COVID-19 Latest May 13

A man wears a mask as he bikes on Summit Avenue in St. Paul April 25. (Evan Frost/MPR News file)

Long-term care residents account for more than 80 percent of COVID-19 deaths to date, but the "battle plan” to safeguard the Minnesotans living in those facilities could take weeks to implement statewide, Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Tuesday.

The goal, she said, is to move quickly and despite the state “making good progress” but “it’s going to take some period of days and even weeks before it’s fully implemented statewide,” she told reporters.

The plan includes expanded testing, more personal protective gear for health workers in those congregate care sites, and a promise to maintain “adequate” staffing when workers fall ill. Gov. Tim Walz unveiled it last week.

Malcolm said she’s received calls and emails from long-term care workers and family members of people in those facilities “who are concerned and disappointed that the plan isn’t fully in place” in the facility where they work or have loved ones.

Implementing Walz’s “battle plan,” however, will take time, said Tuesday. “It's unfortunately not something that we can flip a switch and have the plan be fully implemented everywhere in the state immediately, but it is a high priority.”

Here are the latest coronavirus statistics:

  • 12,494 confirmed cases via 120,834 tests
  • 614 deaths
  • 1,799 cases requiring hospitalization
  • 496 people remain hospitalized; 199 in intensive care
  • 8,223 patients recovered

The case count is now growing more rapidly in south central Minnesota.

The number of confirmed cases in Rice County more than quadrupled over the span of a week; the county now has 134 confirmed cases and one death. Steele County is next with 73 confirmed and no deaths, and Blue Earth County has 67 confirmed and zero deaths. Le Sueur County has 31 confirmed cases and one death; Nicollet County 22 confirmed and two deaths; Waseca County 16 confirmed and no deaths; Goodhue County 25 confirmed; Brown County nine confirmed and one death; and Sibley County four confirmed and no deaths.

Public Health officials in Rice County noted that at least part of the recent spike in cases in the area 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, she said.

In Steele County, a business had a cluster of employees test positive for COVID-19, according to a release from Steele County Public Health Director Amy Caron.

Stay-home, emergency declaration decisions loom this week

Walz must make at least two important decisions this week tied to his efforts to slow the disease’s spread so it doesn’t overwhelm the health care system.

The governor must decide this week whether his stay-at-home order should be extended in some form beyond Monday or allowed to expire.

Minnesotans are increasingly disregarding the stay-home order, traffic and cellphone data show, and Walz is facing increased criticism of the order from people who say the restrictions have fallen unevenly on businesses.

However, case counts and deaths continue to increase in Minnesota. And Walz predicted many customers aren’t yet ready to dine out or gather where there are crowds.

“To do this haphazard, and I think of business owners, if you open up and it becomes clear people got sick being there, it’s every bit as damaging as a stay-at-home order,” he said. “So, we can’t get it wrong.”

Projections for COVID-19 case growth, intensive care capacity, supplies of protective gear for health workers and economic data are among the drivers for the state leaders’ decision making, Malcolm said Monday. “We’re in the compiling-all-the-data stage.”

Besides the stay-home order, Walz must also decide whether to extend his "peacetime emergency" order for another 30 days, which gives him authority to respond to the pandemic without legislative approval.

On Tuesday, DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman said she expects Walz to extend the peacetime emergency order, noting that cases continue to grow in Minnesota and there are problems in nursing homes and meatpacking plants that still need attention.

Republicans in the Minnesota House have vowed to withhold votes on a more than $2 billion public works spending bill unless Walz drops the order when it expires Wednesday. If Walz were to add even more time after the session adjourns Monday, he'd be required to call lawmakers into a special session.

Meatpacking remains at the center of case jumps

Several recent outbreaks outside the Twin Cities metro area are focused around meatpacking plants. Officials have intensified testing in those hot spots, uncovering more infections.

