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The daily coronavirus update: Another Minnesotan dies from COVID-19; Legislature voting on relief bill

The total number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Minnesota rose to 346.

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) with Gov. Tim Walz and administration officials each afternoon.

Here are the latest updates from March 26, 2020:

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346 confirmed cases, one additional death reported

The Minnesota Department of Health announced Thursday it has confirmed 346 cases of COVID-19 in Minnesota, up from 287 on Wednesday.

Gov. Tim Walz
MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul
Gov. Tim Walz
The agency also announced a second Minnesotan, a Ramsey County resident in their eighties, had died of the disease.

On a press briefing call Thursday, Gov. Tim Walz had a stark warning for anyone who thinks two deaths seems like a small number.

“I would just ask you if you want to go back six weeks and look at the news that was coming out of Italy then and now look at what it is today,” he said.

As of Thursday, the age range 0f confirmed Minnesota COVID-19 patients is five months to 104 years.

A breakdown of people in the ICU that the Star Tribune’s Matt DeLong tweeted yesterday showed the age of the then-14 ICU patients (no word on how many today):

  • 31-40: 2
  • 41-50: 3
  • 51-60: 3
  • 61-70: 1
  • 71-80: 3
  • 80+: 2

Asked whether the Minnesota State Fair would be called off or postponed due to COVID-19, Walz said it’s too early to tell.

“We can’t allow dates to drive this,” the governor said, insisting that outcomes would drive decisions about when Minnesota would be less encumbered by virus-related restrictions.

Legislature voting on COVID-19 relief

After meeting in “informal” conference calls over the last week, the Minnesota Legislature convened Thursday for a one-day session to pass an emergency coronavirus relief package, which passed the House today and as of publication was still being debated in the Senate.

From a piece by MinnPost state government reporter Peter Callaghan:

The bill appropriates $330 million and is the third special appropriation since the specter of COVID-19 first appeared. Previously the Legislature sent $21 million to the Minnesota Department of Health and $200 million to state hospitals and other health care services.

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This latest appropriation provides money for child care centers, homeless services and food banks. It also creates new loan funds for small businesses and establishes a new account called the COVID-19 Minnesota Fund. That fund received $200 million to pay for undetermined costs to “protect Minnesota citizens” and “maintain state government operations.” Any expenditure must be approved by a special commission of legislative leaders and it expires on May 11, presumably because lawmakers will return by then.

Unemployment keeps growing

Applications to Minnesota’s unemployment insurance program continue to rise, and state officials say they jumped by roughly 17,000 Wednesday, the day Walz signed his stay-at-home order. Since the COVID-19 crisis began closing businesses, more than 182,000 people have applied for unemployment, which represents 5.9 percent of Minnesota’s labor force.

Commissioner Steve Grove
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Commissioner Steve Grove
Steve Grove, commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development, said while unemployment has spiked, the labor force number shows most Minnesotans remain at work.

Grove said his office has fielded questions from businesses across the state on which industries count as essential. He urged people unsure of their status to visit the state’s website for further guidance. If businesses still have questions, they can fill out a form that Minnesota officials will answer.

While about 17,000 people may have applied for unemployment benefits Wednesday, Grove said that wasn’t a huge spike compared to their average during the economic crisis. He said applications by workers in restaurants and bars — about 54,000 so far — have slowed.

Nationally, more than 2.8 million people applied for unemployment last week, which represents a spike of more than 1,000 percent over the previous week.

Expanding hospital capacity

Minnesota Homeland Security and Emergency Management Director Joe Kelly has been talking about expanding intensive care capacity in Minnesota all week. Along with the National Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers, Kelly’s department has been working to identify alternative sites, like motels and stadiums, to use as health care facilities.

On Thursday, he specified that those facilities would be used for non-critical patients, to free up hospitals for those with COVID-19.

“Those temporary facilities are where non-critical patients will be cared for so we can keep the most gravely ill in the hospitals,” Kelly said. “Let’s just say I fall and I break my arm. I’ll have surgery to pin that fracture in the regular hospital operating room and then when I’m stable they’ll transport me to one of these temporary alternate care sites to heal up.”

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When it comes to opening up temporary alternative health care facilities, the priority is to use empty hospital and nursing home space, then find facilities with separate rooms, like dorms and hotels, and then use bigger, open spaces. Health care providers say other infectious diseases, like staph and norovirus, can more easily spread in open space, Kelly said.

More on the virus model

In his address to Minnesotans Wednesday, Walz said a model built by the University of Minnesota shows as many as 74,000 Minnesotans could die if no mitigation strategies were taken to slow the spread of the virus.

That didn’t account for the social distancing Minnesotans were doing already, which Walz said reduced person-to-person contact by 50 percent.

Stricter measures under Walz’s stay-at-home order, issued Wednesday, are designed to reduce person-to-person contacts by 80 percent.

Asked how many deaths in Minnesota the model predicts under this order, Walz said there isn’t enough confidence in the model to tell yet.

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm went into more detail about the model Minnesota is using to plan its virus response, the results of which were first shown publicly on Wednesday. She said the major variables that could change what the model shows the path of the virus looks like in Minnesota are:

  • Critical care capacity: ICU capacity, ventilators and staffing are key: Malcolm said for people who need intensive care, the ability to get it gives them a 10x better chance of  survival than not getting it.
  • Contact rate between people: The purpose of social distancing is to reduce this, and how successful it is could change what the model shows for outcomes.
  • Transmissibility: How many people does an infected person spread the virus to? The model relies on global data for this, and as more data becomes available for Minnesota, the model could change.

Don’t overburden the health care system Up North

Malcolm also asked Minnesotans who might be tempted to take a jaunt Up North to be mindful. The stay-at-home order allows Minnesotans to enjoy the outdoors, but intrastate travelers can carry the virus to parts of the state that are less prepared to handle its onslaught.

She acknowledged that’s an important part of the state’s culture, but warned those communities don’t have the same health care capacity as more populated areas.

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MDH’s coronavirus website:

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