Updated 5 p.m. | Posted: 5:09 a.m.
The United States inched toward a grim milestone in the coronavirus pandemic Wednesday, with nearly 100,000 people having died from the disease.
Deaths tied to COVID-19 in Minnesota grew to 932 on Wednesday, rising 33 from the prior day. Hospitalizations also rose and the number of people in intensive care reached 260, a new daily high in the pandemic.
Attorney General Keith Ellison, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington and Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm — joined Gov. Tim Walz as he briefed reporters Wednesday.
Less than two days after George Floyd died while in police custody, the news conference that has become a daily staple throughout the coronavirus pandemic focused its attention on Floyd’s death and the latest impacts of COVID-19.
Malcolm joined Flanagan, Walz and others in connecting the public health risks of both.
“It is something to note that we’re here talking about the daily COVID briefing, but in the context of a much larger picture of health in our community — and what creates health and what threatens health,” she said.
She went on: “The conditions in our community that put some people at greater harm, at greater risk than others, is the challenge that we all face together.”
Those disparities, she added, show up in COVID-19 data nationwide: Who’s exposed to the disease, who’s being tested for it and who’s being hospitalized.
Malcolm said state health leaders are paying close attention to the daily intensive care counts. Wednesday marked the highest daily total of ICU beds in use since the beginning of the pandemic.
While health officials expected an acceleration in the need for intensive care beds, the fact that some hospitals have already moved into their surge capacity at this point in the curve of the disease is a concern, Malcolm said.
Health officials still expect the spread of the disease to peak in Minnesota later in June or into July.
"The peak is still a ways off — but there is a degree of uncertainty that comes in that prediction,” Walz said. “And how we're acting ... that will have an impact on it."
Officials have said Minnesota’s two-month stay-at-home order helped buy time for the state to secure supplies and prepare for the expected surge in hospitalizations and ICU cases.
Malcolm said recently those intensive care beds are filling up in the Twin Cities metro area. Officials said Tuesday that 87 percent of ICU beds in the metro area are now in use, much of that from COVID-19 cases, while other regions in the state still had available capacity.
Although they prepared for it, Malcolm and other leaders continued to implore Minnesotans to stay vigilant and take the disease seriously. Counts of cases and deaths continue to climb even as Minnesota loosens more restrictions, potentially opening the door to greater community spread.
Malcolm said there’s a worry that people let down their guard believing COVID-19 “‘only a problem for certain populations and not for me.’ … That's just not the case.”
While people living in long-term care continue to account for most of the deaths, Malcolm noted that 42 is the median age of those who’ve tested positive for the disease.
Community spread is continuing and cases are not as isolated as people believe, she added, noting that officials won’t know for two to three weeks the effects of the most recent moves to loosen curbs on businesses, religious ceremonies and other gatherings.
Malcolm offered a glimmer of positive news Tuesday, telling reporters that the time it’s taking for total COVID-19 cases to double in Minnesota has stretched out now to 16 days, offering some hope that the disease will not overwhelm the state’s health care system.
Wednesday’s numbers also showed that of the 22,464 confirmed with the disease in Minnesota since the pandemic began, more than 70 percent have recovered to the point where they no longer need to be isolated.
Indoor dine-in plan ‘not yet’
The state recently OK’d larger religious gatherings and agreed to let financially strapped restaurants and bars reopen for outside service starting June 1, with capacity capped at 50 guests.
A week after the governor laid out his plan to loosen the restrictions on bars and restaurants, Walz on Wednesday issued an executive order formalizing the rules.
Some in the industry had hoped Walz would modify his decision to permit indoor dining. Walz said not yet.
“It won’t happen before June 1. But what I tell them is we’re taking very seriously what the next step of that is,” he said. “I would tell Minnesotans again, for every one of these things we put out there’s a thousand exceptions to the rule, to use common sense, to mask up.”
Walz praised cities that are closing down streets or parking lots to help restaurants expand outdoor seating. He said customers can rush inside in severe weather.
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 15 people have tested positive for COVID-19. In mid-April, there were just a handful of cases. By Wednesday, there were 1,488 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 Wednesday, confirmed cases were at 1,984 with 12 deaths.
Kandiyohi County in west-central Minnesota is also seeing cases continue to climb more than a month 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 then.
On Wednesday, the Health Department reported 475 people have now tested positive.
While the counts in those counties are high relative to their population, officials say the growth in new cases in those areas appears to be stabilizing.
In other counties, however, case counts are climbing rapidly. Todd County, in central Minnesota, has seen the number of confirmed cases leap from just a few at the start of the month to nearly 300 as of Wednesday.
Developments from around the state
MN Supreme Court sets deadline over Walz recall
The Minnesota Supreme Court has set deadlines for submitting information related to a recall petition of Gov. Tim Walz.
A petition filed last week with 32 Minnesota voter signatures seeks to remove Walz from office over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. It says Walz exceeded his powers and infringed on rights with restrictions he imposed. Justices say they want supporting evidence in hand by Friday.
The governor’s defenders have until Tuesday to make a counter-case. In Minnesota, there is a high bar for a recall of elected officials.
— Brian Bakst | MPR News
Court dismisses business challenge to Walz COVID-19 curbs
A coalition of businesses that challenged Minnesota coronavirus restrictions have suffered a legal setback.
The state Court of Appeals dismissed the lawsuit filed by the Free Minnesota Small Business Coalition, which challenged orders imposed by Gov. Tim Walz. The appeals court said it lacked jurisdiction to review the validity of the Walz orders.
The groups had challenged them on equal protection grounds and said Walz exceeded his authority with the curbs on business activity.
Another lawsuit is pending in federal court.
— Brian Bakst | MPR News
Some businesses thrive despite pandemic: The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for small businesses. But some through skill or luck — or a combination of both — have thrived or positioned themselves to be even stronger once the coronavirus threat fades.
How MPR News' data reporter reads COVID-19 data: Every day at 11 a.m., the Minnesota Department of Health releases new data on COVID-19 cases in the state. The updates can be confusing, with dozens of new points of information, missing context, and tons of questions. Here’s a look behind the scenes.
COVID-19 in Minnesota
Data in these graphs are based off Minnesota Department of Health cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.
The coronavirus 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.