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)

Minnesota’s COVID-19 toll continued its unhappy ascent Monday as the state Health Department reported 11 more deaths from the disease, bringing the total to 1,197 since the pandemic began.

However, total current hospitalizations were roughly steady and the daily count of people needing intensive care dipped to 198, the lowest it’s been in nearly a month. The intensive care need is a key metric as officials try to manage the spread of the disease so it does not overwhelm the health care system. It’s fallen significantly over the past seven days.

In south central Minnesota, Rice County has the most confirmed cases, now at 587, including three deaths. Steele County is next with 173 confirmed and no deaths, while Blue Earth County has 152 confirmed and no deaths. Le Sueur County has 49 confirmed and one death; Nicollet County 90 confirmed and 11 deaths; Waseca County 30 confirmed and no deaths; Goodhue County 79 confirmed and seven deaths; Brown County 17 confirmed and two deaths; and Sibley County 19 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. All deaths in the county have been to residents in their 80s or 90s.

The new numbers come as Minnesota continues to reopen parts of the economy even as health leaders worry about the potential for a spurt of new cases coming from the protests surrounding George Floyd’s killing.

State Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm on Monday said several community testing sites would open Tuesday and Wednesday in Minneapolis and St. Paul to test people who were part of the Floyd protests, cleanup efforts or observing the protests.

Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, said 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. That is very sobering.” 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, Malcolm said one of the people reported in Monday’s death count was a person in their 20s with no underlying health conditions.

The department over the weekend reported another person in their 20s dying from COVID-19.

Outbreak reported at Faribault prison

The Minnesota Department of Corrections reported Friday that it learned of more than 50 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the previous 24 hours at its facility in Faribault, Minn.

The department said Friday that all inmates who tested positive are either asymptomatic or experiencing mild symptoms.

The facility houses more than 1,800 people. To contain the outbreak, meals are being delivered to living units, programming has been postponed and opportunities for socializing are being limited. The corrections department said those who have tested positive are being isolated per Department of Health protocols.

Authorities said they're conducting COVID-19 testing for all inmates statewide.

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, Malcolm and Ehresmann said school leaders should still be preparing multiple scenarios to start the school year.

“We just don’t now what the state of the epidemic will be at that time,” Malcolm said. “We appreciate people are looking for clarity” but officials haven’t set a date yet to answer the question.

More openings coming Wednesday

Last week, Gov. Tim Walz announced a further loosening of restrictions on businesses and other aspects of society during the coronavirus pandemic beginning Wednesday.

Among the changes:

  • Indoor restaurant and bar service and personal services can open at 50 percent capacity with a 250-person limit.
  • Places of worship can also hold services at 50 percent capacity with a 250-person limit.
  • Entertainment venues can open 25 percent capacity with a 250-person limit.
  • Personal care services, including salons, barbershops and tattoo parlors, can work indoors at 50 percent capacity.
  • Gyms, yoga studio and fitness centers can reopen 25 percent capacity with a 250-person limit.

More than 80 percent of the Minnesotans confirmed with COVID-19 have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.

But officials continued their plea to Minnesotans to continue staying 6 feet apart, wear masks and stay home if they feel ill.

“We are not going back to normal,” cautioned Steve Grove, commissioner of employment and economic development as he praised businesses for the sacrifices they’ve made in the COVID-19 era. “We’re continuing to ask for personal responsibility in the next phase.”

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 Monday, there were 1,597 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 2,071 with 16 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 Monday, the Health Department reported 522 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 524 positive COVID-19 cases now with two deaths as of Monday. 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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