COVID-19 Latest June 23

Health care workers wave and watch community members parade past the front of M Health Fairview Ridges Hospital last month in Burnsville. (Christine T. Nguyen/MPR News file)

State health officials Tuesday reported another nine deaths related to COVID-19, putting the total at 1,393 since the pandemic began.

That daily rate of deaths, however, continues to slow. Tuesday marked the first time since mid-April that the state reported three consecutive days of deaths in the single digits.

The counts of people currently hospitalized (339) and needing intensive care (158) — two closely watched metrics as officials try to manage the spread of the disease — ticked up from Monday but still showed an overall downward trend for the month.

In south central Minnesota, Rice County has the most confirmed cases, now at 758, including four deaths. Blue Earth County is next with 243 confirmed and two deaths, while Steele County has 200 confirmed and two deaths. Le Sueur County has 66 confirmed and one death; Nicollet County 109 confirmed and 12 deaths; Waseca County 44 confirmed and no deaths; Goodhue County 108 confirmed and seven deaths; Brown County 21 confirmed and two deaths; and Sibley County 29 confirmed and two deaths.

Public Health officials in Rice County noted that at least part of the higher number of cases in that county 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 residents in their 80s or 90s.

Avoiding the ER?

The newest numbers come a day after Minnesota health officials said they’re increasingly concerned that people with serious health problems who need emergency room care are not seeking that care amid COVID-19 fears.

It’s especially worrisome for people who might be suffering heart attacks, strokes or low blood sugar, said Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director. She cited national data showing double-digit percentage drops in emergency room visits compared to the weeks before it hit the United States.

“Our health care systems are ready to care for you safely” despite the pressure from COVID-19, she said on Monday.

Dr. Cameron Berg, interim medical director at North Memorial’s emergency department, said the hospital has seen a dramatic change since they started caring for COVID-19 patients.

“Our emergency department takes care of roughly 200 patients on an average day in the springtime. And within a couple of weeks of COVID landing, those volumes had gone down by nearly 50 percent,” Berg said.

The Robbinsdale hospital saw drops across the board, including for heart attacks and strokes.

“We have no reason to suspect that there will be a dramatic reduction in heart attacks just due to the lifestyle modifications that people have made for COVID.”

According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released Monday, in the 10 weeks following the declaration of COVID-19 as a national emergency, emergency rooms saw a 23 percent drop in heart attack patients, a 20 percent stroke patients and a 10 percent drop in uncontrolled high blood sugar.

Ehresmann and Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm also reiterated ongoing worries that parents are not keeping up with regular vaccinations for their children because of COVID-19 fears.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, the number of measles, mumps and rubella vaccine doses given out this year has been down by as much as 70 percent, from the same week in 2019, though that gap narrowed to around 35 percent last week.

Children’s Minnesota, the pediatric hospital system in St. Paul and Minneapolis, says it has dispensed far fewer vaccines than normal.

“When we look at Children's in terms of total doses, we'll give between 800 and 1,000 infant vaccines a month. And during the pandemic, we dropped down to right around 400, or less than 400 a month,” said Patsy Stinchfield, a pediatric nurse practitioner in infectious disease at Children’s. “We know that there's children that are out there that are under-immunized and potentially could become sick with a vaccine-preventable disease.”

Stinchfield said this month the number of vaccinations is rising, but still not quickly enough. “What we worry most about is measles because it's so contagious,” Stinchfield said.

Children’s has opened up drive-up immunizations to make them more convenient. They’re also encouraging families to vaccinate their children.

Health Department officials say this year it’s very important for people to get their influenza vaccine, as the flu looks similar to COVID-19 but can also take up medical resources through the winter.

Of the 33,469 cases of COVID-19 confirmed since the pandemic began, about 88 percent of people have recovered to the point where they no longer need to be isolated.

Among those who’ve died, nearly 80 percent were living in long-term care or assisted living at the time; nearly all those who’ve died had prior health problems.

Malcolm again implored Minnesotans to continue socials distancing and wear masks in public spaces to help minimize the spread of the disease. While deaths remain concentrated among higher age groups, three people in their 30s have died.

Malcolm also noted that 40 is now the median age of Minnesotans confirmed with the disease.

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 813 confirmed cases as of Tuesday.

Mower County is home to Hormel Foods and Quality Pork Processors. Both have been partnering with Mayo Clinic to ramp up employee testing.

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 the county but work in other counties where coronavirus is present.

Health officials held a COVID-19 testing push in Austin, Minn., over the weekend.

Nobles, in southwestern Minnesota, reported 1,634 confirmed cases Tuesday. About 1 in 14 people now have tested positive for COVID-19 in the county, although there have only been a few additional cases recorded the past few days.

Worthington’s massive JBS pork processing plant was the epicenter of the Nobles outbreak. The JBS plant shut on April 20 but has since 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 2,139 with 19 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.

As of Tuesday, the Health Department reported 561 people have now tested positive in the county.

Cases have also climbed noticeably in Cottonwood County, home to a pork processing plant in Windom, and in Lyon County, around a turkey processor in Marshall.

Youth sports may resume soon

State health officials have announced that youth sports can resume in the coming weeks. Outdoor sports can return to games and scrimmages starting Wednesday, and indoor sports July 1 or later, under the Health Department’s recommended guidance.

Among the recommendations, the department calls on players to:

  • Avoid sharing individual water bottles, community snacks or towels
  • Try to use “dedicated personal equipment” such as bats, mitts and rackets
  • Find new ways to show sportsmanship, including “tip your hats instead of handshakes.”

While following the guidance can help reduce risk, “in the end everyone has to make their own decisions about what level of risk they are willing to accept,” Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said.

“Some families, especially those with members who face an elevated risk of severe illness, may choose not to participate. That is perfectly OK, and everyone needs to respect that decision when a family or a player makes it.”

Officials also said the Minnesota Department of Education is working with the Minnesota State High School League to develop activities and sports guidance for schools for the fall sports season.

Officials continue to implore Minnesotans to keep social distancing and wearing masks in public spaces. People who feel flu-like symptoms should get tested and people who feel ill should stay home.

Southern Minn newspaper group staff contributed to this article.

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