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The daily coronavirus update: 365 more cases; Minnesota officials balk at Trump order opening meatpacking plants

MDH Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Trump’s order appeared “problematic to say the least” as Minnesota is still experiencing an “explosive” increase in cases among workers at pork processing facilities that have shut down because of COVID-19 outbreaks.

COVID-19
COVID-19
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 28, 2020:

4,181 confirmed cases; 301 deaths 

Fifteen more Minnesotans have died of COVID-19, the Minnesota Department of Health said Tuesday, for a total of 301. 

Of the 15 deaths announced Tuesday, five were residents of Hennepin County, three lived in Anoka County and two lived in Dakota County. There was one death in each of the following counties: Clay, Crow Wing, Kandiyohi, Washington and St. Louis.

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One person was age 100 or older, one was in their 90s, two were in their 80s, seven were in their 70s and four were in their 60s.

Ten of the people who died were residents of long-term care facilities. The current death toll only includes Minnesotans with lab-confirmed positive COVID-19 tests.

Infectious Disease Director Kris Ehresmann
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Infectious Disease Director Kris Ehresmann
MDH also said Tuesday there have been 4,181 total confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Minnesota, up 365 from Monday’s count. Because Minnesota hasn’t had the capacity to test everybody with symptoms, the number of people with the virus is assumed to be significantly higher. 

But the 365 new positive tests represent by far the largest one-day increase since the pandemic began, which health officials said is a sign that Minnesota is ramping up testing after an initiative announced last week to test as many as 20,000 Minnesotans per day. Kris Ehresmann, the MDH infectious disease director, told reporters the increase was also due to “intensive testing” at meatpacking plants in the state, which have experienced outbreaks this month.

State officials said anyone with COVID-19 like symptoms should be able to get tested. Previously, tests had been limited to specific populations whose results mattered most for public health.

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Since the start of the outbreak, 912 Minnesotans have been hospitalized and 314 are currently in the hospital, 120 in intensive care. Of the 4,181 confirmed positive cases in Minnesota, 1,912 no longer need to be isolated, which means they are considered to have recovered.

A total of 63,829 people have been tested for COVID-19 in Minnesota.

More information on cases can be found here.

Trump to order meatpacking plants open

President Donald Trump plans to order meat plants across the country to continue operating in an effort to prevent a shortage of chicken, pork and other food. The government will give out extra protective gear for employees and health guidance, POLITICO reported.

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm
Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm
Jan Malcolm, the MDH commissioner, told reporters Tuesday she didn’t know every detail of the order, but said it appeared “problematic to say the least” as Minnesota is still experiencing an “explosive” increase in cases among workers at facilities that have shut down because of COVID-19 outbreaks. Spread among workers imperils the surrounding community as well as plant workers, she said. 

The JBS pork plant in Worthington and Jennie-O turkey plants in Willmar are among the facilities to shut down in Minnesota. In the region, Smithfield Foods stopped production at a plant in Sioux Falls, and Tyson Foods shuttered a plant in Waterloo, Iowa. 

Ehresmann, the MDH infectious disease director, said processing facilities like JBS may not have enough workers to reopen since many of them have tested positive and must be isolated. “I think we want to make sure that any industry that is essential and continuing to work is able to do so in a manner that keeps their employees safe,” she said.

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The three Republican members of the U.S. House from Minnesota praised Trump’s decision in prepared statements. Said Rep. Jim Hagedorn, of the 1st Congressional District, which is home to a swath of the state’s meatpacking and farming industry in southern Minnesota: “Reopening our meatpacking and food processing plants in a safe and efficient manner is critical to sustaining our pork and livestock industries, protecting the well-being of our agricultural workforce, and maintaining America’s food supply.”

Rep. Pete Stauber, who represents the 8th District, said Trump’s order could help prevent farmers from killing hundreds of thousands of animals in coming weeks because the processing plants have been down. 

Update on serology testing

State Epidemiologist Dr. Ruth Lynfield gave reporters a run-down on the state of serology testing.

