Virus Outbreak-Minnesota

Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm speaks at a news conference inside the Department of Public Safety in St. Paul, Minn., on Thursday, April 30, 2020. (Evan Frost/Minnesota Public Radio via AP, Pool)

Minnesota health officials offered some cautiously upbeat analysis Friday on the current state of the COVID-19 pandemic even as they warned the situation could deteriorate if Minnesotans get complacent.

Two of the most closely watched metrics — current hospitalizations and intensive care cases — continue to plateau at levels from about a month ago, suggesting that the state is successfully managing the spread of the disease so it does not overwhelm the health care system.

“The hospitalization picture has stabilized and improved pretty significantly in recent weeks, which has been great to see,” Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters Friday.

She and Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, again implored people to continue wearing masks in public spaces and keep social distancing. People who feel flu-like symptoms should get tested and people who feel ill should stay home.

“The positive news is that many of our indicators are neutral or slightly positive,” Ehresmann said, adding that while it was cause for celebration, “we’re not out of the woods, yet.”

‘Tired of it, too’

Their remarks came hours after the Health Department on Friday reported 25 more deaths from COVID-19, bringing the total number of people who’ve died from the disease since the pandemic began to 1,274.

The number of people currently hospitalized (403) continued to dip as did the daily count of people needing intensive care (191).

In south central Minnesota, Rice County has the most confirmed cases, now at 685, including three deaths. Steele County is next with 175 confirmed and no deaths, while Blue Earth County has 159 confirmed and one death. Le Sueur County has 51 confirmed and one death; Nicollet County 95 confirmed and 11 deaths; Waseca County 33 confirmed and no deaths; Goodhue County 92 confirmed and seven deaths; Brown County 18 confirmed and two deaths; and Sibley County 25 confirmed and two 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. All deaths in the county have been to residents in their 80s or 90s.

Officials have been pleased by that relative stability but continued to press Minnesotans to act responsibly in public — masks and distancing — to minimize the spread of the disease.

“We know people are tired of this, and we are tired of it too,” Ehresmann said Friday. “But following these precautions on a personal level is really important for the state to keep moving in the right direction.

Earlier in the week Ehresmann cautioned that the coronavirus could surge again in the fall and winter along with influenza.

The state’s COVID-19 response this spring to minimize indoor contact in restaurants, bars and other gathering spaces effectively eliminated the typical influenza season, but as people return to social spaces, the state is likely in the fall to face influenza and COVID-19 cycles together, she said.

Restrictions on daily life were eased significantly on Wednesday with Gov. Tim Walz letting a host of businesses reopen — including indoor bar and restaurant service at limited capacity.

Total confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Minnesota hit 29,795 Friday. In about 84 percent of those cases, people have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.

Among the deaths, 1,015 — about 80 percent — involve people living in long-term care, nearly all had underlying health problems.

The growth in the number of new congregate care facilities having an outbreak has slowed significantly, Ehresmann added.

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.

That includes Mower County in southeastern Minnesota, where there were 638 confirmed cases as of Friday.

That puts Mower County second to Nobles County in cases per capita, according to an MPR News analysis.

Mower County is home to Hormel Foods and Quality Pork Processors, both of which say they’re partnering with Mayo Clinic to ramp up employee testing.

At Hormel, officials say they anticipate that by early next week, they'll have 40 active cases among employees. They expect that an additional 39 people who've already tested positive will have recovered by then.

Quality Pork Producers has 90 employees with active cases, and 100 more who have recovered.

While some of Mower County’s positive cases are associated with people who work in the facilities and with the people they live with, county officials say they are also seeing transmission among people who live in Mower County but who work in other counties where coronavirus is present.

In southwestern Minnesota, Nobles County reported 1,607 confirmed cases as of Friday. In mid-April, there were just a handful of cases. Roughly 1 in 14 people now have tested positive for COVID-19 in the county, although the increases are coming at a much slower rate than earlier in the epidemic.

Worthington’s massive JBS pork processing plant was the epicenter of the Nobles outbreak. 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 Friday, confirmed cases were at 2,096 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 Friday, the Health Department reported 541 people have now tested positive in the county.

Mayo Clinic introduces a new antibody test

A new test developed by Mayo Clinic researchers will detect neutralizing antibodies — an indicator of how well someone who has been exposed to the coronavirus can fight it off, if exposed again.

Mayo has already developed an antibody test, but it only indicates that a patient has been exposed to the coronavirus. That test doesn’t discern whether someone is immune to the virus — or for how long.

The new test will be most useful in helping doctors and researchers discern how effective a plasma donation from someone who recovered from COVID-19 will be in treating someone who is actively fighting the virus.

The test may also be useful in the development of a vaccine.

Scientists at Mayo stress the test isn’t an "immunity passport”; testing positive for neutralizing antibodies doesn't mean a patient is no longer at risk of catching the coronavirus.

— Catharine Richert | MPR News

Southern Minn newspaper group staff contributed to this article.

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