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The daily coronavirus update: unemployment applications spike; YMCA expanding services for children

Gov. Tim Walz doesn’t consider a “shelter-in-place” order necessary now but may make such an order in the future.

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 20, 2020:

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26 new cases announced; 115 total

MDH announced 26 new cases of COVID-19 in Minnesota on Friday, for a total of 115 confirmed in the state. Because of a lack of testing capacity, the true number of cases is likely much larger.

Minnesotans with confirmed cases have ranged from age 17 to 94. There have been no documented cases in children.

To-date, eight Minnesotans have been hospitalized, three have been released from the hospital. Two are in intensive care.

Infectious Disease Director Kris Ehresmann speaking during Friday's press conference as Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm and Gov. Tim Walz look on.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Infectious Disease Director Kris Ehresmann speaking during Friday's press conference as Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm and Gov. Tim Walz look on.
15 out of Minnesota’s 115 confirmed cases are believed to have picked up the virus through community transmission — meaning not through travel or contact with a known COVID-19 case. But Infectious Disease Director Kris Ehresmann cautioned against interpreting that as a sign the virus isn’t elsewhere. She said MDH believes there is community transmission throughout the state.

Modeling the spread

MDH is consulting with the University of Minnesota to develop a model of the spread of COVID-19 in Minnesota and the state’s capacity to handle it. Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said the model will be shared when there’s enough confidence in its accuracy to share, but that there’s little Minnesota data to model off of right now.

“With 115 cases and only eight hospitalizations we just don’t have enough of our own data to make this a really Minnesota-specific model,” she said, though those working on it are also using data from elsewhere to inform the construction of their model.

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“As soon as that model exists and we have some confidence in it, we will be certainly transparent with that,” she said.

Gear requested from the feds

Minnesota has made several requests to the federal government for gear from a national strategic stockpile of potentially lifesaving medical equipment and supplies. Malcolm said Minnesota is expecting a formula-based proportional share, and has so far received a partial order. “We’re unclear where the rest of it is,” she said, adding the state had not received responses on two of its orders.

Malcolm said she understands the federal system is getting a lot of requests, but it’s essential for Minnesota to know how much equipment it can expect sooner than later. State Emergency Management director Joe Kelly said the state is both trying to tap reserves and buy equipment.

“We’ll leave no stone unturned to find the shortest supply lines,” Kelly said.

State Emergency Management director Joe Kelly
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
State Emergency Management director Joe Kelly, right, said the state is both trying to tap reserves and buy equipment. Heather Mueller, Deputy Education Commissioner, is at left.

Unemployment continues to spike

Droves of people continue to apply for unemployment insurance. As of 8 p.m. Thursday, 95,352 had applied for benefits this week, smashing a record of roughly 18,000, said Steve Grove, commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Grove said about a third of applicants are people laid off from the restaurant, bar and entertainment industry. DEED has expanded hours, allowing applications on Sunday between 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. The agency is also working to open a new call center with 15 more people to answer phones. But Grove continued to urge people to apply online and save the phone lines for people without internet or who need translators.

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YMCA to expand services for children

The YMCA will partner with state officials to expand its child care services at 38 locations to help look after school-age children of emergency workers. That means the Y will facilitate “distance learning” and child care for children in kindergarten through sixth grade. The Y expects to prioritize emergency workers in the second priority tier for child care, which includes grocery store workers, teachers, state IT personnel, utility workers, trash collectors and other public works employees.

“This is a huge collaborative effort,” Walz told reporters. “It’s one where folks are stepping into the void and asking what they can do to help to make sure (child care) is there.”

The Y will open its doors Monday and child care will run from 8:30 a.m. through 5 p.m., Monday through Friday at a cost of $40 per day.

Three new executive orders signed

Walz signed, and the executive council made up of the other statewide elected officials signed off on, three new orders under his emergency powers. One empowers the state attorney general to go after price gouging on needed supplies. The others attempt to give the state Department of Human Services flexibility to continue to provide health and social services.

Gov. Tim Walz
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Gov. Tim Walz
“We were seeing hand sanitizer for $60 a bottle, others were hawking $1 per squirt for hand sanitizer,” Walz said. “That’s not who we are. Many of them come from out of state and this gives the state attorney general the ability to crack down.”

The HHS measures ask the federal government for waivers on some federally funded programs but also institute state changes. The new rules are designed to protect benefits, cover COVID-19 diagnosis and treatment costs under state health programs, allow some client contacts to be done by phone rather than in person.

Other changes would lessen renewal processes and reapplication requirements for certain social services.

Is Minnesota overreacting?

Walz said he has heard from residents and some GOP lawmakers that his statewide closure of public gathering places was an overreaction since many counties in Greater Minnesota haven’t seen positive tests.

“This pandemic and the best numbers that are coming out are predicated on having a much more positive outcome,” Walz said, even using a State of Hockey reference by saying he doesn’t want the infection graph line to look like a hockey stick — gradual at first but followed by a straight line up.

“For those who are listening saying so many people are going to get this and get better, that is absolutely true. But the disruption it causes in our health care system will be enough that even the usual rhythm of a medical facility for births, for gall bladders, for heart attacks, for falling and breaking a  hip, all of those things have to enter into this too.

“You don’t have a whole lot of open beds or a whole lot of physicians or nurses not doing anything. They’re all working. So when you surge into that system in a catastrophe, that’s where the pressure comes from.”

No shelter in place order yet, but it will likely come

California, New York and Illinois this week announced statewide shelter in place orders, meaning that only essential workers can be out for work and only essential errands such as groceries and supplies can be made.

“You’re going to see this start to happen,” Walz said. “What I can assure Minnesotans is we are looking at the data. We’re trying to make the best-informed decisions that will have an impact on flattening the curve. I can tell you this that at this point in time I am not prepared to make that but I am prepared at some time in the future if it becomes necessary … to make that decision.”

The governor did say it is important for people to get outside, to get exercise.

“If this is going to go on longer, we’ve got to figure out at least where people can go, where they can walk, where they can get some exercise in a way that’s safe,” he said.

In MinnPost today:

Reading around the web:

For more information, you can visit MDH’s coronavirus website.

The state’s COVID-19 hotline for health questions is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.: 651-201-3920