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The daily coronavirus update: 11 deaths; unemployment applications slow

MDH said Thursday there have been 1,242 total confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Minnesota, up 88 from Wednesday’s count.

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 April 9, 2020:

1,242 confirmed cases; 50 deaths

Eleven more Minnesotans have died of COVID-19, the Minnesota Department of Health said Thursday, for a total of 50. Three of the 11 who died were in their 70s, four were in their 80s and four were in their 90s.

MDH also said Thursday there have been 1,242 total confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Minnesota, up 88 from Wednesday’s count. Because Minnesota doesn’t have the capacity to test everybody with symptoms, the number of people with the virus is assumed to be significantly higher.

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Since the start of the outbreak, 293 Minnesotans have been hospitalized and 145 are currently in the hospital. Of those, 63 are in intensive care. There are 675 Minnesotans who previously tested positive for COVID-19 who no longer need to be isolated, which means they are considered to have recovered.

More information on cases can be found here.

One statistic MDH is keeping an eye on is the case doubling rate — how many days it takes for the number of cases to double, said Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm. If the number of cases began to double more and more quickly, that would be concerning. But so far, the rate increase has been fairly stable for several days, doubling every eight or so days.

Unemployment applications slowing

More than 385,000 Minnesotans have applied for unemployment insurance since March 16, though fewer people are trying to access the benefits this week than last. Steve Grove, commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development, said the top occupational groups applying for the money are:

  • Food preparation and serving: 74,574
  • Sales and service: 38,799
  • Health care, including practitioners and support: 36,668
  • Office and administrative support: 28,785
  • Production: 20,491

Grove said his office is already working to figure out how some of Minnesota’s non-critical workforce can return to jobs with social distancing rules, which Walz ordered in his extension to the stay-home edict. DEED is consulting with business and labor leaders, as well as the state Health Department and Labor and Industries.

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Isolating those who can’t go home

Minnesota has asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency for money to pay for what is called “non-congregate sheltering.” That means that the agency would allow the state to house people exposed to the coronavirus who either have no homes or can’t stay at home in hotels or motels.

In more normal natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes, FEMA reimbursed for the cost of settings like school gyms — cot, food, supplies — where people might wait until they can return home. Such a group setting is not what is needed with a pandemic, said Joe Kelly, the director of the state’s emergency management operations.

“That kind of sheltering is common as well as cheap and easy, and FEMA typically pays for that without pre-approval,” Kelly said. “But having people exposed to coronavirus live together or be around others who haven’t been exposed is a bad idea.”

Tax grace period extended again

The Minnesota Department of Revenue has extended the grace period on sales and use tax for businesses, restaurants, bars and other places of public accommodation. While they should still file their returns before the due dates, businesses with a monthly sales and use tax payment due March 20 will now have until May 20 to pay without penalties or interest. Those with monthly or quarterly sales and use taxes due April 20 will also have until May 20 to pay without penalties or interest.

Gov. Tim Walz was asked if he would be open to allowing a delay in the first-half property taxes counties will collect in late May as well as the collection of commercial property taxes by the state.

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“I think we need to take a look at that, and I’m certainly open to it,” Walz said. Taxes are needed to pay for public services, including fighting the coronavirus, he said. “But collecting from people who don’t have it doesn’t make any sense. I hear businesses loud and clear.” He also said he is hoping the federal government will help states with lost or delayed tax collections.

Determining COVID-19 deaths

Malcolm addressed allegations that the Minnesota Department of Health is directing medical professionals to rule suspected deaths due to COVID-19 as confirmed COVID-19 deaths.

“There’s been some, I think, confusion about this and some misinformation about this circulating on social media,” she said.

State Sen. Scott Jensen
State Sen. Scott Jensen
Sen. Scott Jensen, who is a doctor, said in a TV interview this week that he received a letter from MDH asking him to attribute the deaths of suspected COVID-19 patients whose cases were not lab-confirmed as COVID-19 deaths. He expressed concern that doing so would artificially inflate COVID-19 mortality statistics and suggested increasing those numbers could serve the interest of some public officials.

