JBS pork plant

The JBS pork plant in Worthington, Minn., is the city’s largest employer. (Jackson Forderer for MPR News/File 2013)

Minnesota’s COVID-19 toll continued its unhappy climb Friday. The Health Department reported 534 people have died, up 26 from Thursday, while the total number of cases confirmed since the pandemic began crossed 10,000.

The number of Minnesotans currently hospitalized jumped by 38, to 473, with 198 intensive care cases.

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

Rice County, after a recent spike, more than doubled its case count in a couple days and now has the most confirmed in the region at 81 confirmed cases and one death. Blue Earth County is next with 55 cases but zero deaths, while Le Sueur County has 28 confirmed cases; Steele County has 45 confirmed cases; Nicollet County 18 confirmed and two deaths; Waseca County 13 confirmed; Goodhue County 25 confirmed; Brown County nine confirmed and one death; and Sibley County three confirmed.

The latest counts come a day after Walz unveiled a “battle plan” to fight COVID-19’s spread in long-term care facilities. He also braced Minnesotans to expect some 500 more deaths by June.

‘Building toward the peak’

Long-term, congregate care operations have worried officials since the pandemic began, given the medical vulnerability of people living there. About 80 percent of the deaths from COVID-19 in Minnesota involve people living in long-term care. Almost all had underlying health problems.

The new focus includes expanded testing, more personal protective gear for health workers and ensuring “adequate” staffing levels when workers fall ill.

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm on Thursday called staffing a “chronic problem” even before the outbreak. Bringing in “strike teams” of health care workers furloughed from other jobs who could fill the breach at a facility in need is one option under consideration. Walz also suggested National Guard members might be deployed.

“We are still building toward the peak” of overall COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, Malcolm said of Minnesota’s epidemic. “We are on the steep part of the curve and we’re just going to expect to see more and more cases each day. As we test more, we will find more."

No big high school graduation ceremonies

State education officials Friday formally announced what many expected: Minnesota is banning large-scale high school graduation ceremonies to limit the spread of the coronavirus, and is encouraging schools to hold online ceremonies instead.

The Minnesota Department of Education issued guidance saying indoor graduations and ceremonies held outside in stadiums and on football fields are not permitted. It said such gathering are not considered safe at any size.

Meatpacking remains at the center of case jumps

Friday continues a string of days of accelerating case counts as testing for the virus intensifies.

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

Southwestern Minnesota’s Nobles County, where an outbreak centered around the JBS pork plant in Worthington, 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. In mid-April , there were just a handful of cases. On Thursday, there were 1,153 confirmed cases as testing in the region ramped up.

The JBS plant shut on April 20 and partially reopened Wednesday 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 55 confirmed coronavirus cases in Stearns early last week. By Sunday, as testing intensified, there were 589. And by Thursday confirmed cases had jumped to 1,161, surpassing Nobles County.

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 Thursday, the Health Department reported 238 people have now tested positive.

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MN House approves measure to help low-income Minnesotans, small business owners

The Minnesota House on Thursday passed legislation to help many people with low incomes and small business owners get through the COVID-19 pandemic. The vote was 75-58.

The bill includes money for emergency housing assistance, rural broadband and small business loans. It also has temporary pay raises for the personal care assistants who care for the elderly and disabled. The $208 million measure would be partially paid for with recently received federal funds related to COVID-19.

DFL House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, of Golden Valley, said the assistance is critical.

“Those workers, those families, those businesses are essential to our state, and Minnesota has to act to help them get through this crisis,” Winkler said. “If we do nothing, if we let them fall through the cracks and be left behind, we are going to have a much, much slower economic recovery afterward.”

House Republicans argue that with a large budget deficit ahead, the bill is not affordable. But Republican House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, of Crown, and other Republicans argued that a better approach would be allowing businesses to reopen.

“The best thing that you can do is [to] allow these businesses to open up safe,” Daudt said.

Senate Republicans are trying to provide help through a package of tax breaks.

— Tim Pugmire | MPR News

Hennepin Co. board chair: No property tax hike next year

The chair of the Hennepin County Board said Thursday that the county will not raise property taxes next year. County Administrator David Hough said the county will need to find $50 million in cost savings to meet that target.

The board is also planning a phased reopening of public facing services. Hough said some of the changes made during the shutdown, like online services and digital document access will continue. He said most employees will also continue to work from home with help from video conferencing programs.

"Nearly every department I have met with, so far has indicated these products have transformed their ability for staff to meet together while they are apart,” Hough said.

Hough said the county is already reducing costs through a hiring freeze and not refilling jobs that open up through attrition. The board will hear more cost saving proposals in the coming weeks.

— Brandt Williams | MPR News

Fargo leaders look to ‘test their way out’ of virus surge

Officials say they’ve identified several COVID-19 hot spots in and around Fargo, which is North Dakota’s biggest city and which has had more confirmed cases of the disease than any other community in the state.

With the rate of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the Fargo area continuing to dwarf the rest of the state, Gov. Doug Burgum is calling on local representatives to help slow the spread. He has promised resources to help with testing and other measures he believes will keep people healthy and businesses open.

Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney, a member of the newly created Red River Valley COVID-19 Task Force, said Thursday that he believes the city and county can “test our way out of this.”

— The Associated Press

Walz says fish near home for Saturday’s opener

The governor on Thursday reiterated the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources call for anglers to stay close to home for this weekend's fishing opener. Officials are asking anglers not to stay overnight, to bring all the supplies they need, and to only travel as far as they can go and return on a single tank of gas.

The DNR has already sold more than 350,000 fishing licenses this year. The department says it doesn't anticipate issuing citations and plans to continue to use an educational approach to enforcing the stay-at-home order.

Fishing resorts are open, although many are reporting large numbers of cancellations.

Walz said while Minnesota wouldn’t be setting up roadblocks at the borders to keep out anglers from the Dakotas, Iowa and Wisconsin, but “our guidance is to stay close to home. The more people travel, the more the spread.”

He also urged people who are driving north for fishing not to stop for gas or food.

“This is not about defying an order that I put out,” he said. “This is about defying public health warnings. This is about defying the science of how this spreads.”

— MPR News Staff

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

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