May 8 update on COVID-19 in MN: 534 dead; 'This thing is going to be with us'

A sign with encouraging words for the class of 2020
A sign with encouraging words for the class of 2020 outside a house in St. Paul on Tuesday. Minnesota education officials on Friday announced that the state is banning traditional, large-scale high school graduation ceremonies to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Megan Burks | MPR News file

Updated 4:58 p.m.

As COVID-19 deaths and case counts continued their unhappy ascent, Minnesota officials Friday said they are preparing a backup morgue as they brace for some 500 more deaths before the end of May.

Large, traditional high school graduation ceremonies were banned. State leaders again noted the disease’s heavy toll on people of color. Gov. Tim Walz said he’d ask the Legislature to replenish the state’s draining COVID-19 emergency fund.

Overall, Friday’s briefing offered a sobering reminder that even as Minnesota inches back toward normalcy, the fight against the disease is nowhere near done and the damage done is nowhere near complete.

“What I don't think has sunk in yet, this thing is going to be with us at least until we get really good therapeutics, or we get herd immunity, or we get a vaccine,” said Walz.

‘Grim milestones’

Walz’s comments came hours after the Health Department reported 534 deaths tied to COVID-19, up 26 from Thursday, while the total number of cases confirmed since the pandemic began crossed 10,000.

The count of Minnesotans currently hospitalized jumped by 38, to 473, with 198 intensive care cases.

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“These grim milestones are just a reminder that we’re still in the thick of this fight,” Walz said.

Documents show Minnesota plans to spend up to $7 million to purchase a cold-storage facility it can use if needed as a COVID-19 morgue. Officials confirmed those plans but declined to say where the morgue would be set up. Most of the deaths so far have been in Hennepin County, which has had 362.

‘Building toward the peak’

Long-term, congregate care operations have worried officials since the pandemic began, given the medical vulnerability of people living there.

More than 80 percent of the deaths from COVID-19 in Minnesota were people living in long-term care or assisted living facilities; nearly all had underlying health problems.

On Thursday, Walz unveiled a “battle plan” to fight the spread in long-term care facilities. The new focus includes expanded testing, more personal protective gear for health workers and ensuring “adequate” staffing levels when workers fall ill.

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm on Thursday called staffing a “chronic problem” even before the outbreak. One option: bringing in health care workers furloughed from other jobs who could fill the breach at a facility. Walz also suggested National Guard members might be deployed.

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

Economic, health toll falling hardest on people of color

State officials continue to reiterate growing concern about COVID-19’s effects on the state’s communities of color.

On Thursday, Malcolm noted worrisome illness trends among care workers in congregate care, noting that workers of color were falling ill at relatively high rates. African immigrants make up a “critical part of the workforce,” Malcolm said. “We can see with this data that they are being quite disproportionately affected as well.”

On Friday, she noted people of color are showing up disproportionately in the count of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. Black Minnesotans, for instance, make up about 6.6 percent of the overall population but nearly 17 percent of confirmed COVID-19 cases and 19 percent of hospitalizations, she said.

Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan noted that many black and Latino citizens are in jobs that make them vulnerable to exposure, “exposing and exacerbating … inequities that have been here all along.”

Economically, Flanagan said more than 25 percent of people of color in the state’s labor force are seeking unemployment benefits. That includes nearly 1 in 3 black Minnesotans in the labor force.

Meatpacking remains at the center of case jumps

Total confirmed COVID-19 cases hit 10,088 Friday, up 723 from Thursday, continuing a string of days of accelerating case counts as testing for the virus intensifies.

Many of the recent outbreaks outside the Twin Cities metro area are focused around meatpacking plants. Officials have intensified testing in those hot spots, uncovering more infections.

In southwestern Minnesota’s Nobles County, where an outbreak hit Worthington’s massive JBS pork plant, about 1 in 18 people have tested positive for COVID-19. In mid-April, there were just a handful of cases. On Friday, there were 1,177 confirmed cases as testing in the region ramped up.

The JBS plant shut on April 20 but partially reopened Wednesday with expanded hygiene and health monitoring measures.

Similar problems have been reported in Stearns County, where COVID-19 cases tied to two packing plants — Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant in Cold Spring and Jennie-O Turkey in Melrose — have skyrocketed. An undisclosed number of workers at both plants have tested positive for the virus.

