Faribault Armory COVID testing

Members of the Minnesota National Guard administered health screening questionnaires on Memorial Day outside the Faribault Armory for free COVID-19 testing. The Faribault Armory was one of six throughout the state that partook in the free testing initiative over the holiday weekend, collecting a combined total of more than 9,000 samples in the three days. (Annie Granlund/People’s Press)

COVID-19’s death toll continued its rise in Minnesota, with the state Health Department reporting 22 more deaths Tuesday, bringing the total to 1,072 since the pandemic began.

Current hospitalizations (537) and intensive care cases (248), though, remained relatively stable from Monday. Both of those key metrics have trended down the past three days.

In south central Minnesota, Rice County has the most confirmed cases, now at 467, including two deaths. Steele County is next with 164 confirmed and no deaths, while Blue Earth County has 145 confirmed and no deaths. Le Sueur County has 44 confirmed and one death; Nicollet County 88 confirmed and 10 deaths; Waseca County 26 confirmed and no deaths; Goodhue County 69 confirmed and three deaths; Brown County 16 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 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.

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 officials are still bracing for a spike in cases related to the gatherings, but Malcolm said transmission may be limited because the demonstrations have been held outside.

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, Kris Ehresmann, the state's infectious disease director, also said that “we are in desperate need” of blood supplies, urging Minnesotans to donate blood.

Officials continue to pay close attention to the daily intensive care counts, a key metric, as they work to manage the spread of the disease so it doesn’t overwhelm the state’s health care system.

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

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.

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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