June 17 update on COVID-19 in MN: Daily death counts slowing; hospitalizations dip

Person reflected in a car sideview mirror as another person stands nearby.
Lynn Goerdt (left) talks to Angie Ramirez (right, reflected in mirror) during a free face mask distribution event organized by the Duluth NAACP last month.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Updated 7:36 p.m.

Minnesota’s COVID-19 toll continued to show signs of plateauing with current hospitalizations and intensive care cases falling and the daily count of deaths trending down.

The Health Department Wednesday reported 12 more people succumbing to the disease, putting Minnesota at 1,325 deaths since the pandemic began.

However, the running three-day average of fatal cases has fallen by more than half in the last 10 days and is the lowest since mid-April.

Seven-day rolling averages show a similar pattern:

New COVID-19 related deaths reported in Minnesota each day

The counts of people currently hospitalized (351) and those in intensive care units (181) — two of the most closely watched measures of how Minnesota is managing the spread of the disease — are at their lowest points in more than a month.

Intensive care capacity is “in about as good a situation as it could be at this point,” Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters Wednesday.

ICU beds in the Twin Cities are still near high levels of use given the needs of COVID-19 patients along with cases not related to the disease. While there’s not a lot of slack in the system, the state is prepared, Malcolm said.

Current COVID-19 hospitalizations in Minnesota

Officials continue to implore Minnesotans 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.

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

About 87 percent of those confirmed with the disease have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated. Among those who’ve died in the pandemic, some 80 percent were residents of long-term care or assisted living facilities, nearly all had underlying health problems.

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

Asked about the potential spread of the disease from the recent protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, Malcolm said the additional local testing in Minneapolis and St. Paul by health officials have found only about 1 percent positive but that “it’s a little too early to be drawing definitive conclusions” about how the protests may have affected the spread of COVID-19.

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 733 confirmed cases as of Wednesday, 73 more than Tuesday.

COVID-19 cases in Mower County

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.

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 the county but work in other counties where coronavirus is present.

Health officials plan a COVID-19 testing push in Austin, Minn., this weekend, Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, said Wednesday.

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

Nobles, in southwestern Minnesota, reported 1,620 confirmed cases Wednesday. 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 there have been no increases the past few days.

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 Wednesday, confirmed cases were at 2,111 with 19 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.

As of Wednesday, the Health Department reported 552 people have now tested positive in the county.

Cases have also climbed noticeably in Cottonwood County, home to a pork processing plant in Windom, and in Lyon County, around a turkey processor in Marshall.

MN schools to get more guidance for next academic year

School districts across Minnesota are expected to receive public-health guidelines from the state Thursday on how to plan for various scenarios come fall.

School buildings have been closed to students since March due to COVID-19. By late July, state health and education officials will announce whether schools can allow children to return to in-person classes, or engage in distance learning or adopt a hybrid of the two scenarios.

Thursday’s announcement is expected to provide districts with guidance on how to plan for each of those three scenarios.

Developments from around the state

DFLers to tie Walz spending proposals to local COVID-19 aid

Minnesota House Democrats are tying COVID-19 aid to local governments to new spending proposed by Gov. Tim Walz.

Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature had reached a broad agreement to pass on $841 million in federal aid to local city and county governments, based on the number of people in each area. A Senate bill to that effect passed 62-4 on Tuesday, and the idea has support in the House, too.

But Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal, said Wednesday that the measure will be amended Thursday morning to add $130 million of Walz’s supplemental budget proposals.

That move could increase pressure on Republicans to support new spending they oppose by tying it to the popular local aid. But it could also threaten to derail the local aid by attaching what Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, called a “poison pill.” Democrats have a majority in the House, and Republicans have a majority in the Senate. 

Republican legislators oppose new spending because of the state’s projected $2.4 billion deficit. Carlson said the spending proposals that will be tacked on are all helpful and necessary, including funding for prisons, veterans, and the Minnesota Zoo. 

The local aid needs to be distributed by the end of June. The Minnesota Senate is planning to adjourn on Friday, putting lawmakers on a strict time crunch.

— David Montgomery | MPR News

Officials: COVID-19 fears keeping kids from well visits

State health officials say they’re concerned that kids in Minnesota aren’t getting appropriate routine medical care as the COVID-19 pandemic lingers on.

Researchers saw vaccination rates plummet in the weeks that followed the initial outbreak of coronavirus infections. Minnesota Department of Health leaders said they thought that reflected a sharp drop in parents bringing their kids in for routine checkups.

“We want parents to know that it's very important that they continue to make sure their kids get evaluated,” said Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director. “Those well-child checkups include many important things, including immunization.”

Dozens of children came down with measles in 2017 after a drop in vaccinations in Hennepin County.

— Tim Nelson | MPR News

K-12 academic year plans expected by late July

Schools will get state guidance by late July on how to plan for the upcoming academic year, the Minnesota Department of Education says.

Schools need months to hire staff, register students and plan for all the details of starting the upcoming school year. But state officials say they will not release guidance on what form the 2020-2021 academic year will take until the week of July 27. 

At the moment, officials have told school districts and charter schools to plan for three possible scenarios in the fall: 

1) All children return to school buildings and in-person classes.

2) No children return to school buildings for in-person classes. Instead, all students will engage in distance learning.

3) Employ a hybrid of these two options with both in-person classes and distance learning. 

State officials say they will give districts guidance on planning for the three scenarios starting this week.

— Elizabeth Shockman | MPR News

Top headlines

Walz, DFL leaders speak on restarting economy: Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan held a press conference to discuss their plan for the state’s economy for the special session.

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.

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