June 19 update on COVID-19: MN OKs restart of youth sports games

The lights at Nelson Field in Dawson, Minn.
The lights at Nelson Field in Dawson, Minn., shine bright on April 1, 2020, as part of the "Be the Light MN" campaign. State health officials on Friday said youth sports games and scrimmages could resume June 24 or later for outdoor sports, and July 1 or later for indoor sports under the recommended guidance.
Courtesy Ryan Stotesbery, Daren Swenson and Ken Franzky | file

Updated 3:27 p.m.

State health officials on Friday said youth sports games and scrimmages could resume June 24 or later for outdoor sports and July 1 or later for indoor sports under the Health Department’s recommended guidance.

“It is important that we look for opportunities to allow children to engage in activities that promote health and well-being,” Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said in a statement announcing the plans.

“While several key metrics show COVID-19 transmission is slowing, we are still in the middle of a pandemic,” she added. “Learning to live with COVID-19 means finding ways to balance risks and benefits, and that’s what we are seeking to do with this guidance.”

Among the recommendations, the department calls on players to:

  • Avoid sharing individual water bottles, community snacks or towels

  • Try and use “dedicated personal equipment” such as bats, mitts and rackets

  • Find new ways to show sportsmanship, including “tip your hats instead of handshakes.”

While following the guidance can help reduce risk, “in the end everyone has to make their own decisions about what level of risk they are willing to accept,” Malcolm said.

“Some families, especially those with members who face an elevated risk of severe illness, may choose not to participate. That is perfectly OK, and everyone needs to respect that decision when a family or a player makes it.”

Officials also said the Minnesota Department of Education is working with the Minnesota State High School League to develop activities and sports guidance for schools for the fall sports season.

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.

Hospitalizations continue to fall

The youth sports recommendations came hours after the Health Department reported 17 more deaths from COVID-19, bringing the total to 1,361 since the pandemic began.

However, the counts of people currently hospitalized and in intensive care units — two of the most closely watched measures of how the state is managing COVID-19’s spread — remain at their lowest points in more than a month, continuing a hopeful, downward trend.

Officials said 339 people were now hospitalized, with 168 needing intensive care. Those ICU cases are the lowest since early May; the count of all people currently hospitalized is down to levels from late April.

Of the 32,031 confirmed cases of the disease in Minnesota, about 87 percent of people have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.

Earlier this week, Malcolm said intensive care capacity is “in about as good a situation as it could be at this point.”

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.

Latest on visiting loved ones in long-term care

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.

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

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 755 confirmed cases as of Friday.

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.

Nobles, in southwestern Minnesota, reported 1,628 confirmed cases Thursday. Roughly 1 in 14 people now have tested positive for COVID-19 in the county, although there have only been a few additional cases 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.

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 2,126 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 Friday, the Health Department reported 554 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.

Schools should prep for every scenario

The newest counts come a day after state health officials told schools to prepare for all possible circumstances for the upcoming academic year.

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.

On Thursday morning, the Education Department posted its planning guide and said it’s strongly recommending school districts and charter schools create three distinct contingency plans for each of three possible scenarios for start of the school year this fall.

It’s possible they’ll start the year with one scenario and then ask all schools, or some schools to switch to a different scenario part way through the academic year, depending on how widespread the coronavirus becomes in the fall.

Those scenarios are:

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 have said they will not release details about what form the upcoming academic year will take until the week of July 27.

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

Want to visit loved ones in nursing homes? Here's what you need to know: For the first time in months, many Minnesotans in nursing homes and assisted living facilities will be able to see visitors face to face — at least with masks on. The Minnesota Department of Health says these settings may now offer outdoor visits and through open windows.

6 things to know about what school will look like this fall: Under the planning guide, schools are being asked to have three plans on hand so they can pivot quickly from one to another if needed, depending on how widespread the virus becomes in the fall. Officials have said they won’t release their decision on what form the upcoming academic year will take until late July.

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.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.