Minnesota’s monthlong climb in new COVID-19 cases continued Friday as the Health Department reported another 773 cases, along with five more deaths.
Current hospitalizations (278) and the number of those needing intensive care (108) stayed roughly flat from the prior day, although officials have been bracing Minnesotans to expect hospitalizations to climb following several weeks of a surge in new confirmed cases.
In south central Minnesota, Rice County has the most confirmed cases, now at 934, including eight deaths. Blue Earth County is next with 735 confirmed and three deaths, while Steele County has 301 confirmed and one death. Le Sueur County has 169 confirmed and one death; Nicollet County 252 confirmed and 13 deaths; Waseca County 107 confirmed and no deaths; Goodhue County 155 confirmed and eight deaths; Brown County 67 confirmed and two deaths; and Sibley County 73 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.
Of the 49,488 positive cases in Minnesota since the start of the pandemic, about 87 percent of people infected have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.
Among the 1,566 people who’ve died from the disease in Minnesota so far, about 77 percent had been living in long-term care or assisted living facilities. Friday’s report continues a trend since late June of daily deaths in the single digits.
The newest counts come as Gov. Tim Walz’s statewide mask-wearing order for restaurants, stores and other public indoor gathering spaces is set to start at midnight.
Walz on Wednesday announced a statewide mask mandate as a way to stem the spread of COVID-19 and put the state on a path back to normalcy.
“This is the quickest way to ending the COVID pandemic,” he told reporters. “It is the surest way to getting us to the therapeutics and vaccines” while continuing to reopen the economy.
If 90 to 95 percent of Minnesotans complied, businesses could stay open, kids could return safely to school buildings, and we "get back that life that we all miss so much,” he said.
Under the order, businesses will have to post notice of the new regulations and ensure patrons comply. Children age 5 and younger are exempt. Cities with tougher ordinances can go beyond the state indoor-only rules.
Walz compared the inconvenience of wearing a mask to wearing seat belts in cars and preventing smoking in indoor spaces, changes in behavior required by government that ultimately saved lives. “This is a small sacrifice for a potential big gain,” he said.
No ‘mask police’
The state is working now with local chambers of commerce around the state to make masks available to businesses to give to customers who don’t have one.
Officials don’t want businesses to be in a position of being “mask police,” said Steve Grove, commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development.
If a patron says she can’t wear a mask for medical reasons, store owners can allow it without delving into deeper explanations, he said. Bar and restaurant patrons don’t have to keep masks on as they eat and drink at a table with their party.
The order does allow for a petty misdemeanor with possible fine up to $100. Businesses could face steeper fines for noncompliance.
Walz, though, said he wants authorities “handing out masks, not tickets” and that businesses should not escalate confrontations, adding: "We don't want someone to accidentally get famous on the internet because they're throwing a tantrum in Trader Joe's."
Cases growing across age brackets, up north
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 in the pandemic, with more than 11,600. The median age of Minnesotans infected has been trending down in recent weeks and is now 37 years old.
Health investigators are now starting to see more cases in 30- and 40-somethings as more people get together for family gatherings and summer fun without social distancing, Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, said Monday.
It’s not the same as the situation the past few weeks where people in their 20s meeting in bars drove the increases. Now, analysts are seeing an evolution in the “larger, gradual increase in social activities,” she added.
Regionally, Friday’s newly reported cases were driven by the Twin Cities and its suburbs. The area is seeing both the most new cases and the fastest increases in growth rates.
New cases are also rising in northern Minnesota.
Cases in Beltrami County, home to Bemidji, have more than doubled in the past week and a half, from 53 to 122 on Friday.
Ehresmann this week said that case increase is tied to spread from athletic events and other public gatherings.
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 1,029 confirmed cases as of Friday. 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 1,721 confirmed cases as of Friday, 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 Friday, confirmed cases were at 2,695 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 Friday, the Health Department reported 633 people have now tested positive. The county had confirmed three COVID-19 cases in late April.
Cases have also climbed noticeably in Lyon County (393 cases) around a turkey processor in Marshall.
Walz sets schools announcement for July 30
The governor is expected to announce a plan next Thursday on bringing kids back into school buildings. The state Education Department has told school leaders to pretty much prepare for anything, including some combination of in-school and online instruction.
“Nobody wants kids in school more than me,” and state officials have been working for months on how to do that safely, Walz, a former high school teacher, said Tuesday.
“We’re doing everything possible to get those kids back in those classrooms … to keep them there but also have some nimbleness” to move back to an online or hybrid model if cases start to climb, he said, adding: “This is gonna be a challenge.”
On Wednesday, the governor hinted that the state will lay out standards for schools on operating in the pandemic and then give them flexibility to work within those standards.
"It won't necessarily look the same everywhere,” he said, “but the outcomes need to be the same — kids and staff safe in that learning environment.”
On Friday, Walz told KFGO radio in Fargo, N.D., that there will be safety guidelines for schools and it'll be up to school leaders to implement them.
“I think in the schools we’re going to approach it where we will have some guidelines and then the implementation will be up to the schools, but I think masks are going to be a part of it,” he said.
Many MN teachers prefer distance learning this fall, survey shows
A survey of state educators by the state's largest teachers union found that nearly half would like to see distance education this fall.
The survey, which was done by Education Minnesota, was taken by a quarter of the union's membership — or around 20,500 people. About 29 percent said they'd like a hybrid-style class and 17 percent said they would prefer in-person instruction.
The union president Denise Specht said teachers are worried for their students, for their need to socialize and for students' families that are not be able to stay at home. She said teachers are also worried about their health.
"They are working hard, they are not expendable. Yet they feel that way when they hear politicians rush to open a school district when it is simply not ready. They're worried about their own health, their own children's health and the health of the people at home with them."
The survey also found that Black, Asian American, Latinx and Native American educators support distance learning at a higher rate than white educators.
Gov. Tim Walz is expected to make an announcement on schools next Thursday.
— Peter Cox | MPR News