May 14 update on COVID-19 in MN: 663 dead; 'need for vigilance' remains

People wearing face masks and scrubs wave and hold phones.
Health care workers wave and watch community members parade past the front of M Health Fairview Ridges Hospital on Tuesday in Burnsville.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News file

Updated 7:30 p.m. | Posted: 5:30 a.m.

A day after Gov. Tim Walz unveiled plans to end his stay-at-home order, state health officials on Thursday implored Minnesotans to self-regulate their behavior as they start gathering again in small groups and heading back to stores.

“There absolutely is a need for vigilance. This is not going back to the way things were before the pandemic,” Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said of the changes ordered by Walz. “This is attempting to move forward to more economic activity and more protected social interactions.”

Asked about scenes that unfolded Wednesday in Wisconsin when residents there began packing bars and restaurants unmasked after the governor’s stay-at-home order was overturned, Malcolm said Walz has been clear that Minnesotans must still need to be part of the solution to keep the disease in check.

"If this is going to work, we are going to have to do this in a careful and intentional way," Malcolm said. “We can all contribute to do this successfully, or not.”

Cases, deaths, ICU patients continue to rise

Malcolm’s remarks came hours after her agency reported COVID-19’s latest grim toll on Minnesota.

The Health Department confirmed 663 deaths, up 25 from Wednesday. The daily number of Minnesotans hospitalized neared 500 while those currently in intensive care crossed 200 for the first time since the pandemic began.

Total positive tests for the virus hit 13,435, up 518, from the prior day. Of those, more than 60 percent have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.

Even though counts of deaths, positive tests and hospitalizations continue to grow, Walz is letting his stay-at-home order expire, rather than adding on more time to slow transmission of COVID-19.

Beginning Monday, retail businesses will be allowed to reopen with limited capacity and group gatherings of 10 or fewer people, including at places of worship, will be permitted once again.

After his remarks Wednesday night, the governor conceded to reporters that his moves were something of a gamble on human behavior and on the virus not spreading too aggressively.

“This is either going to work or not work,” Walz said. “People are either going to stay out of the hospital or get in it."

Health officials say they’re watching several key metrics to gauge if the disease is accelerating as restrictions are lowered. Among them: the number of days it takes for cases to double, the amount of daily testing, the proportion of positive tests and the level of community spread that can’t be traced to specific contacts — an indication the disease might be more widespread.

The community spread metric is the only one where the state is currently meeting its goal, said Dr. Ruth Lynfield, the state epidemiologist.

Testing jumps; a third death in age 30s

Three weeks ago, Walz unveiled a “moonshot” project with Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota for a massive ramp-up in testing that would achieve Walz’s goal of completing 5,000 tests daily, and as many as 20,000 diagnostic tests per day.

While the effort stumbled out of the gate, it appears to be gaining traction. On Thursday, the Health Department reported Minnesota had completed more than 6,700 tests.

Beyond the count of confirmed deaths, the Health Department said there are nine probable deaths from COVID-19, where the disease was listed on the death certificate but a positive test on that person was not confirmed.

More than 80 percent of those who’ve died from the disease in Minnesota were living in long-term care facilities, with nearly all having some underlying health problems.

The department statistics noted a third person in their 30s had died from COVID-19. Malcolm told reporters later Thursday that this person also had underlying health problems.

Elderly Minnesotans remain a particular concern as people start to gather again. Lynfield noted that the virus can be spread without symptoms of illness and so people could inadvertently infect senior relatives or acquaintances.

“Don’t have a face-to-face, prolonged conversation with an elderly neighbor,” she advised.

Lynfield said the state would also soon be receiving a third allotment of remdesivir, the drug that’s shown success helping some of the hardest-hit COVID-19 patients.

Officials, though, continue to brace Minnesotans to expect more cases and more deaths as the pandemic pushes toward summer. Walz has said he expects Minnesota’s COVID-19 death toll to reach 1,000 by the end of May.

Curbs continue on large group venues

Restrictions on restaurants, bars, theaters, bowling alleys and venues that attract large crowds will remain.

The DFL governor won’t permit restaurants to legally resume dine-in service for now, keeping them takeout-only. He said he’s instructed his agencies to assemble a plan over the next week for a "limited and safe" reopening of bars, restaurants and other places of public accommodation June 1.

On Thursday, the Mall of America said it would begin a limited reopening of stores on June 1. Rosedale Center in Roseville announced similar plans to open stores on Monday and restaurants on June 1 following the government guidelines.

When they do come back, those establishments are likely to face capacity limits. Walz also said he signed an executive order ensuring that people can raise safety concerns about their workplaces without discrimination or retaliation.

It’s a similar situation for hair salons and barber shops, gyms and other currently restricted activities that haven’t been able to serve customers since March. Salons and barbershops are allowed to sell products for curbside pickup but aren’t allowed to provide services in-shop.

There were a few other noteworthy changes for what would be allowed, assuming people follow the distance and gathering rules:

  • Families are allowed overnight camping at a single campsite, not in a developed campground. Private and public developed campgrounds remain closed to recreational camping. Summer day camps are allowed but not overnight camps.

  • Small one-on-one or one-on-two person guided and instructional activities such as guided fishing, birding, or outdoor fitness training can resume.

  • Outdoor tournaments, competitions, practices, and sports that allow for social distance.

During his Wednesday evening address, Walz praised Minnesotans for toughing it out the past two months, saying the stay-home order keeping Minnesotans from congregating in crowded public places had helped check the spread of the disease, saved thousands of lives and bought Minnesota time to secure needed health care supplies and prepare for a surge of COVID-19 hospitalizations.

