COVID-19 Latest May 15

A sign posted near the biking and walking trails in St. Paul last month informs park users of precautions they should take to curb the spread COVID-19. (Christine T. Nguyen/MPR News file)

Minnesota officials on Friday reported 20 more COVID-19 deaths, putting the toll at 683 since the pandemic began. Just under 500 people were currently hospitalized, with 200 in intensive care, about the same as Thursday.

Total cases surged again, giving Minnesota 14,240 positive tests for the disease since the start of the outbreak.

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

The number of confirmed cases in Rice County have shot upward, and the county now has 197 confirmed cases and two deaths. Steele County is next with 92 confirmed and no deaths, and Blue Earth County has 76 confirmed and zero deaths. Le Sueur County has 33 confirmed cases and one death; Nicollet County 28 confirmed and two deaths; Waseca County 19 confirmed and no deaths; Goodhue County 29 confirmed; Brown County 10 confirmed and two deaths; 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, officials 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 a day after health authorities implored Minnesotans to regulate their behavior next week as they gather in small groups and head back to stores after Monday, when Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order expires.

In Wisconsin, residents there almost immediately began packing bars and restaurants unmasked after the governor’s stay-at-home order was overturned on Wednesday. Asked about the scenes one state away, Malcolm said Walz has been clear that Minnesotans must still need to be part of the solution to keep the disease in check.

“There absolutely is a need for vigilance. This is not going back to the way things were before the pandemic,” Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Thursday. Minnesota, she said, was “attempting to move forward to more economic activity and more protected social interactions.”

"If this is going to work, we are going to have to do this in a careful and intentional way," Malcolm said. “We can all contribute to do this successfully, or not.”

Beginning Monday, retail businesses will be allowed to reopen with limited capacity and group gatherings of 10 or fewer people, including at places of worship, will be permitted once again.

Health officials say they’re watching several key metrics to gauge if the disease is accelerating as restrictions are lowered. Among them: the number of days it takes for cases to double, the amount of daily testing, the proportion of positive tests and the level of community spread that can’t be traced to specific contacts — an indication the disease might be more widespread.

The community spread metric is the only one where the state is currently meeting its goal, said Dr. Ruth Lynfield, the state epidemiologist.

And as the tougher restrictions come to an end, COVID-19 is continuing to kill and sicken more Minnesotans. Lynfeld on Thursday urged: “Don’t have a face-to-face, prolonged conversation with an elderly neighbor.”

Curbs continue on large group venues

Restrictions on restaurants, bars, theaters, bowling alleys and venues that attract large crowds will remain even as restrictions ease starting Monday.

The DFL governor won’t permit restaurants to legally resume dine-in service for now, keeping them takeout-only. He said he’s instructed his agencies to assemble a plan over the next week for a "limited and safe" reopening of bars, restaurants and other places of public accommodation June 1.

On Thursday, the Mall of America said it would begin a limited reopening of stores on June 1. Rosedale Center in Roseville announced similar plans to open stores on Monday and restaurants on June 1 following the government guidelines.

When they do come back, those establishments are likely to face capacity limits. Walz also said he signed an executive order ensuring that people can raise safety concerns about their workplaces without discrimination or retaliation.

It’s a similar situation for hair salons and barber shops, gyms and other currently restricted activities that haven’t been able to serve customers since March. Salons and barbershops are allowed to sell products for curbside pickup but aren’t allowed to provide services in-shop.

There were a few other noteworthy changes for what would be allowed, assuming people follow the distance and gathering rules:

Families are allowed overnight camping at a single campsite, not in a developed campground. Private and public developed campgrounds remain closed to recreational camping. Summer day camps are allowed but not overnight camps.

Small one-on-one or one-on-two person guided and instructional activities such as guided fishing, birding, or outdoor fitness training can resume.

Outdoor tournaments, competitions, practices, and sports that allow for social distance.

During his Wednesday evening address, Walz praised Minnesotans for toughing it out the past two months, saying the stay-home order keeping Minnesotans from congregating in crowded public places had helped check the spread of the disease, saved thousands of lives and bought Minnesota time to secure needed health care supplies and prepare for a surge of COVID-19 hospitalizations.

He acknowledged that the move had cost tens of thousands of Minnesotans their jobs as retail, hospitality and other sectors shut down.

"We are still in the heart of this pandemic and this can go in a bad direction quickly,” he said. The goal, he added, was to keep the spread of the disease to a simmer and not a boil.

