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The daily coronavirus update: five more deaths; problems with testing supply chain persist

Gov. Tim Walz also announced today he will give the State of the State address Sunday at 7 p.m., broadcast by remote camera at the governor’s residence.

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 30, 2020:

State reports five more deaths; 689 confirmed cases

COVID-19 has killed five more Minnesotans. The Minnesota Department of Health said Wednesday 17 residents have died after contracting the coronavirus, up from 12 on Tuesday. Kris Ehresmann, the MDH infectious disease director, said the patients who died were a 76-year-old from Winona County, a 92-year-old from Hennepin County, an 82-year-old from Hennepin County, an 81-year-old from Martin County and an 81-year-old from Dakota County. Two of the cases, one from Winona County and one from Hennepin County, were associated with assisted care facilities, Ehresmann said.

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There are now 689 confirmed cases in Minnesota, up from 629 on Tuesday, though due to a shortage of tests, the actual number of people with COVID-19 is assumed to be larger.

Infectious Disease Director Kris Ehresmann
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Infectious Disease Director Kris Ehresmann
Since the outbreak began, 122 people have been hospitalized, while 54 are currently in the hospital. There are 27 people in intensive care, up from 26 on Tuesday. The state says 342 patients no longer need to be isolated because they have recovered.

In total, 21,191 people have been tested at the state’s Public Health Laboratories and other external labs. The median age of confirmed cases is 47.

The median ages of patients by severity of disease are as follows:

  • Non-hospitalized cases: 42 (range: 4 months to 104 years)
  • Hospitalized cases: 64 (range: 6 to 95 years)
  • Hospitalized in ICU cases: 65 (range: 33 to 95 years)
  • Deaths: 84 (range: 58-95 years)

The state is also tracking how patients were likely exposed to the disease. Community spread is responsible for 30 percent of confirmed COVID-19 cases, while known exposure to another person with the disease is at 21 percent. For 20 percent of cases, patients likely contracted the disease by traveling to another state (with no known exposure) and 15 percent got COVID-19 through international travel. Three percent of cases came from cruise ships and the rest are  unknown.

Testing supplies are stressed

Jan Malcolm, MDH commissioner, said the state has chemicals to run tests for now, as well as multiple types of tests to run, but supplies for their “highest capacity” testing platform are back-ordered to May 1. That’s just one example of supply chain issues in testing the state has faced, she said.

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Malcolm said the state has had multiple phone calls with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services based on a request for supplies that Gov. Tim Walz made to Vice President Mike Pence. But the state has not heard back about specific requests. Malcolm said at one point U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, a Republican from the 6th Congressional District, made the same request and was told supplies were on their way. But follow-ups from Emmer’s office were not returned, Malcolm said.

“None of the requested laboratory supplies that we had talked to HHS about have materialized in Minnesota at this point,” Malcolm said.

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm
Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm
Malcolm said Minnesota hospitals are developing their own testing platforms and working directly with manufacturers to supply their needs, but many have reported backups getting those materials as well. 

The testing headaches don’t end there. Malcolm said even if there were lab supplies, swabs needed for testing are in short supply, as is protective equipment (PPE) for workers taking samples. “So all of these really make the testing situation quite a bit more multilayered and complex than what I think some of the messaging from our federal colleagues has been,” said Malcolm. 

Malcolm said there are new testing strategies the state hopes to take advantage of when they’re available, like rapid-results tests that President Donald Trump has been promoting, as well as blood tests that would identify people who have had COVID-19 and recovered.

Homemade face masks good for local distribution, not frontline health care

Joe Kelly, the director of Emergency Management for the state, said people who are able to sew masks at home should consider distributing those locally to those who aren’t frontline health care workers that need medical-grade protective equipment. Kelly said homemade masks could go to hospital workers that don’t directly interact with COVID-19 patients. Or to others who may be at risk, like bus drivers, jail inmates and staffers, and those working with the elderly.

Unemployment up, with the jump due to layoffs in the health care industry

Since March 16, there have been 272,766 new applications for unemployment insurance in Minnesota. Of those, 17,411 applied on Tuesday. Steve Grove, commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development, said there has been an uptick in applications from people working in health care since elective procedures and surgeries have been suspended.

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Grove said there is work to be found elsewhere in the health care industry for those who may be laid off, including jobs as nursing assistants, personal care aides and registered nurses.

To handle the influx of unemployment applications, Grove said DEED has added roughly 75 people to its call center staff by redeploying its employees. The average hold time on phone calls has dropped from over an hour to about 25 minutes, Grove said. He still urged people to apply online if possible to save phone lines for people without internet and who don’t speak English.

Grove said DEED is still working with the federal government to access money from the $2.2 trillion stimulus package approved by Congress. It may only be a few days before people can access benefits like the extra $600 a week for unemployment, but “a matter of weeks” until those who are newly eligible, like gig workers and independent contractors, can get access to benefits.

State of State on Sunday

Walz told reporters he will give a State of the State address Sunday at 7 p.m., broadcast by remote camera at the governor’s residence. Traditionally, the speech is given in chambers of the state House of Representatives. Walz said he would address “where we’re at” with coronavirus response, “but more importantly where we’re going.”

Today on MinnPost

  • At least one data point suggests social distancing is having its intended effect in Minnesota. Data reporter Greta Kaul on what “smart thermometers” are telling us.
  • An unlikely coalition of housing advocates and landlords want state lawmakers to approve $100 million to help lower-income Minnesotans pay rent. State government reporter Peter Callaghan on a budget request that wasn’t included in the Legislature’s recent COVID-19 response bill.
  • How much will it cost to protect voters from coronavirus? A whole lot more than Congress plans to spend, reports Washington correspondent Gabe Schneider.
  • Artscape columnist Pamela Espeland did a Q&A with Sue Gens, executive director of the Minnesota State Arts Board, on how COVID-19 is affecting their grantmaking for artists.

Around the Web

  • Why the global recession could last a long time. A sobering look at the economic disruption of COVID-19, from the New York Times.
  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has issued a stay-at-home order after facing weeks of criticism for not shutting down public life amid a statewide outbreak. The Tampa Bay Times has the story.
  • In Washington state, another coronavirus hot spot, a flood of case data is overwhelming the government’s disease-reporting system. The Seattle Times reports the last data posted to state websites came on March 28, leaving citizens and health officials blinded about statewide spread.
  • ProPublica reports that hospitals have left many COVID-19 patients who don’t speak English alone, confused and without proper care.

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