He acknowledged that the move had cost tens of thousands of Minnesotans their jobs as retail, hospitality and other sectors shut down.

"We are still in the heart of this pandemic and this can go in a bad direction quickly,” he said. The goal, he added, was to keep the spread of the disease to a simmer and not a boil.

Schools may reopen for in-person summer learning

Schools will have the option of partially reopening to students this summer under a new executive order Walz issued Thursday.

Districts can offer summer learning through a hybrid model of distance learning and in-person instruction, or they can continue distance learning.

The order is intended to help students who have been struggling with remote instruction and need more support. School-based child care is also allowed under the order, but children of essential personnel will get first priority.

Schools that reopen this summer must follow state health guidelines on masks, social distancing, screening and cleaning.

The governor is directing state education officials to begin planning for the possibility of having to combine in-school and distance learning models, should the pandemic require such measures when school starts in the fall.

Meatpacking hot spots remain

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 16 people have tested positive for COVID-19. In mid-April, there were just a handful of cases. By Thursday, there were 1,319 confirmed cases. The numbers were still increasing, although 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 Thursday, confirmed cases had jumped to 1,609 with nine deaths.

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 Thursday, the Health Department reported 386 people have now tested positive.

Developments from around the state

MN House advances bill to help local governments cover COVID-19 costs

A Minnesota House committee advanced legislation on Thursday to distribute federal money to cities, counties and townships for expenses related to COVID-19.

The ways-and-means vote was 27 to 0. Under the bill, local governments would share $667 million, which would be provided in onetime grants. The distributions would be based on population. DFL Rep. Paul Marquart, of Dilworth, said the funding will help cover the unexpected costs of the pandemic.

“This bill would provide the funding for the services provided by our local heroes, those people on the front lines,” Marquart said. “So, that’s our police officers, our firefighters, our first responders, our nurses, everyone who basically, literally are out trying to save lives in our communities.”

Marquart said the bill does not include Hennepin or Ramsey counties because they received separate, direct appropriations from the federal government.

— Tim Pugmire | MPR News

Top Senate Republican: Session expected to end on a hopeful note

Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka offered an upbeat assessment on Thursday for the final days of the 2020 legislative session.

Lawmakers must complete their work before Monday, and several issues remain unresolved. Still, Gazelka said he is optimistic about the finish, including the passing a bonding bill for public works projects. He said talks continue with the House and the governor.

“With the governor lifting the stay at home order, that was a step I think brought us all closer together, which I think is really good,” Gazelka said. We’re all trying to focus on COVID-19 and what do we do about getting the economy up and running safely. So, that seems to be moving, which then I think triggers all the other things that we want to get done.”

Gazelka did not mention the disagreement over state employee contracts. He is pushing to renegotiate the labor agreements to stop a second pay raise from going into effect during the economic downturn.

— Tim Pugmire | MPR News

Lawmaker warns MN State college system faces big hit

Minnesota’s system of regional four-year universities and two-year colleges will be forced to confront some monumental challenges this fall as effects of the coronavirus pandemic linger.

“Understand the pain and the struggles that they’re going to face coming into the fall. They’re already seeing some significant struggles already,” Senate Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee Chair Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, told colleagues Thursday.

The financial and educational strain will fall on the institutions and their students. Fall projections anticipate at least a 10 percent declining enrollment, he said. International students account for up to 15 percent of enrollment on some campuses, but some won’t be able to travel or acquire visas, he added.

— Brian Bakst | MPR News

Some MN counties OK property tax payment extension

At least three dozen Minnesota counties have approved extensions to the usual May 15 deadline to make the first half of annual property tax payments.  

According to data gathered by the Association of Minnesota Counties, the counties are: Aitkin, Blue Earth, Brown, Chisago, Crow Wing, Dakota, Fillmore, Freeborn, Goodhue, Hennepin, Houston, Hubbard, Kanabec, Kandiyohi, Lyon, Mahnomen, Morrison, Mower, Nicollet, Olmsted, Pine, Pope, Ramsey, Rice, Roseau, Sherburne, Sibley, Stearns, Steele, Swift, Todd, Waseca, Washington, Watonwan, Winona and Yellow Medicine.

Many have pushed the due dates into summer to give more time to homeowners and business property owners short on money due to coronavirus repercussions to make payments before penalties or interest accrues.

A lot of the county actions apply to property owners who don’t pay through an escrow account. Others limit the amount that is subject to the relaxed rules. Business groups had asked the state to delay a collection of a commercial levy but that hasn’t happened.The second half of property tax payments are still due in mid-October.

— Brian Bakst | MPR News

Top headlines

Pandemic-canceled film festival recreates itself as virtual event: “MSPIFF39 Redefined” offers movies, live filmmaker appearances and even dance parties as a way to preserve the community built around the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival.

MNsure offers special enrollment for those who've lost jobs, health coverage: Minnesotans who have lost jobs or income due to the pandemic, and others, can sign up for health coverage on the state’s insurance exchange. Some may qualify for help paying their premiums.

State launches massive effort to test long-term care residents, staff: Teams of public health personnel and Minnesota National Guard members on Thursday began targeted, in-depth testing in about 20 long-term care facilities throughout Minnesota.

Businesses want to reopen, but how to do it safely? More businesses see relief as Gov. Tim Walz’ stay-at-home order lapses on Monday. For the rest, bars, restaurants and salons among them, a possible restart date of June 1 offers some hope, but how exactly business will be conducted is still a question.

Frustration and uncertainty as workers wait on unemployment pay: As demand for unemployment benefits has skyrocketed, some Minnesota workers are anxiously awaiting news of whether they’ll receive benefits from the state.

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.