May 11 update on COVID-19 in MN: 13 more deaths; stay-at-home decisions loom

A tent in a parking lot
Health care workers gather in a tent during a lull in testing at the curbside collection facility Wednesday at St. Cloud Hospital.
Dave Schwarz | St. Cloud Times

Updated 6:25 p.m. | Posted: 5 a.m.

With Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order set to expire next Monday, state health leaders say they’re collecting information now on COVID-19 and the state’s readiness for a surge of hospitalizations to help the governor decide whether to extend the restrictions or let them expire.

The stay-home order, in place in some form since late March, has become increasingly controversial as the economic fallout from the disease continues, especially for the state’s restaurants and bars, which remain takeout-only.

There are “active conversations” happening now about what the next steps should be on the stay-home order, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters Monday. “We’re in the compiling-all the-data stage,” she said, including projections on case growth, intensive care capacity and supplies of protective gear for health workers, as well as economic data.

She also said that while the state was prepared now to test anyone with COVID-19 symptoms, there were no plans at this point to offer a test to people with no symptoms.

Her comments came hours after her department reported Minnesota’s COVID-19 toll had reached 591 deaths, 13 more than Sunday; 452 Minnesotans are currently hospitalized, 18 more than the prior day, although the number needing intensive care stayed relatively stable at 194.

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

Walz has come under fire and been sued for restrictions that have fallen unevenly on businesses. Traffic and cellphone data show people are increasingly disregarding them.

Last week, Walz said Minnesota remains in a precarious spot with case counts and deaths on the rise. He predicted that many customers aren’t ready to dine out or gather where there are crowds.

“To do this haphazard, and I think of business owners, if you open up and it becomes clear people got sick being there, it’s every bit as damaging as a stay-at-home order,” he said. “So we can’t get it wrong.”

Besides the stay-home order, Walz must also decide whether to extend his "peacetime emergency" order, which gives him authority to respond to the pandemic without legislative approval. Republicans in the Minnesota House have vowed to block a public works spending bill unless Walz drops the order when it expires Wednesday.

Testing continues to fall short of goal

Testing remains an ongoing concern as state officials try to strike a balance between public health and the need to restarting sectors of the economy.

Gov. Tim Walz has said testing 5,000 people every day is critical to reopening the economy and three weeks ago announced Minnesota would lead the nation in testing thanks to a “moonshot” project with Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota.

Since then, the state has surpassed that goal only once, though it has been close on a number of days.

And while supply shortages were faulted with limited testing in the early weeks of the outbreak, Malcolm said the capacity is there — and the initial messaging may be to blame. “We need to do more outreach to make sure people know they can and should be getting tested if they have symptoms,” she said Sunday.

Malcolm reiterated that on Monday, telling reporters that people who are experiencing symptoms "can and should be getting tested” and that the state has capacity for that.

But she and Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, said the state would not be opening the door anytime soon for testing of Minnesotans showing no symptoms at all.

The state still needs to be judicious in its testing, especially since it’s intensifying its focus now on long-term care facilities, Ehresmann said. Also, a negative test doesn’t guarantee that you won’t get the disease.

“A negative test is just a single point in time,” Ehresmann said. “Someone who tests negative today may become infectious tomorrow.”

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

The state is ramping up efforts to trace the contacts of people who’ve been infected, back to 48 hours before the onset of symptoms, said Ehresmann. Officials are rapidly staffing up on those investigations with a goal of having 460 people making calls by the end of the week, she added.

Officials on Monday also noted that the state received and distributed an allotment of the promising anti-viral drug remdesivir to treat some of the worst COVID-19 cases, and the state expected to receive another allotment soon.

Meatpacking remains at the center of case jumps

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 17 people have tested positive for COVID-19. In mid-April, there were just a handful of cases. On Monday, there were 1,269 confirmed cases. The numbers were still increasing, though at a slower rate than in previous weeks.

The JBS plant shut on April 20 but partially reopened last week 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 about 55 confirmed cases in Stearns County two weeks ago. By Monday, confirmed cases had jumped to 1,443.

Kandiyohi County in west-central Minnesota is also seeing cases jump three 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 Monday, the Health Department reported 316 people have now tested positive.

Despite the new numbers, Malcolm on Monday noted that the number of cases being discovered in those hot spots has moderated in recent days.

Some businesses back to work, others frustrated

The governor has said more than 90 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.

He’s loosened restrictions on some retailers, allowing customers to buy online and pick up goods curbside. And this week, doctors, hospitals and dental clinics are able to restart elective surgeries and dental services.

Customer-facing businesses that haven’t been green-lighted, however, are chafing at the restrictions. Recently, a Twin Cities barbershop owner publicly defied Walz’s order. Leaders in Lakefield, in southwestern Minnesota have 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 recently, though he noted that restarting of sectors of the economy — including letting crowds return to bars and restaurants — had to be done methodically with safety in mind.

As the stay-home order moves through a seventh week, a Burnsville gift and decor store announced online it was reopening Monday.

Ficus and Fig doesn’t offer any online sales, and co-owner Kelly Barker said she felt they had no option but to invite customers back in.

“We have been so very respectful of Gov. Walz and how he has been dealing with things. I would not want his job,” Barker said. “I understand how hard it is to have to try to make the best decision for everybody in the state. I get it. We’re just trying to make the best decision for us.”

Minnesota and other states have begun something of a return to normalcy, with at least 31 states partially reopening after weeks of restrictions.

But on Friday, Minnesota officials offered a sobering reminder that despite the easing of restrictions here and elsewhere, 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,” Walz said.

Correction (May 12, 2020): Minnesota has reached 5,000 completed tests daily twice in the pandemic. An earlier version of this story said the state had not yet met that goal.

