July 8 update on COVID-19 in MN: 'COVID parties' not OK; positive test rates up

A woman wearing a face mask walks past a store.
A woman wearing a face mask walks past a Boardwalk store with signs warning patrons of mask requirements on July 3 in Wildwood, N.J. In Minnesota, several cities have mandated mask-wearing in the cities' public indoor spaces.
Mark Makela | Getty Images

Updated: 7:05 p.m.

State health leaders on Wednesday said they’ve been hearing reports of Minnesotans holding or planning “COVID parties” as a way to become infected with COVID-19 in a convenient way, or to get the disease over with.

Their quick response: Just don’t.

“This is a really, really bad idea,” Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, told reporters, noting that even young people face the risk of significant health complications and also risk spreading it to vulnerable family members.

“It’s really playing Russian roulette,” she said.

The behavior of young adults in the pandemic has become a central concern among state officials recently as they investigate outbreaks tied to bars and other recently opened indoor social spaces.

Minnesotans in their 20s now make up the largest age group of confirmed cases — some 8,800 since the pandemic began — with their numbers accelerating in recent weeks since bars were allowed conditionally to open their indoor spaces.

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The median age for cases has been dipping and is now just under 39 years old. Bars and restaurants are continuing sources of exposure, Ehresmann said.

She added that the agency does not have any evidence at this point of spread driven by “COVID parties.” But she also noted a surge in young adult cases across the state that are accounting for the bulk of the new cases confirmed in the past two weeks.

That includes in Edina, where Ehresmann said the department has been told of people holding large bonfires and house parties, and gathering for cabin weekends. Investigators found “a number of positive cases” of the disease in one very large party held in late June, she added.

Positive test rates rising

Ehresmann’s party warning came hours after her department reported data showing confirmed positive tests for the disease have risen noticeably the past few days, even as deaths and hospitalizations plateau.

Ehresmann said the increase in the positive test rate may be due to focused testing in areas suspected of having significant community spread of the virus.

"I don't want to suggest the high positivity rate is a good thing unconditionally, but there are some situations in which it reflects that our testing is really reaching some of the populations that we need to reach," she said.

The Health Department Wednesday reported eight more deaths from COVID-19, part of a two-week trend of days with deaths mostly in single digits.

The daily count of people requiring hospitalization (265) and those needing intensive care (122) remain relatively stable, with ICU cases staying around late-April levels. Those are two metrics closely watched by state officials as they work to manage the spread of the disease so it does not overwhelm the health care system.

Wednesday’s report brings the total number of deaths in Minnesota to 1,485 since the pandemic arrived in Minnesota. But as the rate of deaths slows, positive test rates are now higher than they’ve been in a month as cases move upward.

Statewide mask order weighed

The latest numbers come a day after Winona became the latest Minnesota city to order a citywide mask mandate following similar ordinances in Rochester and Mankato.

The city mandates will require people to wear a mask in public indoor spaces. Minneapolis, St. Paul and Edina have also mandated mask-wearing in the cities’ public spaces.

Gov. Tim Walz last week said he is also concerned enough about a potential outbreak that he’s considering a statewide mask order. Medical groups in Minnesota and the state Health Department support a statewide order. A decision from Walz could come this week.

The state’s now recorded 39,589 positive cases. About 88 percent of those infected have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.

Of those who’ve died, nearly 80 percent were living in long-term care or assisted living facilities, nearly all had long-term health problems. State health officials are encouraging family members who visit loved ones in long-term care facilities to practice safety protocols, including wearing a mask and maintaining social distance.

Little spread at child day care sites

As decisions approach about sending kids back to school buildings this fall, Ehresmann and Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm on Wednesday said that officials have seen little evidence that children are spreading the disease in the state’s child care centers.

While 125 programs have had at least one case, only 30 have produced two or more cases and only eight have shown more than that. In most of those cases, the transmission is among adult staff and not kids.

Asked if that says anything about the possible experience for schools bringing kids back into buildings in the fall, Ehresmann said the day care numbers were a positive indicator. “This is a fairly low number of situations with cases, given the many many child care settings there are in the state.”

Malcolm said the state’s shared goal is to get kids back in the classroom safely. She had no other information on that or on the Trump administration’s push for school buildings to be open this fall.

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 965 confirmed cases as of Wednesday. Mower County is home to Hormel Foods and Quality Pork Processors. Both have been 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.

Nobles, in southwestern Minnesota, reported 1,672 confirmed cases Wednesday, the same as Tuesday, with six deaths. About 1 in 13 people now have tested positive for COVID-19 in the county since the pandemic began, although the count of new cases has slowed considerably in recent weeks.

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 Wednesday, confirmed cases were at 2,429 with 19 deaths.

Kandiyohi County in west-central Minnesota is also dealing with a significant caseload more than two months after officials with the Jennie-O turkey processing plant there said some employees had tested positive for the coronavirus.

As of Wednesday, the Health Department reported 582 people have now tested positive in the county. The county had confirmed three COVID-19 cases in late April.

Cases have also climbed noticeably in Lyon County (327 cases), around a turkey processor in Marshall. Cases the past few weeks have also grown in Cottonwood County (137 cases), home to a pork processing plant in Windom, but the counts there have since stabilized.

Developments from around the state

Minnesota food shelves, food banks to get funding boost

Gov. Tim Walz announced Wednesday that his office is directing $12 million from the federal government in emergency support to 300 food shelves and seven food banks across Minnesota.

So far, the governor’s office has directed $75 million in federal relief aid toward food security.

Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan said Wednesday that food shelves play a key role in feeding those in need.

