May 16 update on COVID-19 in MN: Death toll in state reaches 700

A person under a tent directs a car.
A security guard directs cars at a HealthPartners Clinic and COVID-19 testing site in Plymouth, Minn., on Thursday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Updated: 11:17 a.m.

Minnesota's COVID-19 death toll hit 700 on Saturday, as the state also reported a new high in completed tests.

The state Department of Health said there were 17 more deaths from COVID-19, with 14 of those people living in long-term care facilities.

The state reported results from more than 8,600 tests — nearly 2,000 more tests than the previous daily record in the state and well above the 5,000-test benchmark state officials have said is vital for safely reopening the economy.

That increased testing confirmed 740 new cases, bringing the state total to 14,969. About two-thirds of those patients have recovered to the point where they no longer need to be isolated.

The numbers of COVID-19 patients hospitalized dropped slightly Saturday to 493, down from 498 on Friday. But the number of people being treated in ICUs increased to 225, up from 200 the previous day.

Meanwhile, health officials are asking parents, clinics and doctors to be on the lookout for a worrisome inflammatory condition affecting children that’s believed to be related to COVID-19, and that’s proven deadly elsewhere.

“There may be some cases in Minnesota” of multi-system inflammatory syndrome, Dr. Ruth Lynfield, the state’s epidemiologist, said Friday. “We would like to get the reports and be able to find out if it is occurring and how frequently it is occurring.”

People are asked to call their clinic or doctor if their kids start showing symptoms, including fever, abdominal pain, rash, swollen hands or feet or pink eyes. In New York state, several children are believed to have died from the condition.

State officials again implored Minnesotans to regulate their behavior as they gather in small groups and head back to stores. Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order expires Monday.

“Enjoy the weather,” but stay 6 feet apart, wear a cloth mask outside and don’t gather in groups larger than 10, Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, said Friday.

Minnesota health leaders are hoping residents don’t follow Wisconsin’s lead as restrictions start to loosen. Citizens there almost immediately began packing bars and restaurants unmasked after the governor’s stay-at-home order was overturned on Wednesday.

“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 Thursday.

Minnesota's new 'stay safe' order What you need to know

In Minnesota starting 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.

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.

Curbs continue on large group venues

Restrictions on restaurants, bars, theaters, bowling alleys and venues that attract large crowds will remain even as restrictions ease starting Monday.

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.

On Friday, Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, said the restrictions on visitors to long-term care facilities would also continue on after Monday.

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 Friday, there were 1,342 confirmed cases., although the numbers are rising at a much slower rate than in previous weeks.

The JBS plant shut on April 20 but has since partially reopened 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 Friday, confirmed cases were at 1,641 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 394 people have now tested positive.

Testing jumps

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 the prior day. On Friday, the agency said nearly 6,000 tests had been completed.

Officials continue to note that as testing intensifies, more confirmed cases of COVID-19 will be discovered.

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.

Official 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.


Developments from around the state

Mall of America seeking state COVID-19 relief

The Mall of America is seeking financial help from the state as it tries to bounce back from its coronavirus closure.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said Friday that mall officials are seeking legislative approval to tap into a tax increment financing account to get through the current crisis. But he noted that the city of Bloomington and local legislators are opposed.

DFL Gov. Tim Walz told reporters that he is willing to listen.“All our businesses we need to figure out. But when you have one that has that big of draw, both nationally and internationally, there’s an impact that it has tax-wise, not just for the city of Bloomington but for the state. So, we are talking about it. It is one of the issues that came up.”

Rep. Mike Howard, DFL- Richfield said on Twitter that the state should not be bailing out the wealthy owners of the mall while thousands of small businesses are struggling to pay rent or mortgages.

— Tim Pugmire | MPR News

Minnesota courts preparing to reopen

Minnesota courts are beginning the gradual process of resuming in-person hearings, as judges and court employees may return to their offices starting Monday.

Chief Justice Lorie Gildea has ordered a preparedness plan to be implemented before more face-to-face proceedings may take place.

Her plan includes social distancing, wearing masks, and the daily cleaning of courtrooms and offices.

Starting June 1, a limited number of criminal jury trials may resume. But civil jury trials will not be held until September.

Meanwhile, anyone going in to a federal courthouse in Minnesota must wear a face mask starting Monday. However many proceedings are still being conducted by phone and video link.

Federal criminal jury trials are postponed until July 5, as are other proceedings such as sentencing hearings where defendants do not consent to videoconferencing.

— Matt Sepic | MPR News

WI officials beg public to follow COVID-19 rules

Several major Wisconsin counties on the Minnesota border are pleading with the public to help mitigate the coronavirus’ spread now that the state Supreme Court has struck down Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ stay-at-home order. 

The conservative-controlled court’s ruling paved the way for widespread reopening of businesses on Wednesday, with some Wisconsinites flocking to the bars once again that night. 

With Wisconsin being open for business again, local public health authorities are now asking residents to continue with many of the same safety practices under the stay-home order.

“The order is gone, the virus is not,” Kathy Ronchi, the Douglas County health officer in Superior, Wis., said in a statement. Her agency is encouraging residents to continue practicing coronavirus prevention strategies including social distancing, mask-wearing, and minimizing travel and group gatherings. 

St. Croix County, home to Hudson, released similar guidance once the court’s decision came down. “We can’t go back to normal daily living,” Kelli Engen, county public health officer said in a statement

La Crosse County also is asking residents to practice mitigation efforts, but its top public health officer went further, criticizing the state Supreme Court’s decision.

“Regrettably, the state of Wisconsin and La Crosse County are not ready to go back to ‘business as usual,’” Jen Rombalski, the county health department director, wrote in a statement. “A complete return to pre-COVID function will result in a dramatic rise in infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, and could necessitate future prolonged shutdowns.”

— Cody Nelson | MPR News

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 headlines

Rap video challenge enlists youth to fight pandemic apathy: More than a dozen teenagers are competing in the COVID-19 rap challenge. The contest urges youth of color to rap about their pandemic experiences and use their voice to curb the spread of the virus in the black community.

Health official says Rochester house party spawned cluster of COVID-19 cases: Through testing and contact tracing, health officials believe that a single person at the party spread the virus to multiple other individuals, who further spread the virus in the community, said Graham Briggs, Olmsted County public health director.

Major effect of quarantine is delaying COVID-19 peak, not preventing it: A scenario that mirrors Walz’s Wednesday announcement projects that by the end of May, an estimated 1,441 people will have died of COVID-19 in Minnesota. By next March, that model predicts that just over 29,000 people will have died from the disease in the state.

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.


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.

Before you go...

MPR News is dedicated to bringing you clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives when we need it most. We rely on your help to do this. Your donation has the power to keep MPR News strong and accessible to all during this crisis and beyond.