COVID-19 Latest June 25

Two signs posted on the door of HealthPartners's Stillwater Medical Group clinic in March. Health officials say they’re increasingly concerned that people with serious health problems who need emergency room care are not seeking that care and that parents are not keeping up with regular vaccinations for their children because of COVID-19 fears. (Mark Zdechlik/MPR News file)

Minnesota’s COVID-19 toll continued to climb Monday with 922 total new cases reported, one of the biggest daily spikes in the pandemic. The new numbers also reveal a heart-wrenching reality — the first death of a child age 5 or younger.

The patterns in Monday’s data reflect what’s been happening for three weeks now: new case counts leaping as deaths and hospitalizations flatten. The Health Department reported four more deaths, bringing the total to 1,545 since the pandemic began.

Total current hospitalizations (247) and those needing intensive care (115) continue to dip. Despite that relatively good news, officials have been bracing Minnesotans for those numbers to rise as cases continue to jump.

In south central Minnesota, Rice County has the most confirmed cases, now at 915, including eight deaths. Blue Earth County is next with 679 confirmed and two deaths, while Steele County has 278 confirmed and one death. Le Sueur County has 153 confirmed and one death; Nicollet County 226 confirmed and 13 deaths; Waseca County 92 confirmed and no deaths; Goodhue County 148 confirmed and eight deaths; Brown County 56 confirmed and two deaths; and Sibley County 66 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.

Not playing ‘gotcha’

The latest counts come a day after Minnesota health officials also reported a major jump in newly confirmed COVID-19 cases on Sunday as they try to get their arms around clusters of problems centered around bars and restaurants.

State investigators say they’ve received some 120 complaints recently from concerned residents reporting violations of the current orders around gathering in indoor social spaces, particularly bars and restaurants, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters on Friday.

Complaints include staff not wearing masks, not enough social distancing and too many people at a site.

Because of that, the state is “stepping up enforcement,” she said, “not to play gotcha with restaurants and bars but because we feel it’s so essential” to protect Minnesotans.

Malcolm said most bar and restaurant owners who’ve been flagged have responded positively but also noted that establishments that don’t comply are subject to cease-and-desist orders.

Malcolm said health officials continue to hope that bars, restaurants and other indoor social spaces get the message. The state, she said, is working to avoid “wholesale closure” of these places but that the rise in community spread must be checked.

“But in all candor, I don't think anything can be considered completely off the table with what we're seeing around the country and in our own numbers in Minnesota,” she added. “But we clearly would like to explore intermediate measures before that.”

Cases growing in most age brackets — and up north

State health officials continue to worry about the recent spike of coronavirus cases in younger Minnesotans, with current fears including that those infected will inadvertently spread the virus to more vulnerable populations.

Minnesotans in their 20s now make up the age group with the most confirmed cases. The median age of Minnesotans infected has been trending down in recent weeks and is now below 38 years old.

Young people still account for the majority of new confirmed cases in Minnesota, although 20-somethings have fallen from around 40 percent of new cases a few weeks ago.

While current hospitalization counts in Minnesota remain relatively low, “we are likely going to see increases in hospitalizations because of the ripple effect” of younger people becoming infected, Kris Ehresmann, the state's infectious disease director, said last week, adding that young adults “don’t live in a vacuum.”

The latest numbers, though, show COVID-19 cases have gone up significantly the past few days in every age bracket except people over 60.

Counts also show the disease is finally reaching northern Minnesota in significant numbers.

Cases are growing as quickly now there, on a per capita basis, as they were in the Twin Cities suburbs a month ago.

Walz weighing statewide mask order

As they’ve done consistently in the pandemic, Malcolm and Ehresmann continued on Friday to implore Minnesotans to stay vigilant to slow the spread of COVID-19.

So far, state leaders have emphasized personal responsibility when it comes to mask-wearing, social distancing and hygiene. DFL Gov. Tim Walz is weighing a statewide mask mandate, but has yet to enact one — despite pleas from medical groups and the state Health Department.

Walz recently expressed concern that Minnesotans were lagging on their mask-wearing. But Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, have said a statewide mandate would be a mistake.

