July 9 update on COVID-19 in MN: Cases top 40K; hospitalizations dip

coronavirus testing at Tulane University
Workers prepare for coronavirus testing at the molecular pathology lab at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans in April.
Gerald Herbert | AP file

Updated: 4 p.m.

Minnesota’s COVID-19 pandemic passed another milestone as the Health Department Thursday reported the state’s confirmed more than 40,000 cases.

The newest numbers show a continued upswing in daily cases over the past few days even as the total number of current hospitalizations (251) and intensive care cases (116) sit at late-April levels.

Officials reported five more deaths from the disease, bringing the state toll to 1,490 since the pandemic began.

The latest counts come a day after a key state health official warned Minnesotans against holding “COVID parties” as a way to become infected with the coronavirus in a convenient way.

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

“It’s really playing Russian roulette,” Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, said Wednesday, noting that even young people face the risk of significant health complications and can spread the disease to vulnerable family members.

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 — nearly 9,000 since the pandemic began — with their numbers accelerating in recent weeks since bars were allowed conditionally to open their indoor spaces.

Positive test rate bears watching

The number of confirmed cases and the rate of positive tests for the disease have risen noticeably the past few days, even as deaths and hospitalizations plateau.

The daily percent positive rate reported Thursday slipped back below 5 percent, although it remains above last week’s levels.

On Wednesday, 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.

Testing supply shortages loom amid outbreaks in other states

With coronavirus hot spots recently developing in other parts of the country, including Florida and Arizona, Minnesota health officials said Wednesday that they're watching a nationwide shortage of testing supplies closely.

State officials said that they've been hearing from clinics and hospitals that they're having a harder time getting those testing supplies, and it may affect whether people can get tested on any given day.

The shortages, they said, appear to be the result of more cases cropping up in other states, and that supplies are being diverted there to keep up with demand.

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

Officials added that they're also hearing that samples sent to labs out of state for testing may take longer to get results back because those labs may be processing more tests than usual. That presents an issue with people not knowing if they have the virus until they get test results, and moving around in the community meanwhile, spreading it inadvertently.

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 40,163 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 972 confirmed cases as of Thursday. 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 1,676 confirmed cases Thursday 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 Thursday, confirmed cases were at 2,448 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 Thursday, the Health Department reported 584 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 (331 cases), around a turkey processor in Marshall. Cases the past few weeks have also grown in Cottonwood County (138 cases), home to a pork processing plant in Windom in southern Minnesota, but the counts there have since stabilized.

Developments from around the state

Bar-driven outbreak reported in Rochester

Olmsted County public health officials say they've identified more than 25 cases of coronavirus among people bar-hopping in downtown Rochester.

Public health officials are asking people who went to bars in downtown Rochester between June 26 and July 7 get tested for coronavirus.

Officials said they have identified a cluster of cases that they can't pin to any specific bar because those who tested positive went to multiple locations. They said that the cases so far have involved alcohol consumption, and no mask wearing or social distancing.

One bar, Dooley's Pub, closed down last week after several staff members tested positive for COVID-19.

Public health officials say there's been an uptick in cases teens and 20-year-olds in recent weeks. Meanwhile, state public health officials have been tracking similar clusters in other parts of Minnesota, including Mankato, St. Cloud and the Twin Cities.

— Catharine Richert | MPR News

Survey signals support for returning kids to school

An informal, non-scientific survey of Minnesotan families shows 64 percent of those responding indicating they'd feel comfortable sending their students back into school buildings this fall.

Less than 12 percent said they would not feel comfortable sending their kids back to school. Most cited concerns about public health as the reason, according to data released Thursday by the Minnesota Department of Education.

The agency said it collected more than 130,000 completed responses between June 15 and July 6. State officials are expected to announce plans for the 2020-21 public school year no later than the week of July 27.

— MPR News Staff

MN will borrow from feds to sustain jobless aid

Minnesota will soon borrow from the federal government to make sure unemployment benefits keep flowing to those who qualify. 

Many states are doing the same, given the depth and duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. Minnesota is expected to have to tap into federal resources within the week.

“Six-hundred-thousand people have received benefits and over $5 billion. The previous record in a given year was 250,000 people and $2.8 billion,” Jim Hegman, the state’s unemployment director, told a Minnesota House committee Thursday. “So we did in four months what in the midst of the Great Recession we didn’t even do in a full year.”

He said Minnesota last borrowed to pay benefits during the recession that began in 2008.

It’s likely that the borrowing will be repaid using standard taxes assessed on businesses, which feed the fund in the first place. The money comes to the state at little or no interest, and Congress will face pressure to forgive the loans given how widespread the financial fallout from the pandemic has been.

Hegman’s testimony came during a House Jobs and Economic Development Finance Committee hearing into a proposal related to unemployment benefits tied to idled mining operations.

A pending proposal would supply up to six more months of benefits to people laid off from a mining or a mining industry support job. That’s if they’ve exhausted their standard benefits before operations halted by COVID-19 pandemic or other disruptions can resume.

State Rep. Julie Sandstede, DFL-Hibbing, said the extension would prevent Iron Range towns from being hollowed out during the current dip.

“Unfortunately we’re facing a devastating trifecta in the downturn of taconite, timber and tourism,” she said.

Most of northern Minnesota’s mines have slowed down or been temporarily shut with demand for goods down.

The bill could come up in a special session expected to be called for next week.

— Brian Bakst | MPR News

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

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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.