June 18 update on COVID-19 in MN: 1,344 deaths; hospitalizations fall

A woman speaks at a podium with mask under her chin.
Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm delivers testing statistics on COVID-19 at a press conference in May.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

Updated 6 p.m.

The Minnesota Health Department Thursday reported 19 more deaths from COVID-19, bringing the state’s total to 1,344 deaths since the pandemic began.

At the same time, the counts of people currently hospitalized (345) and in intensive care units (171) — two of the most closely watched measures of how Minnesota is managing the spread of the disease — remain at their lowest points in more than a month, continuing a hopeful, downward trend.

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

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.

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. Health officials on Thursday issued guidance for outdoor visits at long-term care facilities, in addition to earlier guidelines on window visits.

Malcolm said while the coronavirus poses a health risk to residents, isolation is also a concern.

"Visitor restrictions, while intended to protect residents from infection, have been extremely challenging for residents and families, including so many of us, over these last several months,” she said during a Thursday briefing.

Visitors still must be screened for symptoms, and everyone has to wear masks and keep a minimum distance of 6 feet. Facilities are in charge of developing visitation hours and schedules, and they must have staff nearby and keep visitors from walking through facilities.

The new guidance is effective immediately. The state recommends those who want to visit residents, either through a window or outdoors, set up visits ahead of time through the facility.

Current COVID-19 hospitalizations in Minnesota

The latest statistics come as state leaders announce new fall planning guidance for K-12 schools at a Thursday afternoon news conference.

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.

State education officials on Thursday asked schools to prepare for all three scenarios — in-person, online or a hybrid of both — so they can pivot quickly from one to another if needed, depending on how widespread the virus becomes in the fall.

State infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann said balancing the physical health of students and teachers with their academics is tricky because the role children play in transmitting the virus is still unclear.

"We're trying to thread a needle, we're trying to balance the critical role that education plays in society and in a child's and young adult's life with public health goals and public health needs,” she said during Thursday’s media briefing with Education Department Deputy Commissioner Heather Mueller and other state officials.

Officials continue to implore Minnesotans to keep social distancing and wearing masks in public spaces. People who feel flu-like symptoms should get tested and people who feel ill should stay home.

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.

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

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 744 confirmed cases as of Thursday.

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 1,621 confirmed cases Thursday. 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’s only been one additional case recorded 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 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.

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

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 Thursday, confirmed cases were at 2,122 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 Thursday, the Health Department reported 553 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.

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

Top headlines

After widespread deaths of residents, nursing homes begin to see glimmers of improvement: Three months into the COVID-19 pandemic in Minnesota, nursing home nurses and operators believe they may be limiting the coronavirus spread. Wider testing made a difference, they said.

In-school, online or both? State urges districts to prep for it all this fall: State health and education officials on Thursday released guidance to help Minnesota’s public schools plan for the coming school year. But the future track of the coronavirus outbreak will dictate what happens this fall.

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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