June 12 update on COVID-19 in MN: Positive signs, but 'not out of the woods yet'

Person reflected in a car sideview mirror as another person stands nearby.
Lynn Goerdt (left) talks to Angie Ramirez (right, reflected in mirror) May 20, 2020, during a free face mask distribution event organized by the Duluth NAACP and held in the parking lot of the Holy Family Catholic Church in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Updated 6 p.m.

Minnesota health officials offered some cautiously upbeat analysis Friday on the current state of the COVID-19 pandemic even as they warned the situation could deteriorate if Minnesotans get complacent.

Two of the most closely watched metrics — current hospitalizations and intensive care cases — continue to plateau at levels seen about a month ago, suggesting that the state is successfully managing the spread of the disease so it does not overwhelm the health care system.

“The hospitalization picture has stabilized and improved pretty significantly in recent weeks, which has been great to see,” Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters Friday.

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

She and Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, again implored people to continue wearing masks in public spaces and keep social distancing. People who feel flu-like symptoms should get tested and people who feel ill should stay home.

“The positive news is that many of our indicators are neutral or slightly positive,” Ehresmann said, adding that while it was cause for celebration, “we’re not out of the woods, yet.”

‘Tired of it, too’

Their remarks came hours after the Health Department on Friday reported 25 more deaths from COVID-19, bringing the total number of people who’ve died from the disease since the pandemic began to 1,274.

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The number of people currently hospitalized (403) continued to dip as did the daily count of people needing intensive care (191).

Officials have been pleased by that relative stability but continued to press Minnesotans to act responsibly in public — masks and distancing — to minimize the spread of the disease.

“We know people are tired of this, and we are tired of it, too,” Ehresmann said Friday. “But following these precautions on a personal level is really important for the state to keep moving in the right direction.”

Earlier in the week Ehresmann cautioned that the coronavirus could surge again in the fall and winter along with influenza.

The state’s COVID-19 response this spring to minimize indoor contact in restaurants, bars and other gathering spaces effectively eliminated the typical influenza season, but as people return to social spaces, the state is likely in the fall to face influenza and COVID-19 cycles together, she said.

Restrictions on daily life were eased significantly on Wednesday with Gov. Tim Walz letting a host of businesses reopen — including indoor bar and restaurant service at limited capacity.

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

Total confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Minnesota hit 29,795 Friday. In about 84 percent of those cases, people have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.

Among the deaths, 1,015 — about 80 percent — involve people living in long-term care, nearly all had underlying health problems.

The growth in the number of new congregate care facilities having an outbreak has slowed significantly, Ehresmann added.

Meatpacking hot spots remain

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

That includes Mower County in southeastern Minnesota, where there were 638 confirmed cases as of Friday.

MN counties with the fastest per-capita growth in COVID-19 cases

That puts Mower County second to Nobles County in cases per capita, according to an MPR News analysis.

Mower County is home to Hormel Foods and Quality Pork Processors, both of which say they’re partnering with Mayo Clinic to ramp up employee testing.

At Hormel, officials say they anticipate that by early next week, they'll have 40 active cases among employees. They expect that an additional 39 people who've already tested positive will have recovered by then.

Quality Pork Producers has 90 employees with active cases, and 100 more who have recovered.

While some of Mower County’s positive cases are associated with people who work in the facilities and with the people they live with, county officials say they are also seeing transmission among people who live in Mower County but who work in other counties where coronavirus is present.

In southwestern Minnesota, Nobles County reported 1,607 confirmed cases as of Friday. In mid-April, there were just a handful of cases. Roughly 1 in 14 people now have tested positive for COVID-19 in the county, although the increases are coming at a much slower rate than earlier in the epidemic.

Worthington’s massive JBS pork processing plant was the epicenter of the Nobles outbreak. 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 — skyrocketed in May.

An undisclosed number of workers at both plants have tested positive for the virus. There were about 55 confirmed cases in Stearns County in early May. By Friday, confirmed cases were at 2,096 with 17 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 Friday, the Health Department reported 541 people have now tested positive in the county.

Developments from around the state

Early test results show a low positivity rate among Floyd protesters

Pop-up coronavirus testing sites around the Twin Cities have taken samples from more than 3,000 people who attended mass gatherings in the aftermath of George Floyd's killing.

State Health Department Commissioner Jan Malcolm says that the state has gotten about 1,300 test results back, and they show a 1.4 percent positivity rate.

Malcolm said people who don't have symptoms can get tested, and the tests are free.

"If you were involved in any of the mass gatherings — the protests, the vigils, the neighborhood cleanups, providing food, water, etc. — we really encourage you to get free testing at one of these community sites,” Malcolm said.

While that positivity rate is so far relatively low, health officials say it's too soon to tell if the protests will be the source of widespread community transmission.

Four sites were open on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, and will be open those days in coming weeks as well.

  • The Holy Trinity Church on East Lake Street in Minneapolis

  • The Sabathani Community Center on East 38th Street in Minneapolis

  • The New Salem Baptist Church on Bryant Avenue North in Minneapolis

  • The Jimmy Lee Recreation Center on Lexington Parkway in St. Paul

— Catharine Richert | MPR News

Mayo Clinic introduces a new antibody test

A new test developed by Mayo Clinic researchers will detect neutralizing antibodies — an indicator of how well someone who has been exposed to the coronavirus can fight it off, if exposed again.

Mayo has already developed an antibody test, but it only indicates that a patient has been exposed to the coronavirus. That test doesn’t discern whether someone is immune to the virus — or for how long.

The new test will be most useful in helping doctors and researchers discern how effective a plasma donation from someone who recovered from COVID-19 will be in treating someone who is actively fighting the virus.

The test may also be useful in the development of a vaccine.

Scientists at Mayo stress the test isn’t an "immunity passport”; testing positive for neutralizing antibodies doesn't mean a patient is no longer at risk of catching the coronavirus.

— Catharine Richert | MPR News

Top headlines

Lake of the Woods, the Minnesota county COVID-19 has (so far) forgotten: COVID-19 has spread across nearly the entire state of Minnesota. But Lake of the Woods County, in the state’s far north, is the only county in the state where there are no confirmed cases.

U of M plans to resume in-person classes this fall: The University of Minnesota plans to return, at least partially, to in-person classes and students on campus this fall, with social distancing and other safety measures for COVID-19

Across Minnesota, graduating seniors mark milestones amid the pandemic: Due to the coronavirus pandemic, graduating seniors faced an unexpected ending and weren’t able to experience last year traditions. We also asked seniors across Minnesota what they’d like to say to their graduating peers and what they want people to know about the class of 2020. Here are some of their heartfelt answers.

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.