There were 55 confirmed coronavirus cases in Stearns early last week. By Sunday, as testing intensified, there were 589. And by Friday confirmed cases had jumped to 1,274, surpassing Nobles County.

Kandiyohi County in west-central Minnesota is also seeing cases jump two weeks after officials with the Jennie-O turkey processing plant there said some employees had tested positive for the coronavirus. The county had confirmed three COVID-19 cases back then. On Friday, the Health Department reported 261 people have now tested positive.

No in-person high school graduation ceremonies

State education officials Friday morning formally announced what many expected: Minnesota is banning traditional, large-scale high school graduation ceremonies to limit the spread of the coronavirus, and is encouraging schools to hold online ceremonies instead.

The Minnesota Department of Education issued guidance saying indoor graduations and ceremonies held outside in stadiums and on football fields are not permitted. It said such gathering are not considered safe at any size.

Walz and Malcolm were asked later if smaller district ceremonies or graduation parties beyond immediate family could be held. Malcolm indicated new guidance may be coming on the size of gatherings after the governor’s current stay at home order expires on May 18.

“We will be discussing the size of gatherings further in the next coming days,” said Malcolm, but for now the guidance continues to be no gathering beyond immediate family.

The state, she said, is “heading up the steepest part of our curve,” she said. “People should not be gathering in large groups outside of their households.”

Political pressure mounts over spending

Tensions are growing over Walz’s power to direct spending around COVID-19 without broad approval of the Legislature.

Since March, the Walz administration has pulled from a $200 million fund for urgent needs after consulting select lawmakers. That power expires early next week, but a bill to extend the authority another year is advancing.

State Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, argued unsuccessfully Friday for a more limited extension to check the governor’s power.

“This is our job. This is what we’re supposed to do to be involved in that,” he said.

DFLers, who control the Minnesota House, say it would handcuff the state’s coronavirus response. The account itself is down to about $65 million, with money going toward protective gear, testing supplies and disposal of destroyed hogs amid meat plant shutdowns.

On Friday, Walz said he’s asked the Legislature to replenish the COVID-19 fund and extend the May 11 spending deadline.

Some businesses back to work, others frustrated

The governor has said about 91 percent of Minnesota’s workforce is now able to return to their workplaces with hygiene and distancing rules in place, under his tweaked stay-at-home order.

Restrictions have also been loosened on some retailers, allowing customers to buy online and pick up goods curbside. On Wednesday, he gave the OK to restart elective surgeries and dental services.

Customer-facing businesses that haven’t been green-lighted, however, are chafing at the restrictions. Earlier this week, a Twin Cities barbershop owner publicly defied Walz’s order. Leaders in Lakefield, in southwestern Minnesota, recently voted to support businesses that want to defy the governor’s order and reopen. In northwestern Minnesota, the Thief River Falls City Council asked for their city to be exempt from the order.

“These are horrible choices. There are no good choices,” Walz said Friday of balancing Minnesota’s public health and economic well-being. He reiterated, though, that restarting of sectors of the economy — including letting crowds return to bars and restaurants — had to be done methodically with safety in mind.

“Folks are not going to go back if they don’t feel safe,” he said. “With Minnesota (cases) still growing, to gather in a crowded place at this point in time is certainly a catalyst for spread.”

He said he remained baffled by protesters gathering unmasked in large groups calling for the state to reopen the economy immediately and arguing that the stay-at-home order was a violation of their rights.

He noted that during WWII, British people were called on to keep their lights off to thwart the Nazi bombing of London.

“I couldn’t imagine Britons during the blitz saying, ‘Well, I can turn my lights on because I have the right to turn on my lights,’” the governor said. “The entire city shut down because it put them as a target.”

A graph showing the percentage of cases tested and their current status.
A graph showing the percentage of cases tested and their current status.
David H. Montgomery | MPR News

Developments from around the state

MN Zoo cuts 125 jobs as its doors shut amid pandemic

The Minnesota Zoo is laying off 48 employees and eliminating dozens more positions. In all, more than 125 positions are being eliminated.

In addition to the layoffs, several open positions are not being filled, and dozens of seasonal jobs will be suspended. The Minnesota Zoo's partner organization, the Zoo Foundation, is also laying off four employees.

In a press release, Zoo director and Foundation president John Frawley said the global pandemic has created a situation unlike any other in the zoo's 42-year history. He said animals will continue to remain exceptional care while the zoo is closed to the public. Affected employees were notified this week.

