Minnesota health officials on Monday reported three more deaths from COVID-19, bringing the state total to 1,474 but continuing a two-week trend of days with deaths mostly in single digits.
Intensive care cases (125) also remained relatively flat at late-April levels even as overall current hospitalizations (133) rose from Sunday.
In south central Minnesota, Rice County has the most confirmed cases, now at 844, including seven deaths. Blue Earth County is next with 442 confirmed and two deaths, while Steele County has 231 confirmed and one death. Le Sueur County has 103 confirmed and one death; Nicollet County 169 confirmed and 12 deaths; Waseca County 68 confirmed and no deaths; Goodhue County 131 confirmed and eight deaths; Brown County 31 confirmed and two deaths; and Sibley County 54 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 the Mankato area, including Blue Earth, Nicollet and Le Sueur counties, public officials reported a spike in cases among young people who recently patronized bars.
Minnesotans in their 20s now make up the largest age group of confirmed cases — more than 8,300 since the pandemic began. The median age for cases has been dipping and is now just under 39 years old.
As investigators last week probed new clusters of Minnesota cases focused around bars in Mankato and Minneapolis, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm cautioned young adults to not let their guard down.
Of the 38,569 confirmed since the pandemic began, about 88 percent of people infected have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.
Among those who’ve died, nearly 80 percent were living in long-term care or assisted living facilities, nearly all had underlying health problems.
Walz eyeing statewide mask mandate
As several U.S. states mandated mask-wearing statewide amid the recent upticks in new cases, Gov. Tim Walz last week said he is concerned enough about potential outbreaks that he’s considering a statewide mask order.
While he didn’t give an indication on when he’d decide, the governor said such a move would offer public health benefits while helping businesses that are struggling to enforce their own mask rules.
Meanwhile, a few Minnesota cities have mandated mask-wearing in the cities’ public spaces, and several more are considering a similar measure. Medical groups in Minnesota and the state Health Department said they are backing a statewide mandate.
“It is our advice from the Health Department's perspective that this is so important and so effective and the evidence has gotten more and more clear on this point," Malcolm said last week. "We do recommend that it become a requirement at the statewide level."
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 952 confirmed cases as of Monday.
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.
Nobles, in southwestern Minnesota, reported 1,669 confirmed cases Monday with six deaths. About 1 in 13 people now have tested positive for COVID-19 in the county since the pandemic began, although the count of new cases has slowed considerably in recent weeks.
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 Monday, confirmed cases were at 2,371 with 19 deaths.
Kandiyohi County in west-central Minnesota is also dealing with a significant caseload more than two months after officials with the Jennie-O turkey processing plant there said some employees had tested positive for the coronavirus. As of Monday, the Health Department reported 573 people have now tested positive in the county, the same as Sunday. The county had confirmed three COVID-19 cases in late April.
Cases have also climbed noticeably in Lyon County (316 cases), around a turkey processor in Marshall. Cases the past few weeks have also grown in Cottonwood County (136 cases), home to a pork processing plant in Windom, but the counts there have stabilized.
Advocates urge officials to release nonviolent prisoners over virus concerns
Advocates are again demanding that the Minnesota Department of Corrections release nonviolent prisoners due to the pandemic.
Stephanie Brown, who leads the group Decarcerate Minnesota Coalition, said many prisoners have already served time for their original crime, but were sent back to prison for breaking minor rules of probation, like being late to work. The coalition has been lobbying the state for a year, hoping to free prisoners currently held on technical violations.
Now with COVID-19, Brown said that the health of prisoners who shouldn’t even be incarcerated is being ignored and that state officials have acknowledged the problem, but won’t do anything about it.
“That’s what we’re hearing from prisoners who are talking about unsafe and unsanitary conditions. Prisoners are being forced to go back to work,” Brown said. “They’re just seeing this urge to pretend like everything’s fine.”
COVID-19 has prompted the early release of some prisoners, but Brown said it’s not nearly enough. The organization plans to protest outside the the Corrections Department Thursday afternoon.
— John Enger | MPR News