In southwestern Minnesota’s Nobles County, where an outbreak hit Worthington’s massive JBS pork plant, about 1 in 17 people have tested positive for COVID-19. In mid-April, there were just a handful of cases. On Tuesday, there were 1,291 confirmed cases. The numbers were still increasing, although at a slower rate than in previous weeks.

The JBS plant shut on April 20 but has partially 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 — have skyrocketed. An undisclosed number of workers at both plants have tested positive for the virus.

There were about 55 confirmed cases in Stearns County two weeks ago. By Tuesday, confirmed cases had jumped to 1,512.

Kandiyohi County in west-central Minnesota is also seeing cases jump three 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 367 people have now tested positive.

Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, said that there has been more targeted testing in Nobles, Stearns, Kandiyohi and Chippewa counties with processing plants.

Testing levels fall short of Walz’s goal

Walz has said the state should be testing 5,000 people a day in order to reopen the economy. It’s a goal the state’s hit only a few times, although it did meet it in the Tuesday report.

While supply shortages were faulted with limited testing in the early weeks of the outbreak, Malcolm on Tuesday reiterated the capacity is there and that people who are experiencing symptoms "can and should be getting tested” and that the state has capacity for that.

But she and Ehresmann said the state would not be opening the door anytime soon for testing of Minnesotans showing no symptoms at all.

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GOP lawmakers raise health data privacy concerns

A data collection policy involving Minnesota hospital patients has two Republican legislators sounding an alarm, but state health officials insist no personally identifiable information is changing hands.

Rep. Peggy Scott of Andover and Sen. Michelle Benson of Ham Lake said the Minnesota Department of Health shouldn’t be collecting admission, discharge and transfer data on patients if they aren’t being treated for COVID-19.

“We need to know that it’s happening. We need to know why it’s happening. And if it is related to a public health emergency, I think there can be a lot of cooperation in how we move that forward,” Benson said in a news conference Tuesday. “But if it’s generally related to a reduction in the right to privacy for Minnesotans, there is grave concern.”

The department in April began informing hospitals of the request for data, saying it was related to coronavirus surveillance efforts and needed because limited testing capabilities masked the true extent of COVID-19.

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said “syndromic surveillance” isn’t new and is a tool for preventing and controlling disease outbreak. She said the agency isn’t collecting identifiable information such as name, address or birth dates, but is getting aggregate information on illnesses and symptoms that could relate to COVID-19.

“It helps us to identify outbreaks earlier than would be possible through disease-specific testing alone. It helps us monitor trends. It helps us to spot hot spots as soon as we can,” Malcolm said. “I think people would agree there is value in doing that.”

— Brian Bakst | MPR News

MN Senate backs $60M small business aid plan

More than 5,700 small businesses could qualify for state grants under a bill that the state Senate passed Tuesday. The proposal would award up to $10,000 each to businesses that experienced hardship from COVID-19 disruptions.

The money is reserved for Minnesota-based companies with 50 or fewer employees. Most of the $60 million would come out of federal coronavirus relief payments to the state. Sen. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, said the grants could be a lifeline for some companies.

“No community, no industry is immune to this. And it’s painful. And we are talking about it every day,” Anderson said. “I don’t think we have a true sense of the magnitude that’s going to hit in another three, six, 12 months.”

Some of the dollars would be designated by region, for businesses with six or fewer employees and for minority, veteran- and women-owned businesses. But senators defeated an amendment that would have carved out some of the money for retail with a strong ethnic cultural orientation.

Sen. Foung Hawj, DFL-St. Paul, said many of those businesses could get shut out of the grants because they have “technical barriers, have resource barriers and have language barriers.”

Anderson said unlike federal programs criticized for the way money was distributed, the state grant awards will be determined by a lottery once an application window closes.

“It wouldn’t be first-come, first-serve, quickest-to-the-gate to try to grant one of these grants,” he said. “We want to make sure it is a fair process.”

Negotiations on the plan involving the DFL-led House and Gov. Tim Walz are ongoing.

— Brian Bakst | MPR News

Southern Minn newspaper group staff contributed to this article.

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