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What we know about COVID-19 in Minnesota so far

Minnesota Department of Health officials confirmed a third presumptive positive case of coronavirus in the state Tuesday.

Gov. Tim Walz, Kris Ehresmann
Gov. Tim Walz listening to Kris Ehresmann, head of the Minnesota Department of Health’s infectious disease division, at a press conference last Friday at the State Capitol.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Minnesota Department of Health officials confirmed a third presumptive positive case of coronavirus in the state Tuesday. Here’s what we know so far about the state of coronavirus in Minnesota.

Catch me up, what do we know about these cases?

The third case, which MDH announced Tuesday afternoon, is an Anoka County resident in their 30s. Authorities think the person was exposed to the virus in Minnesota through contact with international travelers. The person is in critical condition after being hospitalized Monday and the test came back positive Tuesday morning. Health officials said the person had no obvious underlying health conditions. The case is still under investigation, a task somewhat complicated by the person’s condition.

“We have to be sensitive to the fact that this individual’s health care is a higher priority than answering our questions,” said MDH infectious disease division director Kris Ehresmann in a media call Tuesday afternoon.

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Lots of information is still being gathered. Ehresmann said it’s a situation where there are likely to be some people at risk of having been exposed to the virus, “but this is another situation in which the individual and family took great care to isolate and that makes all the difference in the world.”

The first Minnesota case, reported Friday, is an older Ramsey County resident, left the Grand Princess cruise ship pre-quarantine. Health officials have applauded the patient’s efforts to minimize risk to Minnesotans. Last we heard, the person was in stable condition, convalescing at home.

The second case, announced Sunday, is a Carver County resident in their 50s who is believed to have been exposed to the virus in Europe in late February. Health officials said Tuesday they’re  still investigating the case, but believe the person potentially exposed as many as 20 people to the virus before testing positive.

There are news reports of events, like SXSW, the festival in Austin, and schools in Washington and California being canceled. Is it time for that here?

Not yet, but it is time to get ready, Ehresmann said.

“At this point, we are not recommending canceling large gatherings,” she said. At this point, all the cases in Minnesota are linked to a reasonable source of exposure. But Minnesotans should be thinking about next steps, and it doesn’t hurt to practice having virtual meetings now.

What would be the tipping point where we start looking at canceling things?

Once there are multiple cases in multiple different areas, Ehresmann said MDH would start to look at more community mitigation.

She stressed that the situation is very fluid, lots of samples are being tested now, and there could be information about more cases soon.

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What about schools?

Even when more cases develop, canceling K-12 school is controversial. While kids can transmit coronavirus, they don’t appear to be at high risk of severe illness or death from it.

Michael Osterholm
University of Minnesota
Michael Osterholm
One study found that 35 percent of nurses in the U.S. are mothers of school-aged kids, said Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. Many said they’d have to stay home to care for their kids if school were canceled, Osterholm said.

“We don’t want to do things that are counterproductive if there’s not a benefit,” he said.

Should I think twice about traveling?

Up to you. The Centers for Disease Control has guidance on international and cruise ship travel in light of high rates of coronavirus infections in some countries, but is mum on domestic matters.

Ehresmann recommends taking into account the number of cases at your destination, as well as your health status: People who are older or have underlying health conditions should seriously evaluate whether or not they should be traveling right now.

“[But] it’s a fair question for everyone to consider, how comfortable they feel traveling,” Ehresmann said.

There aren’t currently any blanket self-quarantine recommendations for people arriving home from domestic destinations, unless they were identified as a potential exposure risk.

Osterholm said he’s personally limiting his travel and has had multiple international trips canceled in recent weeks.

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What about traveling around the cities, say in a crowded bus or light-rail car?

As with flight, people may want to consider their personal health status, Ehresmann said.

Am I at high risk of developing severe symptoms if I get coronavirus?

Older adults are at higher risk of developing serious illness from coronavirus, per the CDC. 

People with underlying health conditions, like heart disease, previous treatment for cancer, obesity and diabetes also fall into a higher risk category than the general population, Osterholm said.

Should I visit grandma at the nursing home?

On Tuesday, nursing home industry leaders recommended restricting visits to nursing homes because of the virus’ risk to the elderly.

MDH has not made that recommendation at this point but it is in contact with long-term care facilities in Minnesota. Ehresmann said check with the facility you’re thinking about visiting. Some may be limiting or restricting visitors. Certainly, anybody who is sick should stay home.

What should I do if I develop a cough?

Stay home and cover your mouth with your elbow when you cough or sneeze!

Health officials aren’t recommending everyone with a cough seek health care or be tested for coronavirus. People should seek health care if they develop symptoms that would have caused them to seek health care pre-novel coronavirus. If you’ve traveled and have symptoms, Ehresmann suggests checking in with your health care provider.

What’s the end game here?

We don’t know how long this virus will be around. Some estimates put a vaccine at least 12 to 18 months away.

This virus is often talked about in terms of two modes: containment — preventing spread — and mitigation — trying to minimize harm — Osterholm said. But there’s a middle ground: suppression, or flattening the timeline of the epidemic so it’s not, for example, 100 people getting admitted to the hospital one week, but maybe 10 cases a week for 10 weeks. Social distancing, limiting large gatherings, and canceling events, can help with this.

“That helps you a lot in trying to provide better health care, when the system isn’t nearly as overwhelmed,” he said.

Osterholm listed protecting health care workers as one of his other main concerns.

“If they’re all getting infected and getting sick, we lose one of the most important ways to stop people from dying,” Osterholm said.

This is an area where lots can be done, from making sure health care workers have adequate respirators to adding hospital beds to prevent overcrowding.