April 24 update on COVID-19 in MN: 221 dead, cases top 3K; some students struggle

A marquee at a school reads "Be safe out there, rhinos. We miss you."
A pedestrian walks past a sign with encouraging words outside Justice Page Middle School on April 16, 2020 in Minneapolis. Gov. Tim Walz brought in the voices of teachers and students along with state health officials Friday as he updated Minnesota on the efforts to deal with the educational, medical and economic fallout from COVID-19.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News file

Updated 7:58 p.m.

Gov. Tim Walz brought in the voices of teachers and students along with state health officials Friday as he updated Minnesota on the efforts to deal with the educational, medical and economic fallout from COVID-19.

The governor’s afternoon briefing with reporters typically focuses on the latest efforts of various state agencies. On Friday, that included news about a a new website offering citizens information on where to get tested.

Much of the Friday briefing, though, focused on the challenges of teaching and learning with school buildings shuttered. The governor and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan acknowledged that some kids are struggling with distance learning and that many of those struggles fall along racial, ethnic and income lines.

The pandemic has "laid bare" the inequities in Minnesota’s education system, Flanagan said.

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Her comments came as the COVID-19 death toll climbed to 221 Friday, up 21 from Thursday, while the number of total confirmed cases topped 3,000 for the first time. Current hospitalizations and intensive care cases also rose.

Death and case counts have been sharply higher all week and are expected to continue surging. The latest numbers come a day after Walz relaxed some business restrictions but kept school buildings closed and raised doubts about the Minnesota State Fair opening in August.

Deadline looms on stay-home order

Walz is still evaluating how long to keep Minnesota’s stay-at-home order in place. The current restrictions on nonessential travel and activities are in place until May 4.

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

The DFL governor has been gradually allowing more exceptions. Up to 100,000 employees will be able to head back to factories or office buildings on Monday. But Walz said expansions in the capacity to test, trace and isolate around COVID-19 will determine how fast other elements of society can reopen.

“Opening up recklessly will only make things worse. Opening up without a plan will make things worse,” Walz said on a call Friday morning with mayors and other local officials. “But hunkering down and doing nothing will cause that pain, as I talked about yesterday, that makes it impossible to move forward.”

Other states are further along in resuming retail activities but Walz said he won’t put public health at risk to speed a reopening.

While Walz did offer some optimism Thursday, including the relaxed business guidance, he also signaled that Minnesota was still not close to allowing the return of people in packed public spaces, including crowded bars, restaurants or major sporting events and warned of a coming surge in COVID-19 cases as testing ramps up dramatically.

Walz said on Friday that the supply chain of personal protective equipment has opened up somewhat and having enough PPE and space is a big part in decision making on whether or not to reopen elective surgeries, which would also need space and PPE supplies.

School closings exposing gaps

While 100,000 Minnesotans could get back to work next week, public school buildings will remain closed for the remainder of this school year — a decision that Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan on Friday described as incredibly difficult.

He and Flanagan also acknowledged that many Minnesotans do not have the broadband access and other technical means to make distance learning work.

Minnesota Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said officials were working now on ways to improve broadband access and get updated technology into the hands of students who need it, and hoped to tap federal COVID-19 aid funding to pay for it.

Friday’s briefing call with the governor and state leaders also included students and teachers who’ve been struggling to deal with the loss of face-to-face classroom contact.

A Twin Cities math teacher on the call said the COVID-19 crisis has brought racial and ethnic disparities in education into a harsh spotlight. Many of her students, she said, are unable to stay in touch or do homework; others have become full-time caregivers for their families, she added.

Claire Murphy, a 10-year-old St. Paul student on the call with state leaders and reporters, said she didn't get to say goodbye to teachers and friends before the school year ended, which makes her sad, and that she doesn’t like distance learning as much as going to school.

“I know there are a lot of tears shed over this” among students and families, Walz said.

New website to find COVID-19 testing

As part of the governor’s new plan to team up with Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota and launch a massive new testing effort in Minnesota, Walz’s office on Friday unveiled a new website offering citizens information on and where to get tested and how to obtain the results.

Testing in Minnesota and elsewhere has been hampered by supply chain issues and materials shortages. Minnesota has tested about 1,200 or so people daily as of late. That’s only about one-quarter of the testing Walz says is needed.

For weeks, Walz has said that drastically increased testing would be critical to restarting parts of the economy. Two kinds of tests, ones that diagnose COVID-19 and others that see if a person has been exposed to the virus, are included in the plan, along with increased tracing.

While the plan to test 20,000 people a day would make Minnesota No. 1 in the nation for testing, Walz said testing alone would not end the crisis.

Younger and older deaths

Death and case counts are expected to continue their upward climb. Friday marked four consecutive days recording double-digit deaths.

The age range of deaths from the disease has also widened — the oldest victim is now listed at 109 years old, the youngest, 50. A 4-week-old Minnesotan remains hospitalized.

Among those those who’ve died from COVID-19, officials say most were living in long-term facilities and had underlying health problems.

Among cases in long-term care, 820 involved residents, while 303 involved health care workers. cases. A total of 172 long-term care facilities in Minnesota have at least one confirmed COVID-19 case, said state infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann.