On Friday morning, Walz told MPR News that he believes a mask mandate is the right thing to do to slow the spread of the coronavirus but that he hasn't yet made a decision on whether to issue a statewide order.

"I'm trying to get them to buy in,” Walz said of Gazelka and others who oppose a statewide mandate. “It's unfortunate that around masks, it became somewhat of a political statement rather than a public health statement.”

More than half of U.S. states now require the use of masks or face coverings in public settings.

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 1,006 confirmed cases as of Sunday. 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 1,706 confirmed cases as of Sunday, 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 Sunday, confirmed cases were at 2,643 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 Sunday, the Health Department reported 611 people have now tested positive. The county had confirmed three COVID-19 cases in late April.

Cases have also climbed noticeably in Lyon County (377 cases), around a turkey processor in Marshall.

Klobuchar, health officials call for more plasma donations

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Minnesota health officials are calling on the federal government to launch a nationwide effort to recruit plasma donors among people who have recovered from COVID-19.

Klobuchar, D-Minn., spoke at M Health Fairview in Minneapolis on Sunday.

COVID-19 survivors may have antibodies that can be key protections for people seriously ill with coronavirus infections. And while donations of the plasma that carries those antibodies initially proved relatively strong, the stocks have been diminishing.

Klobuchar said Minnesota has led the way — her own husband donated plasma at Mayo Clinic after being seriously ill with COVID-19.

"But a lot of places around the country that have even higher levels of COVID than we do here in Minnesota, just aren’t attuned to the need to give plasma. So that’s why we want to bring this out on a national basis," she said.

Dr. Claudia Cohn, associate director of laboratories and director of the blood bank laboratory at M Health Fairview, said places like New York have barely 10 percent of the plasma from recovered patients that they once had.

And while she says research is still figuring out the use of plasma as a treatment, donations from recovered COVID-19 patients are likely one of the fastest and beneficial options available to help people recover from coronavirus infections.

"Call Memorial Blood Centers, go online. Call the American Red Cross. Make an appointment to go donate your convalescent plasma. It takes less than two hours, usually about 90 minutes," she said. "And a single donation usually allows you to donate three units of convalescent plasma. That’s three lives you’ve potentially saved."

Klobuchar said she’s working with Republican Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi to get federal government support for the plasma donation campaign.

— Tim Nelson | MPR News

Teens press Minnesota lawmakers on jobless aid

High school-aged students shut out of work due to the pandemic are pleading with Minnesota lawmakers to make them eligible for unemployment aid.

State law prevents the students 16 and older from collecting benefits.

Cole Stevens of the youth-led Don’t Forget US Campaign told a House committee Friday that he was laid off from his food service job due to COVID-19 closures. He contributes to household bills.

Stevens, 18, of Bloomington, said he received some jobless aid but that was later retracted when the state determined him to be ineligible. When working, he uses his earnings to contribute to household bills.

“I’m not just some lazy teenager trying to maximize his welfare here,” Stevens said. “I needed that money back then when I was in high school and I wasn’t able to get it.”

A bill pending in the Legislature’s special session would allow student workers to qualify for benefits. The proposal would be only a temporary fix that covers March through December of this year.

The House Jobs and Economic Development Finance Committee advanced the bill on a 9-6 vote. The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, which administers unemployment benefits, supports the change.

DEED Commissioner Steve Grove urged lawmakers to revise a law dating to the 1930s that prevents young workers from qualifying for unemployment.

“If you’re old enough to work, you should be old enough to get unemployment benefits when you can’t work,” Grove said.

Grove said Minnesota is “way behind” many other states have already adjusted their laws to account for displaced young workers.

“These aren’t just aren’t kids with summer jobs for fun. For many of these students these unemployment benefits are primary or at least secondary breadwinners for their family,” Grove said. “That money is going into food on the table, clothes on their backs, keeping those families sustained throughout really challenging times. And when they can’t work, it is all that more challenging.”

Competing House and Senate proposals differ over whether the money would come from a federal relief program or the standard unemployment fund.

— Brian Bakst | MPR News

Southern Minn newspaper group staff contributed to this article.

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