Chankaska Creek

Diners eat out at Chankaska Creek Ranch and Winery. For Minnesotans, June 1 was the first time they could eat out since the start of the stay-at-home order. Restricted indoor dining opened up June 10. (Carson Hughes/Le Sueur County News)

The state Health Department delivered doses of sad and hopeful news Wednesday in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Deaths rose by 19, bringing the total to 1,236 since the pandemic began. But the count of people currently hospitalized (427) and the number needing intensive care (193) continued to fall.

The number of daily intensive cases — a closely watched metric as officials try to manage the spread so it doesn’t overwhelm the care system — is the lowest it’s been in more than a month.

In south central Minnesota, Rice County has the most confirmed cases, now at 594, including three deaths. Steele County is next with 173 confirmed and no deaths, while Blue Earth County has 154 confirmed and one death. Le Sueur County has 50 confirmed and one death; Nicollet County 93 confirmed and 11 deaths; Waseca County 32 confirmed and no deaths; Goodhue County 86 confirmed and seven deaths; Brown County 17 confirmed and two deaths; and Sibley County 25 confirmed and one death.

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. All deaths in the county have been to residents in their 80s or 90s.

The newest numbers come on the day COVID-19 restrictions take a major step back Wednesday with Gov. Tim Walz letting a host of businesses reopen — including indoor bar and restaurant service at limited capacity.

While there has been a recent, positive trend in hospitalizations and ICU cases, health officials cautioned people not to be complacent.

Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, said Monday that while it was encouraging to see current hospitalizations stabilize and ICU cases dip, officials remain concerned “because we have seen deaths in healthy, younger adults.”

Because the virus is new, she added, “we’re continuing to be cautious on how we view things.”

While most COVID-19 deaths have involved people in long-term care with underlying health problems, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said one of the people reported in Monday’s death count was a person in their 20s with no underlying health conditions. Officials over the weekend reported another person in their 20s dying from COVID-19.

No guidance yet on K-12 school year

Asked about when state K-12 public schools would receive guidance on opening school buildings in the fall, Minnesota health officials said school leaders should still be preparing multiple scenarios to start the school year.

Ehresmann said her agency and the Education Department are in consultation about how the coronavirus could impact the next school year. It could be midsummer before districts learn if they’ll have to continue distance learning or can reopen their buildings.

“Part of the goal is to make sure that there are options available for the fall so that there is time to plan,” she said, “so that we can be nimble if we have to make adaptations given a change in how the virus behaves.

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 1,597 confirmed cases, the same as Monday — the first time in nearly a month without a daily increase.

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 Tuesday, confirmed cases were at 2,076 with 17 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 526 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.

Mower County in southern Minnesota, another county with a large meatpacking presence, is becoming a hot spot.

Mower County has jumped the past few weeks, reporting a total of 537 positive COVID-19 cases now with two deaths as of Tuesday. The Rochester, Minn., Post-Bulletin reported recently that two meat plants in Austin, Minn., are seeing COVID-19 cases rise rapidly.

Southern Minn newspaper group staff contributed to this article.

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