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said the state is trying to help those facilities fill staffing gaps when too many workers are out.

Among other statistics, the Health Department reported:

  • 278 people remain hospitalized, up 10 from Thursday.

  • 111 are in intensive care, up 7 from the prior day.

  • 3,185 people have tested positive for the virus across Minnesota since the pandemic began, with half of those patients recovered to the point they no longer need isolation.

Officials say the number of positive tests is only a sliver of the number of people carrying the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.

SW Minnesota outbreak

Nobles County continues to have the largest cluster outside the Twin Cities and Rochester, with the outbreak centering around the JBS pork processing plant in Worthington.

On Monday morning, company executives announced they were indefinitely shutting the plant, which employs some 2,000 workers, to try and get control of the situation. Employees this weekend will have access to drive-through COVID-19 testing this weekend at Worthington Ice Arena.

Nobles County cases continue to multiply rapidly. On Friday, the Health Department said Nobles now has 258 positive tests for the disease, up, 70 from Wednesday. It had just two cases last week.

It has the largest outbreak by far of any county in the state relative to its population.

COVID-19 cases per capita in Minnesota counties

Cases have also surfaced at the Jennie-O Turkey Store operations in Willmar, in west-central Minnesota. On Friday, the Hormel Foods subsidiary said it would close its Willmar Avenue and Benson Avenue facilities, both located in Willmar, out of an “abundance of caution.”

The turkey processing plants will be cleaned and sanitized, and employees will continue to receive all base pay and benefits during the shutdown.

As of Thursday, 14 of more than 1,200 workers had tested positive for COVID-19, the company said. Health experts have told the company that as testing increases so will positive results.

‘Quite a ways away’ for bars, restaurants

Walz unveiled a set of standards Thursday to permit manufacturers, and other businesses that aren’t customer-facing to restart and let employees return to work as soon as Monday, providing there is safe-distance and sanitizing rules in place and executives commit to enforce them.

Thousands of businesses could get back to work under the new protocols. However, it won’t help those that depend on customers and crowds — leaving behind struggling restaurants and bars, among others.

Walz on Friday made it clear that restaurants and bars were likely to continue to be takeout-only beyond May 4, when the governor’s current stay-at-home order is set to expire.

On the list of businesses that will OK’d to return to normal operation, “bars and restaurants are quite a ways away,” he said.

Walz also acknowledged concerns of small business owners across Minnesota who’ve had to stay closed. "If we get this wrong, if we rush that will only prolong what we're doing.”

A graph showing the percentage of cases tested and their current status.

Unemployment cash starts to flow to self-employed

Walz on Friday also said that unemployment benefits have begun going out to self-employed Minnesotans, people who typically do not qualify for such aid but who are receiving payments in the economic fallout from COVID-19.

More than 450,000 Minnesotans — about 14 percent of the state’s overall labor force and twice the total number of applicants filing during all of 2019 — have filed applications for unemployment aid over the past few weeks.

Developments from around the state

MN DFL Party moves May state convention online

The Minnesota DFL Party will hold its state convention online, the party announced Friday.

A statement says it's the first time a convention has not met in person in its 76-year history. The convention was scheduled for May 30 and 31.

Instead, the party will use a remote balloting system to choose candidates. DFL Party Chair Ken Martin said the move was made to protect people from COVID-19.

Minnesota’s Republican Party on Tuesday also announced that the party won’t hold an in-person state convention next month due to the coronavirus situation.

— MPR News staff

Jennie-O shuts down 2 Minnesota turkey plants

A Hormel Foods subsidiary said Friday it's halting production at a pair of Minnesota turkey-processing facilities after some employees tested positive for the coronavirus.

Jennie-O Turkey Store Inc. said 14 employees had tested positive at two plants in Willmar, in western Minnesota, as of Thursday. The plants employ about 1,200 workers.

The plants are the latest to close nationally as meat processing plants wrestle with coronavirus infections among workers. The company didn't immediately respond to a question about how many turkeys the plants process daily.

Jennie-O president Steve Lykken said the facilities will be deep-cleaned while the company figures out a plan to reopen. He said the company has taken steps to protect workers, including physical distancing and personal protective equipment.

— The Associated Press

Cases surge at Willow River boot camp

The Minnesota Department of Corrections is reporting a spike in COVID-19 cases at a boot camp in Willow River.

On Wednesday, the Corrections Department reported 15 cases at the Challenge Incarceration Program in it's Willow River facility in northeastern Minnesota. On Friday, the number of confirmed cases jumped to 40; seven others are presumed to have it. And there are 12 tests still pending.

That means about one-third of all the residents at Willow River — about 140 inmates — have COVID-19. And nearly all the 43 cases reported in Pine County are at the Corrections Department campus, which hosts a program for nonviolent offenders with substance abuse histories.

Family members have complained about a lack of social distancing in the facility. They also say the department was slow to require that staff wear masks.

The Corrections Department said it's implemented a number of measures to minimize the impact of COVID-19. It also said it's increased testing, especially at Willow River and the prison in nearby Moose Lake.