Developments from around the state

Walz OKs in-person classes for students in critical sectors

Gov. Tim Walz on Monday signed an executive order to allow on-site training and testing for up to 1,000 students in critical care sectors. The governor's office said in a statement on Monday that the measure will help fill workforce shortages in industries that serve Minnesota's most vulnerable populations.

At Pine Technical and Community College in Pine City, for example, more than 30 students in its Certified Nursing Assistant program will be able to graduate after taking a final in-person exam and start working at long-term care facilities, according to the governor's office.

“As we conduct these technical skill classes, be assured that our presidents, faculty, and staff are working with the Minnesota Department of Health to make certain they adhere to all health and safety protocols warranted by the pandemic to ensure a safe learning environment,” said Devinder Malhotra, chancellor of Minnesota State.

Schools are required to have plans in place for hygiene and distancing standards to resume in-person programming.

— Jiwon Choi | MPR News

MN Senate backs faster economic restarts

A phased reopening of the state’s economy would be sped up under a bill that cleared the state Senate on Monday.

Majority Republicans advanced the bill that would let any business with a safety and sanitation plan to open at will. That would get around restrictions the Walz administration put in place, which has allowed for the resumption of some but not all commerce.

Sen. Andrew Mathews, R-Milaca, said the bill isn’t meant as an act of provocation. He says the months of disruption have been tough on everyone.

“Whether you have someone that has been sick or died from this illness, whether you are watching your life savings that have been tied up in something go away, if you are struggling financially there are so many areas this has impacted different people,” Mathews said. “We’re trying to find the best way forward.”

The bill would require plans that address social distancing, sanitation and occupancy considerations. Businesses that open without state permission would be shielded from any regulatory penalties.

Most DFLers voted against the bill and said it would put health at risk at a time of rising COVID-19 cases and death.

“Now more than ever. Now more than ever we need to make decisions based on science and fact rather than rushing to open everything,” said Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis.The bill doesn’t have a viable House companion but could become part of late-session negotiations.

— Brian Bakst | MPR News

MN House eyes $300M to boost COVID-19 tracing

A bill that would put $300 million into coronavirus contact tracing in Minnesota is set for a House vote this week.

The measure was approved Monday by the House Ways and Means Committee on a divided vote. Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, said it’s difficult to take steps to counteract coronavirus infections if there aren’t quick methods to alert people potentially exposed.

“It does very little good to just test if we don’t follow up with public health measures to control the virus,” Liebling said, calling it “the most important thing we can do now to get this under control and very importantly to restore confidence.”

The Minnesota Department of Health would use the money to hire thousands of contact tracers on a temporary basis, wage an awareness campaign and aid local officials in their case outreach.

Republicans argued it was the wrong strategy because COVID-19 is already spreading throughout Minnesota.

“The genie is out of the bottle. It’s too late,” Rep. Jerry Hertaus, R-Greenfield. “There are too many people that have it. It won’t serve any purpose.”A bill Republicans introduced Monday would bar mandatory contact tracing and prohibit other kinds of health tracking for people infected with contagious diseases such as coronavirus.

— Brian Bakst | MPR News

Minnesota receives shipment of remdesivir

Minnesota received its first shipment over the weekend of an anti-viral drug that shows promise treating patients with advanced cases of COVID-19.

The pharmaceutical company Gilead donated some of the experimental drug remdesivir to the federal government, which is, in turn, delivering it to the states.

The Minnesota Department of Health said it received an initial shipment Saturday and already distributed supplies to hospitals based on their number of COVID-19 positive patients.

The Health Department says the drug may help patients recover faster, but it's still being tested. In one study, it cut patients' recovery time from 15 to 11 days. Minnesota has been told it will receive additional shipments of the drug.

— Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

Routine vaccinations lag amid pandemic

Public health researchers are concerned about a drop in measles vaccinations amid the coronavirus outbreak. New research published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a significant decline in orders for measles vaccinations from early January to mid-April, compared to the same period last year.

HealthPartners Institute researcher Dr. Malini DeSilva co-authored the study, which also found a sharp drop in actual vaccinations starting in the middle of March. She said parents need to make sure they're taking their kids to the doctor for well-child visits.

"We know that there is a lot of disruption happening within the health systems, but if you delay those routine vaccinations, that puts millions of children at risk for infection with preventable and deadly diseases," she said.

DeSilva said many health systems have designated separate locations for patients with potential coronavirus infections so that other locations can be reserved for everyone else.

— Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Top headlines

Minnesota counties say contact tracing is taking too long: COVID-19 testing is ramping up in Minnesota, but contact tracing is lagging behind. County public health officials say the delays may be contributing to community spread of the virus.

As Minnesota retailers reopen, they're navigating a new way of doing business: Monday marks one week since many “nonessential” retailers in Minnesota were allowed to reopen — with limitations. Those stores and service providers had to take safety precautions and minimize their contact with customers, navigating a new way of doing business.

Advocates say pandemic makes it harder for domestic violence victims to leave: Domestic violence shelters are still open during the pandemic. But advocates say stay-at-home orders are making it harder for people to leave abusive situations — or even just to call for help.

Lawmakers dash toward finish — or just to special session: The Legislature is supposed to be done by next Monday, but the coronavirus pandemic is sure to bring lawmakers back into a special session.

COVID-19 spread at Amazon Eagan warehouse scares workers: Workers at Amazon’s warehouse in Eagan say they are terrified to report to work after six co-workers recently tested positive for COVID-19. They say the retail giant isn’t doing enough to protect them, and fear the disease will break out beyond the warehouse walls into their communities.

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.