N95 masks

People load boxes of N95 masks on Tuesday in St. Paul. The collected masks are being taken to the State Emergency Operations Center to be distributed to hospitals. (Christine T. Nguyen/MPR News)

Minnesota officials and hospital leaders are preparing for an expected surge of COVID-19 patients, hoping their efforts to restrict public contact in the state the past few weeks will be enough to keep the health system from being overwhelmed.

Gov. Tim Walz said Tuesday that Minnesota had 243 adult intensive care beds as the number of COVID-19 infections continued to swell across the state.

The state Health Department on Wednesday confirmed 287 cases of COVID-19 after 6,365 tests. Twenty-six people were in the hospital with the coronavirus. The number of cases is likely at least 10 times as high as the number of testing-confirmed cases, however, and an increasing number of people will likely require hospitalization in the coming days and weeks, according to health officials.

Officials are weighing constructing makeshift hospitals in school gymnasiums if needed. "We're in good shape now but we need to be prepared to expand that system very quickly,” said the state's emergency manager, Joe Kelly.

As that planning continues, experts remain worried about the well-being of doctors, nurses and other health care workers as the virus spreads.

Infections among health care workers elsewhere in the world are a worrying sign as a surge of illness approaches in the United States, said Michael Osterholm, head of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

“We must never forget that we are going to lose some of the truest heroes in our country as health care workers are infected and die,” he told MPR News Wednesday. “We already have over 5,000 cases in health care workers in Italy alone. We already know of health care workers in this country (ill) because of inadequate protection.”

The U.S. needs to come up with a practical way to ease the burden on the health care system, he said, adding that Americans need to slow economic and public activity to stem the spread of the virus, but not in a way so onerous that people eventually disregard the danger.

Minnesota officials say early signs indicate that preventative measures are helping. Cellphone data and other information shows that social distancing is happening, Walz said, adding, “Minnesotans are taking this seriously.”

As of Wednesday, 122 coronavirus patients no longer required isolation, the Health Department said.

However, Walz cautioned that more waves of coronavirus cases will come and that continued mitigation efforts will need to last months.

“There is no doubt that this is going to take some time,” Walz said. “It's going to be well beyond Easter (April 12), and I don't think it does us any good to pretend that it's not.”

Walz contradicted President Trump, who, against the guidance and wishes of public health experts, said he "would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter."

The DFL governor also said in his Tuesday briefing that University of Minnesota researchers have been working on some modeling data, which would give state officials a better idea of when Minnesota will reach its peak number of COVID-19 cases. That information will help inform Walz and his administration on whether social distancing measures are working as they stand now, or whether adjustments need to be made.

Earlier Tuesday, the Minnesota Hospital Association said it was pulling together plans to gather medical masks and inventory ventilators. A Twin Cities team is working “to collect and get a visual on where this equipment is, where it should be warehoused, who needs it most and how to distribute it,” said Dr. Rahul Koranne, the hospital association president.

Overnight curfew imposed on the Red Lake Reservation

The Red Lake Band of Chippewa is imposing a nighttime curfew in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. The resolution from the tribal council prohibits people from being outside from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. unless they're going to or from a job or they have a medical emergency.

Red Lake Tribal Secretary Sam Strong said businesses on the reservation are closed at night anyway, so there's not much reason for people to be out.

"We do have an at-risk community here. And so we are very much inclined to take actions that protect the well-being of our elders and those most at risk for complications," said Strong.

The council will decide whether to continue the curfew in about a month.

Around 8,500 people live on the northern Minnesota reservation. Strong says he knows of no confirmed cases of COVID-19 on the reservation.

— Matt Sepic | MPR News

Cook County board asks tourists, second-home owners to stay away — for now

The Cook County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved an advisory on Tuesday, asking tourists and seasonal property owners not to visit the North Shore county.

The commissioners say Cook County, which lies at the tip of Minnesota's Arrowhead region and borders Canada, Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters, lacks the health care infrastructure to care for visitors. And more than a quarter of its population is 65 or older, the second highest percentage in the state.

The advisory is not legally enforceable. It's modeled after a similar advisory passed by Bayfield County in northwest Wisconsin.

Most resorts in the region have closed or have announced plans to temporarily shut down. Tourism makes up more than 80 percent of the economy in Cook County, which includes four state parks, the Gunflint Trail, and the towns of Lutsen, Tofte and Grand Marais.