— Dan Kraker | MPR News

HealthPartners furloughing 2,600 employees amid pandemic

HealthPartners is furloughing 10 percent — or roughly 2,600 of its employees — in response to financial difficulties stemming from COVID-19.

That's in addition to as much as 40 percent pay cuts for salaried leaders across the organization and a hiring freeze. The furloughs concentrate on areas where HealthPartners has little-to-no business as hospitals across the state halt elective procedures and surgeries.

A HealthPartners spokesperson said it's not clear yet how long the furloughs will last.

Other hospitals systems, including Mayo Clinic and M Health Fairview, have made similar staff and cost reductions to shoulder the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

— Catharine Richert | MPR News

Minneapolis to take down, close some park amenities

Minneapolis parks officials say they will take down or block basketball rims and modify other park amenities because too many visitors aren't following social distancing rules.

In a statement, Superintendent Al Bangoura said the board has put a lot of effort into trying to educate visitors about social distancing. Recently, the board posted signs on and around basketball courts warning players that if large, unrelated groups kept using the courts that the rims would come down.

Parks officials say they will also take down tennis court nets, close playgrounds and block access to skate parks in Minneapolis. Signs will be posted in picnic areas limiting gatherings to 10 people or less. The parks themselves will remain open.

The city of Saint Paul took similar measures in its parks earlier this month.

— Brandt Williams | MPR News

Summer X Games, Hmong, Fringe summer festivals canceled

Three more large summer events in the Twin Cities have been canceled due to coronavirus concerns.

The Minnesota Fringe Festival, a popular summer performing arts festival in Minneapolis that was scheduled for August will not be held.

Organizers of the Hmong International Freedom Festival in St. Paul have canceled this year's event. The festival had been scheduled for July 4-5 and would have been the event’s 40th anniversary.

A Summer X Games stop in Minneapolis scheduled for July has been canceled due to the coronavirus. The action-sports event plans to bring regular and original programming through the World of X Games TV series and on digital and social channels. They will kick off an event called “Real Street” in May. It’s an all-video, all-street skateboarding competition shown on XGames.com.

— MPR News staff, The Associated Press

AG Ellison: Online St. Paul retailer was ‘price gouging’

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said Thursday his office stopped a St. Paul retailer from engaging in COVID-19-related price gouging. Ellison said Red Star Trader offered to sell food, health care and cleaning goods, as well as other products at excessive prices, as the coronavirus crisis started to unfold last month.

For instance, the company offered 50-pound bags of rice for $120, Ellison said.

"They’re what I would call pandemic profiteers. And what they did was wrong. It was not only morally repugnant in my view, but illegal according to the executive order,” Ellison said.

Gov. Walz’ executive order issued in March prohibits excessively high prices for goods essential for health and safety.

The company agreed to stop selling goods at inflated prices. Red Star Trader faces a $20,000 fine if it violates terms of a settlement with the attorney general.

The attorney general’s office has received about 1,500 price gouging complaints. Many cases have been resolved with calls or letters of reprimand. Three have gone to court.

Red Star Trader declined to comment.

— Martin Moylan | MPR News

Vice President Pence to visit Mayo next week

Vice President Mike Pence is coming to Rochester, Minn., Tuesday.

He'll tour Mayo Clinic facilities supporting COVID-19 research and treatment, and meet with Mayo staff.

Pence, who heads the federal government’s effort to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak, was also in Minnesota last month when he toured 3M. He praised the company's efforts to meet the demand for medical masks.

— MPR News staff

Top headlines

Social distancing is working in MN — but only if we keep it up: A new data analysis of the coronavirus outbreak by the University of Texas suggests that Minnesota’s social distancing efforts might be paying off in its response to COVID-19 — but it also implies that even bigger outbreaks might lie ahead if those social distancing practices were to end.

Matching health workers with peers to ease stress of fighting pandemic: People who treat patients with COVID-19 face serious challenges to their mental health — from sadness for their patients to worries about their own safety. A new program at the University of Minnesota is trying to address that by connecting health workers with a buddy.

U of M researchers to study whether coronavirus could get into drinking water: Two University of Minnesota researchers plan to study whether the coronavirus could be traveling from wastewater into drinking water supplies — and posing a potential health risk.

Emergency vehicles honor health care workers and fallen paramedic: Police cars, motorcycles, firetrucks and ambulances flooded downtown Minneapolis Thursday afternoon to honor health care workers and Hennepin County EMS paramedic Karl Meek, who died Tuesday. The procession shut down what little traffic there was in downtown Minneapolis, as emergency vehicles circled Hennepin Healthcare with lights and sirens blaring. Hospital workers in scrubs and masks waved to the parade from the skyway. 

Even knowing the risks, some counties want tourists back: The governor’s response to COVID-19 has brought the tourism industry close to disaster, some officials say. Three Minnesota counties passed resolutions Tuesday, asking Gov. Tim Walz to lift his state-wide stay-at-home order and allow businesses to reopen, despite growing numbers of COVID-19 infections.

COVID-19 in Minnesota

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.