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The daily coronavirus update: Two more Minnesota deaths; long-term care facilities seeing more cases

Three of Minnesota’s four deaths so far have been among residents of congregate living facilities, which includes long-term care and other senior living facilities and homeless shelters.

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 27, 2020:

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398 cases and four deaths

The Minnesota Department of Health confirmed Friday that two Minnesotans in their eighties who were residents of long-term care facilities are the third and fourth Minnesotans to have died of COVID-19.

The announcement Friday of two more deaths marks a doubling of the number of reported deaths overnight. The number of confirmed cases increased to 398 Friday, up 52 from the count of 346 Thursday. 34 Minnesotans are currently hospitalized, with 14 in intensive care.

Because of a lack of testing capacity, the true number of cases in Minnesota residents is likely far higher.

Long-term care facilities seeing more cases

Three of Minnesota’s four deaths so far have been among residents of congregate living facilities, which includes long-term care and other senior living facilities, and homeless shelters.

A total of 17 Minnesota congregate living facilities have at least one case of COVID-19 as of Friday, according to MDH.

These facilities are of special concern because people who live in them tend to be at higher risk of severe complications from COVID-19 and live in close quarters where the virus could quickly spread. As such, MDH has special protocols for trying to prevent spread in them.

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When a case is identified in a congregate living setting, an MDH epidemiology team contacts it immediately, helps review potential exposures, identifies potential staff or health care exposures, and makes recommendations to limit transmission.

An infection prevention team does a virtual assessment of facilities’ infection control practices and advises them on best practices. A nurse case manager is assigned to the facility and helps address questions about infection prevention and expedite protective equipment requests.

MDH also provides facilities with a template of a letter to notify residents and families of the COVID-19 case and with weekly shipments of masks and face shields.

Legislature passes COVID-19 response funding

Gov. Tim Walz complimented the state Legislature for passing a $330 million package of funding and powers that he had asked for. The bill passed with just four no votes in either house of the Legislature.

Gov. Tim Walz
Gov. Tim Walz
“The Legislature over the last few days did herculean work. They lifted a very complex but very needed aid package to fight COVID-19 in so many sectors of Minnesota,” Walz said. The package includes a new $200 million fund to cover unforeseen expenses and also sets aside money for care of the homeless, child care centers, food shelves plus two loan programs for small businesses.

It did not, however, contain a Walz request to send $500 emergency checks to people on the Minnesota Family Investment Program, the state’s primary welfare program. Walz said he would sign the bill soon.

Walz signs four new executive orders

Walz signed four executive orders Friday and has now signed 24 since he first declared a peacetime emergency on March 13.

The most prominent was 20-23 that relaxes some of the continuing education requirements for licensing of health care professionals so those rules do not prevent them from being available during the crisis.

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“The Executive Order allows health care professionals to temporarily defer continuing education requirements, allows emergency medical service providers to complete continuing education through distance learning, and extends temporary permits for nurses,” Walz’s statement said. “While continuing background check requirements, it defers fingerprinting requirements until the end of the COVID-19 peacetime emergency.”

The same order allows the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy to put limits on dispensing chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine to prevent shortages. These are two anti-malaria drugs that may be helpful in treating COVID-19 patients but that have undetermined dosing and safety requirements.

The other orders let the state auditor relax financial reporting deadlines for local governments, lets the other statewide elected officials impose leave for their staff and to redeploy staff as needed and relax truck weight restrictions for haulers of livestock.

Unemployment applications in March surpass 2019 totals

By the end of Friday, state officials expect more than 220,000 Minnesotans will have applied for unemployment insurance since March 16. That number represents a milestone — more people have applied for benefits in the last two weeks than in all of 2019 combined.

Commissioner Steve Grove
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Commissioner Steve Grove
Steve Grove, commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development, said it may take his agency longer than ordinary to process applications and asked Minnesotans to be patient. “Our unemployment insurance team is working around the clock with these unprecedented numbers to make sure that we can serve Minnesotans,” Grove said.

As the governor’s stay at home order takes effect Friday night, Grove said many businesses are wondering if it’s alright for a worker to go into a business for “critical activities” — such as picking up an order of supplies, accessing a particular machine or device to pay employees or rebooting a server. Grove said that’s generally OK, and said businesses should use common sense to evaluate their needs.

“We know there’s a degree of basic operations that ensure the security and safety of a company that will prevent emergencies or stuff that you will have to engage in,” Grove said. “The spirit of this whole thing is that non-critical workers stay home.”

Don’t disconnect power customers amid pandemic, state asks

State officials have asked Minnesota utility companies to give customers extra leeway on paying bills during the coronavirus outbreak. In a letter to gas and electric companies earlier this week, regulators on the Public Utilities Commission and the Department of Commerce said the utilities should avoid shutting off services of those who have not paid their bills and reconnect those who had been cut off.

The officials also asked utilities to waive late fees incurred by residential or small business customers caused by the coronavirus pandemic, as well as arrange payment plans for customers to help them pay bills.

“Reliable electric and natural gas service is always critical, but especially important during this pandemic,” said Katie Sieben, chairwoman of the five-member PUC.

Many utilities have already pledged not to disconnect customers, including Minnesota’s biggest: Xcel Energy, CenterPoint Energy, Duluth-based Minnesota Power and Fergus Falls-based Otter Tail Power Company. The Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota, a nonprofit that advocates for power customers, has been compiling a list on Twitter of utility companies saying they won’t disconnect customers.

The PUC has asked utilities to respond to its request by April 3.

Is there a policy for who gets a ventilator first if there’s a shortage?

A reporter on the Walz administration’s press briefing call Friday asked what the policy was on prioritizing patients for getting care first should the healthcare system be overwhelmed by the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations.

The goal, obviously, is to not have that happen, but there’s actually a policy for if it does, called Crisis Standards of Care. States developed them a few years ago at the request of the federal government. (Here’s a story from MPR’s Brian Bakst on it from a few years back).

Basically, the standards help the healthcare system make decisions about how to most efficiently use limited equipment in a surge situation, and when it comes down to it, prioritize patients most likely to survive.

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For more information, visit MDH’s coronavirus website.

Or call its COVID-19 health questions hotline, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.: 651-201-3920