Malcolm said MDH is asking medical professionals to rule deaths as COVID-19-related when they are lab-confirmed. When COVID-19 is suspected as a factor, but not confirmed to be an underlying cause of death, they are asked to rule them as just that: suspected.

In cases where COVID-19 is suspected but not confirmed, MDH is following up with health professionals to ask if a COVID-19 test came back positive, in which case the medical professional would update the cause of death.

If testing is never ordered, or if the cause of death isn’t updated for a confirmed case, the death will remain a suspected COVID-19 death, Malcolm said. She added that the guidance MDH issued is in accordance with CDC recommendations issued in early April to ensure a more accurate count of COVID-19 deaths, and is similar to the way the CDC has handled deaths due to natural disasters and other infectious diseases.

“There’s absolutely no policy or political motivation to increase the number of deaths that are reported,” she said.

Gazelka changes tune; GOP rift with Walz grows

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, sharply criticized Walz’s stay-home order Thursday, calling it a “unilateral” decision in a post on Twitter and saying Minnesotans “have to get on with our lives.”

The tweet was a culmination of growing frustration among Republicans who believe Walz is overstepping his authority and too strict on business because of overly conservative modeling. It was also a change in tone from Gazelka’s reaction to the stay-home order a day earlier. “It is welcome news some businesses can open up and safely resume work even as the stay at home order is extended,” Gazelka said on Wednesday. “I will continue to share the feedback I get with the Governor as he makes these decisions.”

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt on Thursday urged the governor to make the data and assumptions behind state modeling of the disease spread public. One point of frustration: Walz said Wednesday the state’s modeling, done with the University of Minnesota, suggests betwee  6,000 and 20,000 Minnesotans could die from COVID-19. The high-end of that estimate is far greater than what a prominent University of Washington model has predicted. “Every day legislators are fielding dozens of calls from families and business owners whose lives have been turned upside-down as a result of decisions based on modeling data that has not yet been released to the public,” Daudt said.

Gov. Tim Walz
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Gov. Tim Walz
Walz told reporters that his extension of the stay-home order was based on more than state modeling, which has Minnesota-specific factors. He’s also looking at a range of other models, as well considering feedback from hospitals and nonpartisan health officials. Walz said his tactics are in line with how the vast majority of states — and many other countries — are handling the coronavirus pandemic.

The governor said he’s sharing plenty of data publicly and gave a detailed briefing on modeling to lawmakers before the stay-home extension. But he also said the modeling was complex and not always easy to disseminate. “It’s not like a calculator, you’re punching in numbers,” he said. “I do have to tell you I am somewhat disappointed that there would be an idea that we wouldn’t try to get an accurate count of what was being put out by the professionals.”

Walz said he’d rather follow conservative modeling and clamp down on public life — only to experience a mild outbreak — than tread lightly and have the hospital system overwhelmed. The governor also threw a barb at Republicans: “I am somewhat encouraged that it appears like folks who have dismissed numbers around climate change and things like that are now deeply concerned about how we do science.”

Today on MinnPost

  • All mail balloting: recommended by the CDC, but unlikely at this point in Minnesota, writes state government reporter Peter Callaghan.
  • Unless you’re living under a rock (but aren’t we all now?), you probably heard stay-at-home is extended. More on that by Walker Orenstein.
  • It’s a tough time to be a high school student. Prom’s canceled. Graduations are likely off, and COVID-19 is messing with college credit exams. Education reporter Erin Hinrichs has the story.
  • Asking yourself how long it’s been since this all started? Us too. 
  • As always, a look at the numbers on the MinnPost COVID-19 dashboard.

Around the web

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci is now saying 60,000 Americans could die of COVID-19, a dramatic decrease from earlier federal projections, via Bloomberg.
  • Hundreds of inmates at a Washington state prison threatened to set fires and possibly take corrections officers hostage Wednesday because they were concerned with a COVID-19 outbreak at the facility, The Seattle Times reports.

MDH’s coronavirus website:

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