Protesters raise their hands outside the Minneapolis Police 3rd Precinct on Wednesday, May 27, 2020, in Minneapolis. Health experts are concerned the gatherings across the state and country could aid in the spread of the virus, though most have worn face coverings, and the outdoor nature of the protests is a mitigating factor. (Carlos Gonzalez/Star Tribune via AP)

Minnesota health officials Wednesday reported 14 more deaths from COVID-19, putting the toll at 1,086 since the pandemic began. The Health Department says 537 people are currently hospitalized, with 254 in intensive care, numbers roughly the same as Tuesday.

In south central Minnesota, Rice County has the most confirmed cases, now at 480, including two deaths. Steele County is next with 167 confirmed and no deaths, while Blue Earth County has 148 confirmed and no deaths. Le Sueur County has 46 confirmed and one death; Nicollet County 88 confirmed and 10 deaths; Waseca County 27 confirmed and no deaths; Goodhue County 70 confirmed and four deaths; Brown County 17 confirmed and two deaths; and Sibley County 16 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 Nicollet County, the death toll is higher due to impact on the elderly community. At least one assisted living facility in the county reported a couple dozen cases, though it did not report the number of deaths from its facility.

The newest numbers come as Minnesota’s top health officials remain concerned that protests tied to the killing of George Floyd are inadvertently helping spread COVID-19.

The demonstrations are “a recipe for spread" of the disease, Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said on MPR News Wednesday. "The mitigating factor is that it was outdoors."

Malcolm said the most recent statistics suggest smaller waves of the virus making their way through the population, but there’s nothing definitive.

The fact that people without symptoms of the illness can still be spreading the virus continues to be among the biggest challenges, said Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director.

“There is a big role for asymptomatic transmission” and it’s hard to identify who those people are, she said.

Their remarks on MPR News came a day after the state Health Department reported 22 more deaths from COVID-19 on Tuesday as the number of patients in the hospital remained stable.

Both the number of hospitalizations and intensive care cases — key metrics for understanding the outbreak — have trended down the past three days.

The newest numbers come a day after Minnesota allowed restaurants, bars and more businesses were allowed to reopen in some capacity, and as state officials put the word out for Minnesotans to donate blood.

While some businesses want fewer restrictions, Monday’s beginning of phase two of Gov. Tim Walz’s “stay safe” plan marked the most significant reopening of the economy since the COVID-19 outbreak first hit Minnesota in early March.

If the partial reopening of the economy that began Monday results in a surge of cases, state officials have said the restrictions could return.

While testing has been on the rise, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Monday that the Health Department’s public health laboratory stopped processing results over the weekend as the lab closed when the Capitol complex was evacuated due to mass protests over the police killing of George Floyd.

Health Department epidemiologist Dr. Ruth Lynfield said on Monday that the state is coming up with a plan to allow demonstrators access to testing even if they don't have symptoms. She said officials will be working with community health centers and clinics to secure enough testing capacity for people to get tested.

Lynfield said protesters should wait until several days after exposure because the test may produce a false negative if it's done too early. Health officials said they expect to be see whether the protests spread the virus within three weeks.

During the Health Department’s Monday briefing, Ehresmann also said that “we are in desperate need” of blood supplies, urging Minnesotans to donate blood.

Court blocks bar owner from serving dine-in guests, violating Walz order

A Stearns County judge has ruled against an Albany, Minn., bar owner who threatened to open last month in violation of COVID-19 restrictions.

Kris Schiffler owns six bars and restaurants in central Minnesota. Last month, Schiffler announced he was opening one of them, Shady's Hometown Tavern in Albany, to dine-in customers, even though restaurants were restricted to take-out orders only under Gov. Tim Walz's stay-at-home order.

He backed down after state Attorney General Keith Ellison sought a restraining order.

District Court Judge Shan Wang granted the state's motion for a temporary injunction against Schiffler, prohibiting him from violating the governor's executive order.

The judge ruled that the governor "acted within his authority" when he closed restaurants, and did not abuse his power when he determined that the pandemic constituted a peacetime emergency.

In his statement following the ruling, Ellison praised the court decision.

“All Minnesotans — especially the folks who live in and near Stearns County — can be relieved that the court has put their health first by granting this temporary injunction,” he said.

— Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

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.

In southwestern Minnesota’s Nobles County, where an outbreak hit Worthington’s massive JBS pork plant, about 1 in 15 people have tested positive for COVID-19. In mid-April, there were just a handful of cases. By Tuesday, there were 1,552 confirmed cases, although the numbers are rising at a much slower rate than in previous weeks.

The JBS plant shut on April 20 but has since 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 — 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 Monday, confirmed cases were at 2,042 with 14 deaths.

Kandiyohi County in west-central Minnesota is also seeing cases continue to climb more than a month 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 then.

On Tuesday, the Health Department reported 504 people have now tested positive in the county.

While the counts in those counties are high relative to their population, officials say the growth in new cases in those areas appears to be stabilizing.

Southern Minn newspaper group staff contributed to this article.

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