COVID-19 Latest May 12

Gov. Tim Walz unveils a plan that extends the state's stay-at-home order until May 18 during press conference inside the Department of Public Safety in St. Paul on April 30, 2020. With his current stay-home order set to expire on Monday, Walz must decide this week whether to extend or modify the order, or let it expire. (Evan Frost/MPR News, Pool file)

Minnesota on Tuesday passed two more sad milestones in the COVID-19 pandemic as deaths rose above 600 and total cases crossed 12,000.

The Health Department reported 23 more deaths from Monday, bringing the total to 614. The first death was recorded less than two months ago. More than 80 percent of those who’ve died were living in long-term care facilities. The number currently hospitalized is just under 500, with 199 in intensive care.

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.

The latest numbers come as a decision nears this week about whether Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-home order should be extended in some form beyond Monday or allowed to expire.

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, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Monday. “We’re in the compiling-all-the-data stage.”

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.”

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.

And while supply shortages were faulted with limited testing in the early weeks of the outbreak, Malcolm said the capacity is there — and the initial messaging may be to blame.

Malcolm reiterated that on Monday, telling reporters that people who are experiencing symptoms "can and should be getting tested” and that the state has capacity for that.

But she and Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, said the state would not be opening the door anytime soon for testing of Minnesotans showing no symptoms at all.

The state still needs to be judicious in its testing, especially since it’s intensifying its focus now on long-term care facilities, Ehresmann said. Also, a negative test doesn’t guarantee that you won’t get the disease.

“A negative test is just a single point in time,” Ehresmann said. “Someone who tests negative today may become infectious tomorrow.”

The state is ramping up efforts to trace the contacts of people who’ve been infected, back to 48 hours before the onset of symptoms, Ehresmann said. Officials are rapidly staffing up on those investigations with a goal of having 460 people making calls by the end of the week, she added.

Meatpacking remains at the center of case jumps

Many of the 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.

Despite the new numbers, Malcolm on Monday noted that the number of cases being discovered in those hot spots has moderated in recent days.

Some businesses back to work, others frustrated

The governor has said more than 90 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.

He’s loosened restrictions on some retailers, allowing customers to buy online and pick up goods curbside. And this week, doctors, hospitals and dental clinics are able to restart elective surgeries and dental services.

Customer-facing businesses that haven’t been green-lighted, however, are chafing at the restrictions.

Recently, a Twin Cities barbershop owner publicly defied Walz’s order. Leaders in Lakefield, in southwestern Minnesota, have voted to support businesses that want to defy the governor’s order and reopen. In northwestern Minnesota, the Thief River Falls City Council asked for their city to be exempt from the order.

“These are horrible choices. There are no good choices,” Walz said recently, though he noted that restarting of sectors of the economy — including letting crowds return to bars and restaurants — had to be done methodically with safety in mind.

As the stay-home order moves through a seventh week, a Burnsville gift and decor store announced online it was reopening Monday. Ficus and Fig doesn’t offer any online sales, and co-owner Kelly Barker said she felt they had no option but to invite customers back in.

“We have been so very respectful of Gov. Walz and how he has been dealing with things. I would not want his job,” Barker said. “I understand how hard it is to have to try to make the best decision for everybody in the state. I get it. We’re just trying to make the best decision for us.”

A handful of bars and restaurants in central Minnesota are planning to reopen to the public next week, regardless of health orders aimed at stemming the spread of the coronavirus.

Kris Schiffler of Albany owns Shady’s Bar and Grill and a half dozen other bars and restaurants in the area. They’ve offered take-out orders only, but Schiffler says the small town establishments can be reopened safely and invite customers back.

He says his bars and restaurants will reopen on Monday, and he hopes to get business back to normal.

“We can’t sit around all summer and watch these businesses just fail. We just can’t do it,” he said. “The people should decide whether we’re open. A governor shouldn’t decide whether we’re open or not.”

Minnesota and other states have begun something of a return to normalcy, with at least 31 states partially reopening after weeks of restrictions.

But on Friday, Minnesota officials offered a sobering reminder that despite the easing of restrictions here and elsewhere, the fight against the disease is nowhere near done and the damage done is nowhere near complete.

“What I don't think has sunk in yet, this thing is going to be with us at least until we get really good therapeutics, or we get herd immunity, or we get a vaccine,” Walz said.

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Walz OKs in-person classes for students in critical sectors

Gov. Tim Walz on Monday signed an executive order to allow on-site training and testing for up to 1,000 students in critical care sectors. The governor's office said in a statement on Monday that the measure will help fill workforce shortages in industries that serve Minnesota's most vulnerable populations.

At Pine Technical and Community College in Pine City, for example, more than 30 students in its Certified Nursing Assistant program will be able to graduate after taking a final in-person exam and start working at long-term care facilities, according to the governor's office.

“As we conduct these technical skill classes, be assured that our presidents, faculty, and staff are working with the Minnesota Department of Health to make certain they adhere to all health and safety protocols warranted by the pandemic to ensure a safe learning environment,” said Devinder Malhotra, chancellor of Minnesota State.

Schools are required to have plans in place for hygiene and distancing standards to resume in-person programming.

— Jiwon Choi | MPR News

MN Senate backs faster economic restarts

A phased reopening of the state’s economy would be sped up under a bill that cleared the state Senate on Monday.

Majority Republicans advanced the bill that would let any business with a safety and sanitation plan to open at will. That would get around restrictions the Walz administration put in place, which has allowed for the resumption of some but not all commerce.

Sen. Andrew Mathews, R-Milaca, said the bill isn’t meant as an act of provocation. He says the months of disruption have been tough on everyone.

“Whether you have someone that has been sick or died from this illness, whether you are watching your life savings that have been tied up in something go away, if you are struggling financially there are so many areas this has impacted different people,” Mathews said. “We’re trying to find the best way forward.”

The bill would require plans that address social distancing, sanitation and occupancy considerations. Businesses that open without state permission would be shielded from any regulatory penalties.

Most DFLers voted against the bill and said it would put health at risk at a time of rising COVID-19 cases and death.

“Now more than ever. Now more than ever we need to make decisions based on science and fact rather than rushing to open everything,” said Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis.

The bill doesn’t have a viable House companion but could become part of late-session negotiations.

— Brian Bakst | MPR News

MN House eyes $300M to boost COVID-19 tracing

A bill that would put $300 million into coronavirus contact tracing in Minnesota is set for a House vote this week.

The measure was approved Monday by the House Ways and Means Committee on a divided vote. Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, said it’s difficult to take steps to counteract coronavirus infections if there aren’t quick methods to alert people potentially exposed.

“It does very little good to just test if we don’t follow up with public health measures to control the virus,” Liebling said, calling it “the most important thing we can do now to get this under control and very importantly to restore confidence.”

The Minnesota Department of Health would use the money to hire thousands of contact tracers on a temporary basis, wage an awareness campaign and aid local officials in their case outreach.

Republicans argued it was the wrong strategy because COVID-19 is already spreading throughout Minnesota.

“The genie is out of the bottle. It’s too late,” Rep. Jerry Hertaus, R-Greenfield. “There are too many people that have it. It won’t serve any purpose.”A bill Republicans introduced Monday would bar mandatory contact tracing and prohibit other kinds of health tracking for people infected with contagious diseases such as coronavirus.

— Brian Bakst | MPR News

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

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