As opposed to molecular tests, which indicate whether or not a patient is currently infected with COVID-19, serology tests can detect whether a person has antibodies in their system from fighting the virus, and thus determines whether they’ve had it in the past.

Except it’s not that simple. Lynfield explained that timing matters — it can take between a week to three weeks for antibodies to be at levels measurable by tests, depending on the types of antibodies. 

There’s also vast disparities in the effectiveness of tests, which are sometimes only sensitive enough to tell whether a person has had a coronavirus — a type of virus that also encompasses many common colds. Many tests don’t test for neutralizing antibodies — ones that are actually effective at fighting the virus.

Also unclear at this point is whether a person who has antibodies is protected from being infected in the future, and if so, for how long, which could vary substantially. A person who contracts or is immunized against measles, for example, has immunity for a long time, whereas ever-morphing influenza often finds ways around the human immune system. Where COVID-19 antibodies fall on that spectrum is still very much a matter of investigation for researchers, Lynfield said.

For now, and for these reasons, she said, the practical applications of serology testing are seroprevalence studies — finding out how many people in Minnesota have been exposed to COVID-19, and finding out who has recovered from the virus so they can be convalescent plasma donors. 

There’s been chatter about people with positive serological tests being able to return to work unfettered, but Lynfield suggested not enough is known about the virus to permit that.

“This does not mean if someone has had it and they have a positive antibody test that they don’t have to social distance anymore. We just don’t have that information and the stakes of making a mistake are too high,” she said.

Pence unmasked during Mayo Clinic visit

Vice President Mike Pence visited Rochester for a walkthrough of Mayo Clinic’s facilities with Gov. Tim Walz Tuesday.

According to the Star Tribune’s Briana Bierschbach, who was onsite during the visit, Pence praised Minnesota’s plan to ramp up molecular and serology tests in the state.

Vice President Mike Pence
REUTERS/Nicholas Pfosi
Vice President Mike Pence touring Mayo Clinic facilities supporting the coronavirus disease research and treatment on Tuesday.
According to a tweet from the Mayo Clinic, since deleted, Pence was briefed on the clinic’s policy on mask-wearing. Per photos from the event, he didn’t wear one. In a statement, Pence said the CDC advises masks help prevent someone with COVID-19 from transmitting the virus to others. Since he is regularly tested and does not have the virus, he said “thought it would be a good opportunity for me to be here, to be able to speak to these researchers, these incredible health care personnel and look them in the eye and say thank you.”

In a press call set up by the DFL prior to Pence’s arrival, Rep. Dean Phillips, who represents Minneapolis’ western suburbs, said Walz is incredulous over the lack of response by the federal government on COVID-19 testing.

“We are ready to go with a massive testing program, but still cannot obtain federally promised support, swabs and vials in particular. I hope, in fact, I know, the governor will bring that up with the Vice President. I’m glad that he will hear it face to face from a wonderful state leader,” he said.

GOP calls for wider testing at long-term care facilities

Republican state Sen. Karin Housley of St. Mary’s Point asked the state on Tuesday for widespread testing of residents and staff at long-term care facilities. While the Walz administration has prioritized testing in assisted living, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted elderly Minnesotans at the facilities more than the general public. So far, 233 of the state’s 301 deaths have been long-term care residents.

But Ehresmann, the MDH infectious disease director, said the state doesn’t have the capacity yet for “widespread testing across the board in every facility.” She also said more testing is helpful but not the only factor in preventing spread and deaths. Staffing shortages and space for isolating patients have been hurdles, too.

Malcolm, the MDH commissioner, said the national guard has helped the state with staffing needs in a couple of instances, but the Walz administration is working on a statewide plan on how best to involve the guard to help with testing and staffing.

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MDH’s coronavirus website: https://www.health.state.mn.us/diseases/coronavirus/index.html

MDH’s coronavirus hotline, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.: 651-201-3920