Virus Outbreak Minnesota

(Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune via AP, Pool)

Minnesota’s COVID-19 toll climbed again Wednesday as the Health Department reported 485 deaths, up 30 from Tuesday as the total number of cases since the pandemic began surged to 8,579.

The numbers of people currently hospitalized (443) and in intensive care (180) remained relatively stable.

The case count continues to grow in south central Minnesota, though many of the earlier cases are now recovered.

Blue Earth County has the most confirmed cases, with 53 cases but zero deaths, while Rice County now has 30 confirmed cases and one death. Le Sueur County has 26 confirmed cases ; Steele County has 29 confirmed cases; Nicollet County 17 confirmed and two deaths; Waseca County seven confirmed; Goodhue County 23 confirmed; Brown County nine confirmed and one death; and Sibley County two confirmed.

The latest numbers come a day after state budget and economic officials delivered some grim news: Minnesota’s economy won’t recover from the coronavirus anytime soon, and the state faces a $2.4 billion budget deficit lasting well into next year.

That was Minnesota budget leaders’ bleak economic forecast unveiled Tuesday. COVID-19 costs “have rocked Minnesota's economy” and will continue to do so until the crisis ends, state economist Laura Kalambokidis said Tuesday.

Budget forecasts showed big drops in consumer spending, sales taxes and wages. The state’s economic output is expected to drop three consecutive quarters before a return to positive territory, but it “does not get back to where it would have been without the pandemic,” Kalambokidis said. “Some amount of economic activity is simply lost.”

No ‘red alarm’ yet as cases as ICU numbers climb

The number of cases discovered in Minnesota has accelerated sharply over the past week as the state’s testing push intensified.

"Minnesota's numbers, we are not at our peak yet,” Gov. Tim Walz said Tuesday. “There are some dark days ahead of us. But we have changed the calculus on this."

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said the latest numbers on deaths showed the ongoing trend Minnesota’s seen since the pandemic began — nearly all of those who died were living in long-term care facilities and had underlying health problems.

Despite the increase officials are seeing now in cases and hospitalizations, she said the climb remained within the state’s ability to manage it so it does not overwhelm the health care system.

Two key metrics — how long it takes for the raw case count to double and how long it takes for current hospitalizations to double — remained relatively moderate. The “red alarm” will sound if and when case counts start doubling every two to three days; right now it’s about eight days, she said.

One other positive: Patients needing ICU care aren’t rising as quickly as current hospitalizations. “We’re still feeling good about that,” she added.

She cautioned, though, that Minnesota was not yet at the steepest part of its curve.

Meatpacking at the center of case jumps

The escalation in positive cases continues to be driven by a handful of counties with outbreaks centered around meatpacking plants. Testing has intensified around those outbreaks and led to more positive tests for the disease.

Cases in Nobles County in southwestern Minnesota, where an outbreak centered around the JBS pork plant in Worthington, continue to swell. The county continued to have the largest outbreak outside the Twin Cities and the largest by far of any Minnesota county relative to its population.

About 1 in 20 people in Nobles County have tested positive for COVID-19. Cases there have jumped from a handful in mid-April to 1,069 on Tuesday as testing in the region accelerates and reveals more cases.

The JBS plant shut on April 20 as executives worked to control the disease’s spread. The plant reopened Wednesday with expanded cleaning and disinfecting operations, and with workers spaced farther apart.

The closure of the plant and others in the Midwest has caused major disruption in the supply chain, with some hog farmers forced to destroy healthy pigs because there was no place to process them.

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 — have skyrocketed. An undisclosed number of workers at both plants have tested positive for the virus.

At the beginning of last week, there were 55 confirmed coronavirus cases in Stearns. By Sunday, as testing for the disease intensified, there were 589 and by Tuesday confirmed cases had jumped again to 815.

Kandiyohi County in west-central Minnesota is also seeing cases jump two weeks 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 back then. On Tuesday, the Health Department reported 200 people have now tested positive.

Some businesses back to work, others frustrated

The governor has said about 91 percent of Minnesota’s workforce is now able to return to their workplaces with hygiene and distancing rules in place, under his tweaked stay-at-home order.

Walz fielded similar questions Tuesday amid news that some businesses and communities were chafing at the stay-at-home order, which has been running for more than a month.

The order kept people out of crowded public spaces, helping slow the outbreak and buying time for the state’s health care system to secure supplies and prepare for waves of cases and hospitalizations.

