products.

— Martin Moylan | MPR News

MN nursing homes face challenges as they brace for more COVID-19 cases

Nursing homes are bracing for their own surge of COVID-19 cases, even as hospitals look to them to make room for people acutely ill from coronavirus infections. Most of Minnesota’s deaths have been in long-term care facilities, and cases have been confirmed in dozens of facilities.

The need to expand hospital beds will mean that some patients are transferred to skilled nursing facilities to make room. Patti Cullen, president of Care Providers of Minnesota, which represents more than 900 long-term care facilities across the state, said that pressure will add to the existing strain on long-term care providers.

“What worries me the most is when the surge comes we will have unprotected workers because of the lack of PPE,” she said. “And we will have buildings where the hospital says, ‘you have to take all of these positive people,’ and our buildings won't be ready — either their physical plant isn't set up, or they don't have the staff.”

She said it’s even more difficult because many older people that have been infected with the coronavirus don’t have serious symptoms, and could be unwitting carriers of infection. Cullen also said families that are tempted to bring their relatives home from a nursing home or memory care facility may find care a challenge themselves as they try to avoid the coronavirus.

— Tim Nelson | MPR News

100th anniversary commemoration of Duluth lynchings postponed by COVID-19

Organizers of an event that was set to commemorate the victims of a lynching in Duluth a century ago say it will be postponed until next summer.

Organizers were planning to bring 10,000 people together on the streets of downtown Duluth on June 15 this year — at the site where three black men were lynched by a mob of thousands of people 100 years earlier. Now the day of remembrance will take place in 2021.

“Postponing the June 15 gathering and commemoration is the safest and most responsible thing for us to do,” organizers of the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial event said in a statement.

— Dan Kraker | MPR News

Grandma’s Marathon canceled

Organizers of Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth said Tuesday they are canceling the June 20 race and the weekend of events around it amid the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s the first time the race has been canceled since it began in 1977.

Race organizers say they are not issuing refunds to participants who have already registered, and are converting race fees to tax-deductible donations. They do say that registered runners will get a 20 percent discount for races in 2021, with details coming out by email in September.

— Tim Nelson | MPR News

Expired licenses to be considered valid for several more months

People whose license or ID card lapsed during the ongoing coronavirus epidemic will get a reprieve. Under a law that Gov. Tim Walz signed last weekend, expiration dates will be pushed out until the health emergency is over.

The new expiration date will be two months after Walz lifts a peacetime emergency.

The federal government has already delayed its Real ID deadline from October of this year to October of 2021. That is key people who will eventually need that card or another security-enhanced ID to get through airport security or into various federal buildings.

Minnesota vehicle registration won’t be granted extensions because people can still do that function online or by mail. Currently, car owners have 10 days beyond the end of their annual registration month to display updated stickers.

— Brian Bakst | MPR News

Self-employed to get some unemployment relief

Among those hardest hit by the response to COVID-19 are people who are self-employed.

Minnesota DEED Commissioner Steve Grove said people who aren't part of an enterprise that pays unemployment relief will get some help. He said that will be beyond loans aimed at small businesses.

"The federal government government has passed benefits for self-employed individuals, independent contractors, those who don’t usually qualify for unemployment insurance benefits. We are still waiting on some guidance from the federal government in terms of calculating wage rates, so we can pay out those benefits," he said. "But this is great news for independent contractors and self-employed individuals who would not usually be covered by this federal program."

Grove said the giant federal stimulus bill passed last week has a wide range of assistance for people who have lost work because of the outbreak, including additional cash for conventional unemployment, benefit extensions and other financial help.

— Tim Nelson | MPR News

Assigning days for unemployment applications

The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development reported Sunday that it is processing a record number of unemployment insurance applications.

It's asking that new applicants follow a system to apply on a designated day, depending on the last digit of their Social Security number.

If the last digit is a 0, 1 or 2, applications should be filed on Mondays. For 3, 4 or 5 —- Tuesdays. 6, 7, 8 or 9 — Wednesdays. And Thursdays and Fridays remain open to any number.

Find more details here.

— MPR News staff

Minnesota's COVID-19 hotspot isn’t in the metro — it’s in one southern Minn. county: As the number of positive COVID-19 cases in Minnesota continues to rise, the highest concentration of cases per capita isn’t in the Twin Cities — it’s in a rural southern Minnesota county. Martin County officials worry about how to tamp down community transmission, when they don’t know why the coronavirus has spiked in their county in the first place.

Minnesota couple fights illness and waits for cruise to end after fellow passengers die: A northern Minnesota couple and around 400 passengers remain stuck on a cruise ship with no idea of when or where they’ll dock. Four people aboard Holland America’s Zaandam have died, hundreds of others have fallen ill, and at least two have tested positive for the coronavirus.

'We'll get through this': Tribal nations prepare for COVID-19: In the best of times, the health care available to members of Minnesota’s Native American tribes is stretched thin. But as they watch the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases rise statewide — and mobilize to prepare for it — tribal leaders know they will quickly be overwhelmed if the virus surges in Indian Country, where health care comes in a patchwork of federal, tribal and private providers, and where poverty often means crowded housing and high rates of chronic health problems.

Essentia places 500 on unpaid leave as revenue declines: Essentia Health has placed 500 employees on unpaid leave as it deals with the financial impact of canceled surgeries and appointments because of the coronavirus pandemic. The move affects about 3 percent of the health care provider's workforce and involves nonmedical staff.

Gun sales soar amid coronavirus outbreak: Law enforcement officials and gun sellers say over the last several weeks they’ve seen a spike in gun sales and applications for permits to buy handguns driven in part by first-time owners.

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.