"When families find themselves in a time where they are struggling with food instability sometimes it can be difficult to ask for help and when there are organizations like the Department of Indian Work who are ready to serve folks without judgement and welcome them in like family and community, that means so much."

Visits at food shelves are up 30 percent since the pandemic began, and enrollment for food assistance has increased by 40 percent, according to the governor’s office.

Other federal relief has gone to help children enrolled in free and reduced meal programs to continue getting meals in the summer and to deliver food to nearly 15,000 older adults in the state.

— Peter Cox | MPR News

Experts: Minnesota shouldn’t let its guard down

Health experts keeping close tabs on the coronavirus pandemic warned Minnesota lawmakers Wednesday that the state’s steady caseload probably won’t last.

A special House committee heard from five people in advisory or response roles from both Minnesota and around the country.

Former federal official and current consultant Andy Slavitt said COVID-19 is surging in places that reopened their economies quickly and where warm weather is pushing people indoors. He said it’s too soon to let down the guard in Minnesota.   

Minnesota’s rate of diagnosed infections and fatalities from the virus has generally slowed in recent weeks.

“Unfortunately, I would tell you that in Minnesota we have not seen the worst of it,” Slavitt said. “So as good as a job we have done, I am fearful it’s going to get worse here. And the reason I say that is because we are in what I would call the second step of phase one.”

Others who testified said there are trade-offs to keeping restrictions in place, from concerns over child nutrition to missed screenings for other serious ailments.

A critical care doctor in Minnesota said medical providers are emotionally taxed as they care for coronavirus patients.

Dr. Sakina Naqvi, a pulmonary specialist on the front lines in the fight against COVID-19, spends considerable time in hospital intensive care units. She said the virus continues to vex doctors.

“We’re stumped because this never has been seen before. And so from one patient to the next, what would be true for a non-COVID patient is not true for a COVID patient,” Naqvi said. “From one room to the next in a COVID ICU what’s happening with one patient is not happening to the next patients if we were to draw conclusions from patients we are seeing.”

Naqvi said it’s been difficult to guide patients and their families through end-of-life care when some of the ill are spending weeks on ventilators. That’s put strain on medical professionals, she said.

“We are emotionally at a breaking point,” she said.

— Brian Bakst | MPR News

Winona mayor orders mask-wearing in public

The city of Winona will implement a 30-day face-mask order starting this Friday.

The mayor's order requires people to wear masks inside public places or where social distancing is difficult.

"With Rochester's decision to move ahead with their order, we decided we would join in and have more of a regional approach to wearing face masks, face coverings,” said Steve Sarvi, Winona’s city manager. “We would certainly encourage other communities in our region, especially Onalaska and La Crosse to join in on our effort as well.”

The city and Winona County have seen a bump in COVID-19 cases over recent days. Winona County has 129 cases as of Tuesday.

Neighboring La Crosse County has seen a large spike in cases over the last few weeks. The Wisconsin county has 519 confirmed cases.

— Peter Cox | MPR News

Masks mandated inside state court facilities

Face coverings will be required for entry into a state court building beginning Monday.

Chief Justice Lorie Gildea issued the mandate Tuesday that applies to everyone from attorneys to witnesses to judges. The face masks can be removed in a courtroom only with permission of a judge and if other precautions can be taken.

Courts around the state are gradually resuming in-person trials and other proceedings in criminal cases.

— Brian Bakst | MPR News

Child care operations can tap federal aid

Minnesota child care facilities will be able to access new grants to help them stay afloat and operate safely as the coronavirus pandemic persists.

Gov. Tim Walz went to a St. Paul care center to draw attention to the $56.6 million in aid Tuesday that will be allotted using federal money.

Child care providers can qualify for three monthly awards. The amount they get will be based on a formula.“What these grants are meant to do is offset the added costs of the protections in these child care centers,” Walz said.

“Protections for the children, protections for the workers, the teachers and protections for our general society so we’re not using the little ones as spreaders.”

More than 6,600 home-based day cares and nearly 1,200 centers are eligible for grants. The Walz administration says 65,000 slots could be preserved.

Family providers can obtain up to $1,200 per month and licensed centers up to $8,500. They must have be a care center operating in good standing, have been open as of June 15 and can show revenue losses or increased costs due to COVID-19.

The money could offset costs of supplies, sanitizing and staff sick leave that are needed to prevent virus spread in child care centers.

A vibrant child care system is deemed essential to the state’s economic recovery. Parents could find it difficult to return to work full-time if they can’t find adequate care for young children.

Cisa Keller, senior vice president for Think Small, a group that focuses on early childhood education, said providers have had to navigate enrollment fluctuation and other challenges amid the pandemic.

“There’s also been efforts in trying to make sure that essential elements like gloves and masks and hand sanitizer are available to every provider across the state,” Keller said. “Those were really difficult things for child care providers to find. And so we continue to try to figure out how to make the biggest impact for child care providers.”

— Brian Bakst | MPR News

Top headlines

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Minnesota Orchestra cancels indoor concerts, offers outdoor shows instead: Orchestra leaders say indoor concerts can’t meet current coronavirus safety guidelines.

'Desperation science' slows the hunt for coronavirus drugs: Craving better information, a University of Minnesota doctor who had been turned down for federal funding spent $5,000 of his own money to buy hydroxychloroquine for a rigorous test using placebo pills as a comparison. In early June, Dr. David Boulware’s results showed hydroxychloroquine did not prevent COVID-19 in people closely exposed to someone with it.

More states require masks in public as COVID-19 spreads, but enforcement lags: A growing number of governors and mayors, including several in Minnesota, are working to slow the spread of the coronavirus by requiring people to wear masks in public places.

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.