Schools may reopen for in-person summer learning

Schools will have the option of partially reopening to students this summer under a new executive order Walz issued Thursday.

Districts can offer summer learning through a hybrid model of distance learning and in-person instruction, or they can continue distance learning.

The order is intended to help students who have been struggling with remote instruction and need more support. School-based child care is also allowed under the order, but children of essential personnel will get first priority.

Schools that reopen this summer must follow state health guidelines on masks, social distancing, screening and cleaning.

The governor is directing state education officials to begin planning for the possibility of having to combine in-school and distance learning models, should the pandemic require such measures when school starts in the fall.

Meatpacking hot spots remain

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 16 people have tested positive for COVID-19. In mid-April, there were just a handful of cases. By Thursday, there were 1,319 confirmed cases. The numbers were still increasing, although at a slower rate than in previous weeks.

The JBS plant shut on April 20 but partially reopened last week 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 Thursday, confirmed cases had jumped to 1,609 with nine deaths.

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 Thursday, the Health Department reported 386 people have now tested positive.

Testing jumps; a third person in their 30s dies

Three weeks ago, Walz unveiled a “moonshot” project with Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota for a massive ramp-up in testing that would achieve Walz’s goal of completing 5,000 tests daily, and as many as 20,000 diagnostic tests per day.

While the effort stumbled out of the gate, it appears to be gaining traction. On Thursday, the Health Department reported Minnesota had completed more than 6,700 tests.

Beyond the count of confirmed deaths, the Health Department said there are nine probable deaths from COVID-19, where the disease was listed on the death certificate but a positive test on that person was not confirmed.

More than 80 percent of those who’ve died from the disease in Minnesota were living in long-term care facilities, with nearly all having some underlying health problems.

Officials, though, continue to brace Minnesotans to expect more cases and more deaths as the pandemic pushes toward summer. Walz has said he expects Minnesota’s COVID-19 death toll to reach 1,000 by the end of May.


MN House advances bill to help local governments cover COVID-19 costs

A Minnesota House committee advanced legislation on Thursday to distribute federal money to cities, counties and townships for expenses related to COVID-19.

The ways-and-means vote was 27 to 0. Under the bill, local governments would share $667 million, which would be provided in onetime grants. The distributions would be based on population. DFL Rep. Paul Marquart, of Dilworth, said the funding will help cover the unexpected costs of the pandemic.

“This bill would provide the funding for the services provided by our local heroes, those people on the front lines,” Marquart said. “So, that’s our police officers, our firefighters, our first responders, our nurses, everyone who basically, literally are out trying to save lives in our communities.”

Marquart said the bill does not include Hennepin or Ramsey counties because they received separate, direct appropriations from the federal government.

— Tim Pugmire | MPR News

Lawmaker warns MN State college system faces big hit

Minnesota’s system of regional four-year universities and two-year colleges will be forced to confront some monumental challenges this fall as effects of the coronavirus pandemic linger.

“Understand the pain and the struggles that they’re going to face coming into the fall. They’re already seeing some significant struggles already,” Senate Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee Chair Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, told colleagues Thursday.

The financial and educational strain will fall on the institutions and their students. Fall projections anticipate at least a 10 percent declining enrollment, he said. International students account for up to 15 percent of enrollment on some campuses, but some won’t be able to travel or acquire visas, he added.

— Brian Bakst | MPR News

Some MN counties OK property tax payment extension

At least three dozen Minnesota counties have approved extensions to the usual May 15 deadline to make the first half of annual property tax payments.

According to data gathered by the Association of Minnesota Counties, the counties are: Aitkin, Blue Earth, Brown, Chisago, Crow Wing, Dakota, Fillmore, Freeborn, Goodhue, Hennepin, Houston, Hubbard, Kanabec, Kandiyohi, Lyon, Mahnomen, Morrison, Mower, Nicollet, Olmsted, Pine, Pope, Ramsey, Rice, Roseau, Sherburne, Sibley, Stearns, Steele, Swift, Todd, Waseca, Washington, Watonwan, Winona and Yellow Medicine.

Many have pushed the due dates into summer to give more time to homeowners and business property owners short on money due to coronavirus repercussions to make payments before penalties or interest accrues.

A lot of the county actions apply to property owners who don’t pay through an escrow account. Others limit the amount that is subject to the relaxed rules. Business groups had asked the state to delay a collection of a commercial levy but that hasn’t happened. The second half of property tax payments are still due in mid-October.

— Brian Bakst | MPR News

Southern Minn newspaper group staff contributed to this article.

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