The state Health Department on Tuesday reported three more deaths from COVID-19 along with a significant rise in the number of people currently hospitalized. Officials also tried to smooth out choppy data reports from the past few days tied to a new reporting system.
Tuesday’s data showed a change in pattern from the past few weeks as current hospitalizations (266) jumped, although those needing intensive (112) care dipped slightly from Monday.
The number of people in the hospital but not needing intensive care (154) is the highest in about a month. State officials last week said they had expected to see hospitalizations start to climb again given the leap in new confirmed cases the past few weeks.
After posting a spike of more than 900 new cases on Monday, Tuesday came in at 352 cases. Officials urged the public to take the average of the two days — 636 cases — as the figure that best represents the actual case load climb for Minnesota over those two days.
Of Minnesota’s 47,457 confirmed cases since the pandemic began, about 87 percent of those infected have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.
Among the 1,548 deaths recorded as of Tuesday, about 77 percent were living in long-term care facilities, nearly all had underlying health problems.
In south central Minnesota, Rice County has the most confirmed cases, now at 919, including eight deaths. Blue Earth County is next with 701 confirmed and two deaths, while Steele County has 290 confirmed and one death. Le Sueur County has 160 confirmed and one death; Nicollet County 238 confirmed and 13 deaths; Waseca County 95 confirmed and no deaths; Goodhue County 151 confirmed and eight deaths; Brown County 60 confirmed and two deaths; and Sibley County 70 confirmed and two deaths.
Public Health officials in Rice County noted that at least part of the higher number of cases in that county can be attributed to a higher rate of testing. Area businesses who are screening employees each time they arrive for work is also contributing to the higher number of confirmed cases, officials said.
In the Mankato area, including Blue Earth, Nicollet and Le Sueur counties, public officials reported a spike in cases among young people who recently patronized bars.
CDC to investigate infant’s death
The newest numbers come a day after Minnesota health leaders confirmed a sad milestone — the first death of a child in the state from COVID-19.
The infant, a 9-month-old from Clay County in northwestern Minnesota, is among the youngest deaths in the country from COVID-19 and the first death in Minnesota for anyone under age 20 who tested positive for the virus.
The child did not have an underlying health problem and had not been hospitalized, Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, told reporters. State health leaders have asked the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate.
Ehresmann said while current knowledge of the coronavirus puts children at lower risk, the possibility of infection is still there and officials are hoping to understand more about how the virus can affect children.
“In general, we have seen fewer cases in kids, we’ve seen fewer cases with hospitalizations and fewer cases with the need for intensive care,” she said, “but what we don’t know — and I think this is true for all ages — we don’t really know the underlying long-term impacts of a COVID infection on an individual.”
Cases growing in most age brackets
State health officials continue to worry about the recent spike of coronavirus cases in younger Minnesotans, including that those infected will inadvertently spread the virus to grandparents and other more vulnerable populations.
Minnesotans in their 20s now make up the age group with the most confirmed cases with more than 11,000. The median age of Minnesotans infected has been trending down in recent weeks and is now 37 years old.
Health investigators, however, are starting to see more cases in many age brackets, including ages 30 through 59, as more people get together for family gatherings and summer fun without social distancing, Ehresmann said Monday.
It’s not like the situation the past few weeks where 20-somethings meeting in bars drove the increases. Now, analysts are seeing an evolution in the “larger, gradual increase in social activities,” she added.
While current hospitalization counts in Minnesota remain relatively low, Ehresmann reiterated that officials expect the numbers to go on the march as the new cases climb.
New cases are also rising in northern Minnesota. Cases in Beltrami County have nearly doubled in the past week, from 53 to 101. Ehresmann on Monday said the case increase is tied to spread from athletic events and other public gatherings.
Not playing ‘gotcha’
State officials continue to work to get their arms around clusters of problems centered around bars and restaurants.
The Health Department last week received some 120 complaints recently from concerned residents reporting violations of the current orders around gathering in indoor social spaces, particularly bars and restaurants.
Complaints include staff not wearing masks, not enough social distancing and too many people at a site.
State officials acknowledged 14 letters have been sent to establishments flagged for violations. The state Public Safety department has the ability to issue fines and revoke liquor licenses, which would effectively close them.
Most bar and restaurant owners who’ve been flagged have responded positively, Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Friday, adding that the state wants to avoid “wholesale closure” of these places.
“But in all candor, I don't think anything can be considered completely off the table with what we're seeing around the country and in our own numbers in Minnesota,” she added. “But we clearly would like to explore intermediate measures before that.”
Walz weighing statewide mask order
The state's top public health leaders on Monday reiterated their support for a statewide mask mandate, saying such mandates have proven to help prevent transmission of COVID-19.
Several Minnesota cities already have mask requirements in place. As for a statewide mask mandate, DFL Gov. Tim Walz is weighing the measure, but has yet to enact one — despite pleas from medical groups and the state Health Department.
Walz recently expressed concern that Minnesotans were lagging on their mask-wearing. But Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, have said a statewide mandate would be a mistake.
On Friday morning, Walz told MPR News that he believes a mask mandate is the right thing to do to slow the spread of the coronavirus but that he hasn't yet made a decision on whether to issue a statewide order.
"I'm trying to get them to buy in,” Walz said of Gazelka and others who oppose a statewide mandate. “It's unfortunate that around masks, it became somewhat of a political statement rather than a public health statement.”
More than half of U.S. states now require the use of masks or face coverings in public settings.
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 1,019 confirmed cases as of Tuesday. 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 1,711 confirmed cases as of 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 Tuesday, confirmed cases were at 2,659 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 Tuesday, the Health Department reported 622 people have now tested positive. The county had confirmed three COVID-19 cases in late April.
Cases have also climbed noticeably in Lyon County (383 cases) around a turkey processor in Marshall.
MSP airport to require travelers wear a mask
The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport will be instituting a mask requirement next Monday.
The Metropolitan Airports Commission voted Monday to institute the mandate, although many airlines, businesses and other airports already require face coverings.
The new regulation applies in all public spaces at the airport, as well as any outdoor spaces that can’t accommodate social distancing. The face covering regulation applies in parking ramps, shuttle buses, trams and rental car operations.
The Twin Cities airport says information kiosks in the terminals will provide face coverings for people who don’t have them.