But, as Walz has acknowledged, it’s come at a steep economic cost for many who’ve been thrown out of work. Restaurants and bars remain the biggest sector still unable to bring customers back into their buildings.

Earlier this week a Twin Cities barbershop publicly defied Walz’s order and opened his shop to customers. Leaders in the town of Lakefield, in southwestern Minnesota, recently voted to support businesses that want to defy Walz’s order and reopen. GOP leaders have also prodded Walz to move faster, even as COVID-19 cases continue to climb.

“I want things open as badly as they do,” the governor said, adding that reopening the wrong way could rekindle the disease’s spread and put the lives of vulnerable people at risk.

“This is one of those difficult things that, if we do this right, it'll appear like we're wrong because we didn't overrun the health care system,” he said. “It's a bit like someone who can't swim, and you keep them out of the water. Whether you can claim you kept them from drowning might have been a little debatable, but if they had jumped in the deep end, it would have been trouble."

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Minnesotans will soon be able to use food stamps to buy groceries online

People who get federal food assistance in Minnesota will be able to shop online for groceries as soon as next month.

The state’s Department of Human Services has a green light from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make the benefits available for online ordering at local grocery stores.

Assistant Commissioner Nikki Farago said recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits can already use Walmart or Amazon under federal rules, but the expansion will make it available at many more stores.

Farago said her agency is working with stores and its electronic benefit transfer card provider to make changes to the system, likely to go into effect in June.

About 378,000 low-income people in Minnesota get SNAP benefits, about 40 percent of them children.

— Tim Nelson | MPR News

State OKs $11M for animal carcass disposal

Minnesota will spend up to $11 million from its COVID-19 response account to help farmers dispose of wasted animal carcasses due to disruptions at meat-processing facilities.

Several food plants have been idled or cut back on production due to coronavirus outbreaks among employees. That’s caused a clog in the supply chain and led farmers to destroy animals that would have otherwise been processed for meat.

In a notice posted Monday, the Walz administration said the money would be freed up for the Department of Agriculture to dispose of the carcasses.

A state official said the money would be used to set up four carcass disposal sites near hog production areas where producers could bring destroyed animals to be ground up and composted. The initial contract in Nobles County is for the disposal of 100,000 hogs over 37 days.

The Legislature put $200 million into the COVID-19 fund for quick dispersal as needs arise. The administration must run spending of more than $1 million off a panel of top lawmakers, who would have to muster a majority to stop the use.

To date, $114 million in spending has been authorized — for everything from purchases of medical masks, gloves and gowns to a testing partnership with the Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota.

— Brian Bakst | MPR News

Leech Lake band asks nonresidents to avoid area

The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe is asking nonresidents to avoid traveling to or through the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leech Lake Chairman Faron Jackson says the band is “taking every precaution to ensure that the health and well-being of our communities is protected.”

Jackson asks anyone who lives more than a county away from the reservation's boundaries to “please stay home.” The reservation is near the headwaters of the Mississippi River and shares territory with Chippewa National Forest.

In a statement, the Leech Lake band points out that American Indians have higher incidences of underlying medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and respiratory illnesses that make individuals vulnerable to the coronavirus.

The band’s Reservation Business Committee has declared a public health emergency, triggering its emergency operations plan. The band also has adopted stay-at-home resolutions and closed nonessential government operations and services, including its casinos.

— The Associated Press

Hennepin Co. board approves measures to help long-term care facilities, low-income renters

The Hennepin County Board took action on Tuesday designed to stem the tide of COVID-19-related fatalities at the more than 300 long-term care facilities in the county.

The measure passed by the board offers to make county resources — like Hennepin Healthcare — available to help increase onsite testing of residents and staff. Commissioner Jan Callison said she'd like to see the program mirror the county's practice of temporarily housing homeless people in hotels to help them stay isolated from the virus.

"I can foresee a strategy that says once the testing indicates there is an infection, we have hotels where folks can be moved temporarily while the facility is disinfected or whatever has to be done people can be moved back," Callison said.

Nearly 85 percent of coronavirus-related deaths in Hennepin County are among older residents of long term care centers or other congregate living residences.

The county Board on Tuesday also approved the use of $15 million of federal COVID-19 relief funds for emergency housing assistance.

Six community-based organizations will help select recipients and disburse the money, county officials said. And they said renters can reapply for more help if needed. The funds will help more than 9,000 low-income renters who've been impacted by the pandemic, officials said.

— Brandt Williams | MPR News

© 2020 Minnesota Public Radio. All rights reserved. Southern Minn newspaper group staff contributed to this article.

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