"As much as we love these people and we need them there and they’re an important part of our community and economy, right now is not the time for them to be here,” said Jim Boyd, the executive director of the Cook County Chamber of Commerce, which supported the move.

— Dan Kraker | MPR News

Attorney General Ellison cracks down on price-gouging

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison says his office began its enforcement efforts immediately after the governor’s executive order banning price-gouging on essential goods during the COVID-19 peacetime emergency went into effect Saturday.

Ellison said so far, his office has received more than 300 price-gouging complaints on goods and services. Those include toilet paper, rice, cleaning products, face masks, eggs, butter and water. Ellison's office has made more than 70 visits to Minnesota retailers during the past four day to check prices and investigate complaints of price-gouging.

Ellison’s office on Tuesday said it has sent a warning letter to the Eau Claire, Wis.-based retailer Menards, following complaints of price gouging on cleaning supplies, bleach and face masks. The attorney general also said that it forced a St. Paul tobacco shop to reduce prices after allegedly charging $80 for a 36-pack of toilet paper.

“I will do everything in my power to help ensure Minnesotans can afford their lives and are protected from pandemic profiteering by people who are trying to line their pockets during this crisis at Minnesotans’ expense,” Ellison said in a statement. The Democratic attorney general said anyone who sees price-gouging on essential goods should report it to his office immediately.

— Matt Sepic | MPR News and The Associated Press

Jobless claims continue to jump

Minnesotans claims for unemployment insurance continue to soar following the closure of many restaurants and other businesses because of the coronavirus outbreak.

“We're up to 149,443 applications for unemployment insurance, about a third of those in the food preparation services industry,” Steve Grove, commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development, said Tuesday.

Not everyone who applies for benefits may qualify, including people who are self-employed.

During the Great Recession, the number of people collecting unemployment benefits peaked at about 111,000 in June 2009, according to data collected by Grove’s agency. Minnesota’s unemployment rate hit 8 percent during the Great Recession and reached nearly 9 percent in the early 1980s.

— Martin Moylan | MPR News

Legislature to meet again under COVID-19 restrictions: Minnesota lawmakers will reconvene Thursday to vote on a request from the governor for another $350 million for the state’s coronavirus response. “It’s critical for us to be able to manage this response,” said Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans. “You look at the corrections system. If something were to happen and there was a disease outbreak in one of the correctional facilities that would cause a lot of uncertainty and extra costs and overtime costs. If you look at housing and homelessness issues are really critical now. If you look at food insecurity.”

The science of coronavirus: Researchers are hot on the trail of the new coronavirus. They’re looking for its weaknesses in hopes of stopping it from spreading and putting those who get COVID-19 in a better position to fight it. Kerri Miller and listeners talked with virologist Angela Rasmussen and infectious disease fellow Dr. Megan Culler Freeman this week about what we know about the virus; how it enters and affects our bodies; and what we have yet to learn.

Mass layoffs for MN science, children's museums amid coronavirus shutdown: The Minnesota Children’s Museum and the Science Museum of Minnesota said Tuesday they would temporarily lay off much of their staff and remain closed given the financial crisis driven by the coronavirus. The children’s museum, which has a $9 million annual operating budget and 150 full- and part-time employees, said it would furlough 75 percent of its workers effective March 29 and reduce salary and hours for those remaining. It will also suspend exhibit development and production.

Asian Americans in Minnesota confront a COVID-19 backlash: Many Minnesotans of Asian descent say they're facing increased hostilities — from name-calling to denial of services, as COVID-19 spreads across the state. State officials say it’s too early to say whether there’s been an uptick in complaints, but say they’re busy investigating cases related to the backlash.

MPR News reporter Hannah Yang lives in rural Minnesota and has felt the sting of pandemic-fueled racism firsthand. She writes: “During a recent grocery run, I was searching for a jar of tomato sauce when I overheard whispers that made me nearly drop to my knees: ‘Trump should send them back,’ I heard one man say, followed by, ‘She looks diseased.’”

Health officials for weeks have been increasingly raising the alarm over the spread of the novel coronavirus in the United States. The disease is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.

Government and medical leaders are urging people to wash their hands frequently and well, refrain from touching their faces, cover their coughs, disinfect surfaces and avoid large crowds, all in an effort to curb the virus’ rapid spread.

The state of Minnesota has temporarily closed schools, while administrators work to determine next steps, and is requiring a temporary closure of all in-person dining at restaurants, bars and coffee shops, as well as theaters, gyms, yoga studios and other spaces in which people congregate in close proximity.

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