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The daily coronavirus update: 6 new Minnesota cases; Health Department narrows testing criteria

The new guidelines seek to limit tests to health care workers, hospitalized people and people living in close quarters.

Photo: CDC/Alissa Eckert

For the foreseeable future, MinnPost will be providing daily updates on coronavirus in Minnesota, published following the press phone call conducted by the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) each afternoon.

Here are the latest updates from March 17, 2020:

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6 new confirmed cases, 60 total

MDH announced six new confirmed COVID-19 cases Tuesday, for a total of 60 in Minnesota.

Two of the cases are in Hennepin County, two are in Olmsted, one is in Dakota County and one is in Ramsey. They range in age from 37 to 71 and MDH’s initial investigations indicate they are at home and all had a history of travel to other states.

Three Minnesotans remain hospitalized, one in critical condition.

Infectious Disease Director Kris Ehresmann said with the closing of bars and restaurants and other mitigation strategies, Minnesota is modeling its actions on Singapore, “which includes a great deal of community mediation as well as really thorough and extensive case investigation and contact tracing.”

Updated testing guidelines

MDH announced updated guidelines for COVID-19 testing Tuesday afternoon. Health officials say a limited supply of materials means hospitalized people should be prioritized for COVID-19 tests. Health care workers and those living in close quarters, like long-term care and homeless shelter settings, should also be given priority over regular, healthy patients.

“We have not run out of tests but we are looking ahead and when we look at the availability of the tests we [have] had to limit the testing we are doing to make sure it’s just for the highest risk individuals,” Ehresmann said.

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Why these groups?

When someone is hospitalized and tests positive for COVID-19, it has implications for their level of isolation in the hospital, as well as the level of infection prevention that needs to be taken with them. They may also be eligible to participate in clinical trials for antivirals that could treat COVID-19.

Health care workers can spread the infection to other people in medical facilities, so it’s important for them to know whether they are harboring the virus.

At least two Minnesota health care providers have tested positive, per Mukhtar Ibrahim at Sahan Journal: a physician at HCMC in Minneapolis and a nurse at M Health Fairview.

People in congregate settings tend to be at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19. They also live in close proximity to others who may be at high-risk.

Tracking the spread

One question that came up on the MDH press call was how we’ll know how much COVID-19 is in Minnesota if we’re not testing lots of people. The answer: influenza surveillance.

MDH tracks how many people at sentinel providers throughout Minnesota show up with flu-like symptoms, a category COVID-19 symptoms (generally coughing, fever, shortness of breath) fall into. They also know what share of flu tests come back positive. If flu-like illnesses are going up while flu test positives go down, that would suggest COVID is circulating.

How long COVID-19 is around remains to be seen: it could decline in the summer and ramp up in the fall, Ehresmann said: “We are preparing for that eventuality.”

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What to do if you’re sick, relatively OK and can’t get tested

For people who have upper-respiratory symptoms but are managing OK at home, MDH has said to only seek care if you would have sought it based on your symptoms before the COVID-19 outbreak. In terms of testing, Ehresmann said: “Having a positive COVID test for someone who is not hospitalized, who has mild symptoms, is not a magic bullet. It doesn’t inform the treatment because there is no treatment, and it doesn’t change our recommendations for staying home when you’re sick.”

Only people who have severe cases of COVID-19 are eligible to participate in antiviral clinical trials.

People who have acute respiratory symptoms like coughing and shortness of breath, and fever, should self-quarantine for seven days after illness onset or wait three days after their fever has resolved without the aid of medication and respiratory symptoms have improved to circulate in public again — whichever is longer.

People who have COVID-19-like symptoms can’t be tested should stay away from household and intimate contacts as much as they can. These contacts should self-solate for 14 days after being in contact with the sick person and monitor themselves for symptoms.

More from MDH here.

Medical supplies

Some health care providers are reporting they’re running low on personal protective equipment (like masks). Ehresmann says this is a concern for MDH.

“We have reached out on the federal level and put in some requests for assistance related to PPE. There’s also a strategic national stockpile that is available at the federal level that will be made available to states, so we’re looking at how that can be utilized, but certainly the use of PPE is very important for our health care providers so we’re making every effort that they have access for it and it’s prioritized for them,” she said.

Could things get worse?

Reporters put the question to Ehresmann on the press briefing. She said they could.

“Yes, absolutely we anticipate that the situation could get worse and we want to be prepared so that we can test hospitalized individuals but it really, what happens next really depends to a large extent on the behavior of Minnesotans. Certainly the governor has made decisions and enacted things that limit people’s opportunity for exposure but ultimately it’s Minenstoans themselves that need to comply with that, and need to stay home if they’re sick and that’s what’s going to make a difference in our ability to tamp down the spread of COVID-19.”

Bar and restaurant, etc. restrictions

Infectious Disease Director Kris Ehresmann
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Infectious Disease Director Kris Ehresmann
On Monday, Gov. Tim Walz issued an executive order closing bars, restaurants and other public places (you can still get takeout). In a phone call with MinnPost, Ehresmann said MDH will evaluate how things go in Minnesota with the closures over the next week-plus they’re in place.

“Clearly that is a community mitigation strategy that has many consequences so we’re going to be evaluating where we’re at and providing the governor with that information and he’ll be able to determine if that’s something that needs to continue or not,” she said. “Some of the studies have said you do these strategies and then you stop them and you may see a rebound in cases, so we’re trying to weigh all the information there is, it’s definitely an imperfect situation but the intent is to evaluate where we’re at in Minnesota over the next week or so and that will help to inform the decision.”

Twin Cities restaurants looking for help helping

Second Harvest Heartland is teaming up with Twin Cities restaurants to feed community members in need during the coronavirus outbreak. Chowgirls Killer Catering, Restaurant Alma and the Bachelor Farmer are donating their kitchens, food and/or staff to the effort. Called “Minnesota’s Central Kitchen,” the partners will prepare food for takeout and get it delivered to hunger relief programs. Second Harvest noted it’s looking for other restaurants interested in participating.

Mall of America closing for COVID

The Mega Mall is closing from 5 p.m. Tuesday through at least March 31, per a statement.

In MinnPost today:

MDH’s coronavirus website:

Hotline, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.: 651-201-3920