Nurse Lindsay Stewart demonstrates donning and doffing PPE inside of Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul on March 26. In an executive order Tuesday, Gov. Tim Walz lifted the temporary ban that he imposed seven weeks ago, which was part of an effort to save scarce masks and gowns for the COVID-19 fight. (Evan Frost/MPR News file)

Minnesota’s COVID-19 toll marched on Monday, with the Health Department reporting 591 deaths, 13 more than Sunday; 452 Minnesotans are currently hospitalized, 18 more than the prior day, although the number needing intensive care stayed relatively stable at 194.

The case count is now growing more rapidly in south central Minnesota.

Rice County cases more than tripled over the span of a week, and the county now has 114 confirmed cases and one death. Blue Earth County is next with 55 cases but zero deaths, while Steele County is up to 60 confirmed and no deaths. Le Sueur County has 29 confirmed cases and no deaths; Nicollet County 21 confirmed and two deaths; Waseca County 16 confirmed and no deaths; Goodhue County 25 confirmed; Brown County nine confirmed and one death; and Sibley County four 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, she said.

In Steele County, a business had a cluster of employees test positive for COVID-19, according to a release from Steele County Public Health Director Amy Caron.

Key decisions coming this week

The latest numbers come as Gov. Tim Walz has key policy decisions to make this week tied to the pandemic.

Walz must decide if he’ll extend orders directing people to stay-at-home as much as possible and to keep bars, restaurants and amusement venues closed to all but to-go business. Both expire next Monday.

Last week, Walz said Minnesota remains in a precarious spot with case counts and deaths on the rise. He predicted that many customers aren’t ready to dine out or gather where there are crowds.

“To do this haphazard, and I think of business owners, if you open up and it becomes clear people got sick being there, it’s every bit as damaging as a stay-at-home order. So we can’t get it wrong.”

Walz has come under fire and been sued for restrictions that have fallen unevenly on businesses. Traffic and cell phone data show people are increasingly disregarding them. He issued his initial stay-at-home and public venue orders in March.

Testing goal continues to fall short

Testing remains an ongoing concern as state officials try to strike a balance between public health and the need to restarting sectors of the economy.

Gov. Tim Walz has said testing 5,000 people every day is critical to reopening the economy and three weeks ago announced Minnesota would lead the nation in testing thanks to a “moonshot” project with Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota.

But while the state has approached 5,000 daily tests completed, it still hasn’t reached it.

And while supply shortages were faulted with limited testing in the early weeks of the outbreak, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said the capacity is there — and the initial messaging may be to blame.

"Testing’s available, and providers are telling us that people aren’t coming in. So people aren’t availing themselves of the testing capacity that’s there," Malcolm said Friday. "And we need to do better. We need to do more outreach to make sure people know they can and should be getting tested if they have symptoms."

Minnesota and other states have begun something of a return to normalcy, with at least 31 states partially reopening after weeks of restrictions.

But on Friday, Minnesota officials offered a sobering reminder that despite the easing of restrictions here and elsewhere, the fight against the disease is nowhere near done and the damage done is nowhere near complete.

“What I don't think has sunk in yet, this thing is going to be with us at least until we get really good therapeutics, or we get herd immunity, or we get a vaccine,” Walz said.

Meatpacking remains at the center of case jumps

Many of the recent 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 17 people have tested positive for COVID-19. In mid-April, there were just a handful of cases. On Monday, there were 1,269 confirmed cases. The numbers were still increasing, though at a slower rate than in previous weeks.

The JBS plant shut on April 20 but partially reopened last week 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 — have skyrocketed. An undisclosed number of workers at both plants have tested positive for the virus.

There were about 55 confirmed cases in Stearns County two weeks ago. By Monday, confirmed cases had jumped to 1,443.

Kandiyohi County in west-central Minnesota is also seeing cases jump three weeks 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 back then.

On Monday, the Health Department reported 316 people have now tested positive.


Minnesota receives shipment of remdesivir

Minnesota received its first shipment over the weekend of an anti-viral drug that shows promise treating patients with advanced cases of COVID-19.

The pharmaceutical company Gilead donated some of the experimental drug remdesivir to the federal government, which is, in turn, delivering it to the states.

The Minnesota Department of Health said it received an initial shipment Saturday and already distributed supplies to hospitals based on their number of COVID-19 positive patients.

The Health Department says the drug may help patients recover faster, but it's still being tested. In one study, it cut patients' recovery time from 15 to 11 days. Minnesota has been told it will receive additional shipments of the drug.

— Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

Routine vaccinations lag amid pandemic

Public health researchers are concerned about a drop in measles vaccinations amid the coronavirus outbreak. New research published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a significant decline in orders for measles vaccinations from early January to mid-April, compared to the same period last year.

HealthPartners Institute researcher Dr. Malini DeSilva co-authored the study, which also found a sharp drop in actual vaccinations starting in the middle of March. She said parents need to make sure they're taking their kids to the doctor for well-child visits.

"We know that there is a lot of disruption happening within the health systems, but if you delay those routine vaccinations, that puts millions of children at risk for infection with preventable and deadly diseases," she said.

DeSilva said many health systems have designated separate locations for patients with potential coronavirus infections so that other locations can be reserved for everyone else.

— Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

© 2020 Minnesota Public Radio. All rights reserved. Southern Minn newspaper group staff contributed to this article.

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