— Marianne Combs | MPR News

MN House backs aid for low-income Minnesotans, small business owners

The Minnesota House on Thursday passed legislation to help many people with low incomes and small business owners get through the COVID-19 pandemic. The vote was 75-58.

The bill includes money for emergency housing assistance, rural broadband and small business loans. It also has temporary pay raises for the personal care assistants who care for the elderly and disabled. The $208 million measure would be partially paid for with recently received federal funds related to COVID-19.

DFL House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, of Golden Valley, said the assistance is critical.

“Those workers, those families, those businesses are essential to our state, and Minnesota has to act to help them get through this crisis,” Winkler said. “If we do nothing, if we let them fall through the cracks and be left behind, we are going to have a much, much slower economic recovery afterward.”

House Republicans argue that with a large budget deficit ahead, the bill is not affordable. But Republican House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, of Crown, and other Republicans argued that a better approach would be allowing businesses to reopen.

“The best thing that you can do is [to] allow these businesses to open up safe,” Daudt said.

Senate Republicans are trying to provide help through a package of tax breaks.

— Tim Pugmire | MPR News

Hennepin Co. board chair: No property tax hike next year

The chair of the Hennepin County Board said Thursday that the county will not raise property taxes next year. County Administrator David Hough said the county will need to find $50 million in cost savings to meet that target.

The board is also planning a phased reopening of public facing services. Hough said some of the changes made during the shutdown, like online services and digital document access will continue. He said most employees will also continue to work from home with help from video conferencing programs.

"Nearly every department I have met with, so far has indicated these products have transformed their ability for staff to meet together while they are apart,” Hough said.

Hough said the county is already reducing costs through a hiring freeze and not refilling jobs that open up through attrition. The board will hear more cost saving proposals in the coming weeks.

— Brandt Williams | MPR News

Fargo leaders look to ‘test their way out’ of virus surge

Officials say they’ve identified several COVID-19 hot spots in and around Fargo, which is North Dakota’s biggest city and which has had more confirmed cases of the disease than any other community in the state.

With the rate of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the Fargo area continuing to dwarf the rest of the state, Gov. Doug Burgum is calling on local representatives to help slow the spread. He has promised resources to help with testing and other measures he believes will keep people healthy and businesses open.

Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney, a member of the newly created Red River Valley COVID-19 Task Force, said Thursday that he believes the city and county can “test our way out of this.”

— The Associated Press

Walz says fish near home for Saturday’s opener

The governor on Thursday reiterated the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources call for anglers to stay close to home for this weekend's fishing opener. Officials are asking anglers not to stay overnight, to bring all the supplies they need, and to only travel as far as they can go and return on a single tank of gas.

The DNR has already sold more than 350,000 fishing licenses this year. The department says it doesn't anticipate issuing citations and plans to continue to use an educational approach to enforcing the stay-at-home order.

Fishing resorts are open, although many are reporting large numbers of cancellations.

Walz said while Minnesota wouldn’t be setting up roadblocks at the borders to keep out anglers from the Dakotas, Iowa and Wisconsin, but “our guidance is to stay close to home. The more people travel, the more the spread.”

He also urged people who are driving north for fishing not to stop for gas or food.

“This is not about defying an order that I put out,” he said. “This is about defying public health warnings. This is about defying the science of how this spreads.”

— MPR News Staff

Top headlines

School leaders, families struggle to plan for summer and fall learning: Superintendents say they’ve already begun moving ahead with plans for their students in the summer and fall, but remain ready to change if state leaders continue to forbid in-person learning.

Deaths in nursing homes spur officials to increase testing, bolster staff levels: As the number of deaths in long-term care facilities from COVID-19 has grown, so too has the pressure to address the issue. Minnesota officials say they have a new plan to try to get a better handle on the problem after hundreds of older adults have died.

Call to investigate poultry plant as Stearns County COVID-19 cases rise: In the past two weeks, Stearns County has emerged as a hot spot of COVID-19, with confirmed cases topping 1,100 on Thursday, as workers at a poultry processing plant in the county say their company hasn’t done enough to protect their health.

Legislature agrees on measures to make voting safer: The Minnesota Senate passed a bill Thursday that unlocks $17 million in federal funding that will be used to protect polling places from the spread of the coronavirus.

Store workers are now likely masked; customers, less so: Although most major retailers are requiring employees to wear masks while working, some stop short of requiring customers to also wear masks while shopping. 

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.