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The daily coronavirus update: four more deaths; Walz touts data dashboard, responds to Trump’s 3M edict

COVID-19
Photo: CDC/Alissa Eckert
COVID-19

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 3, 2020:

789 confirmed cases; 22 deaths

Four more Minnesotans have died from COVID-19, the state Department of Health said Friday. Jan Malcolm, MDH commissioner, said three of those who died were long-term care residents: an 88-year-old from Hennepin County, a 90-year-old from Olmsted County and an 86-year-0ld from Scott County. There are 47 long-term care facilities reporting COVID-19 cases, an issue Malcolm said “remains a very intense focus for us.” The state has also pledged to release the names of those facilities starting this weekend if they have more than 10 residents.

The fourth person who died was a 60-year-old from Chisago County that Malcolm said had “significant” underlying health conditions. There have now been 22 deaths in Minnesota from COVID-19.

As of Friday, 789 people have tested positive for coronavirus, up from 742 on Thursday. But since Minnesota doesn’t have the capacity to test everyone with symptoms, it’s assumed that far more people are sick with the coronavirus.

There are 86 people hospitalized because of COVID-19 and 40 of them are in intensive care. On Thursday, only 75 patients were in the hospital. A total of 24,227 people have been tested for COVID-19, and 410 patients no longer need to be isolated since they have recovered. The median age of people killed by COVID-19 in Minnesota is 84 years. More information on cases in Minnesota can be found here.

New dashboard offers public COVID-19 data

Gov. Tim Walz unveiled a new tool for tracking the supplies the state has on-hand to fight the virus in a televised address Friday. The dashboard, available publicly here, shows things like what share of intensive care beds and ventilators are in use; how many hospital beds are convertible to ICU beds and how many ventilators are on order. It also shows information about the amount of personal protective equipment Minnesota has on hand. Some highlights:

  • Ventilators: 38 percent of Minnesota’s 2,241 ventilators are currently in-use. 888 more are on order.
  • ICU beds: 881 beds out of Minnesota’s current ICU capacity of 1,145 beds, or 77 percent, are currently in use. Minnesota could increase its ICU bed capacity by an additional 1,098 beds within 24 hours.

The dashboard also includes information about the number of non-school child care slots available for critical workers, number of unemployment claims over time and the amount traffic is down on Minnesota freeways.

In addition to the dashboard about the state’s response, the state also released a dashboard with information about cases, which visualizes some of the data MDH has already been releasing.

“I want to just be candid with you, Minnesota. A lot of folks are not putting out this information because they’re afraid it will create a sense of panic,” Walz said. “You can see on here, we need more of these things. We need to continue to get them, we need to have them produced, we need the supply chain to work. It’s no secret either that there’s somewhat of a disconnect between the federal strategic stockpile and what the states have. My job as governor is to find a way to get these.”

Kashkari talks to state Senate workgroup

Neel Kashkari, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, told a Senate workgroup that the best government aid right now is to help employers keep workers on payroll. That, he said, would be different from 2008 when high unemployment took a decade to recover from.

“If you spend a dollar on the front end helping a small business keep their workers employed, that is much better to having to spend the same dollar on the back end with unemployment assistance,” Kashkari said. “Because once we have laid off tens of millions of Americans, we’ve learned it takes a long long time to bring them back into the economy.”

Kashkari, who ran the Troubled Asset Relief Program after the 2008 recession, said he is frequently asked when this will be over and how long the recession will last.

“I wish I had a clear answer,” he told the senators. “It’s really going to be determined by the course of the virus and how the healthcare system can respond to get their arms around the virus.”

He said the two possible endpoints are when a vaccine is developed or when so-called herd immunity kicks in, something that slows the virus’ spread because so many people have already been infected.

“The best scenario I’ve heard from any of the experts is that maybe COVID will follow the course of the flu and maybe it will be dormant over the summer,” he said, which would give health care a chance to be armed for a return of infections in the fall.

Minnesota clears 300,000 unemployment applications

Steve Grove, the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, told a special state Senate committee Friday that his department has added staff to handle a deluge of new applications for employment security.

But Grove again urged lawmakers to advise their constituents to go online to apply. The state has received 300,000 new claims for assistance since the COVID-19 crisis began, more than it received in all of 2019. Of those applicants, 85 percent are first-timers. He said the average weekly payment will probably fall below the 2019 average of $441 a week — one half of a worker’s wages but no more than $740. The federal COVID relief bill will add $600 per worker per week on top of what the state pays.

Before the surge, the state answered calls in less than 30 seconds, he said. That ballooned to more than an hour and while it has fallen since, Grove said people will be better served online. “We know people want the human touch right now, people are in a vulnerable situation. Calling into the call center can feel more comforting,” Grove told the Senate COVID workgroup during a Zoom hearing. “Given the wait times … (the) website is going to be the best place to go.”

Grove also said that the state is responding to requests from some employers that they be added to the essential worker list, and that DEED has changed the list since it was announced more than a week ago. But he also said Minnesota is more permissive than many states and that 82 percent of jobs are allowed to continue.

Data in lieu of testing

Asked whether there’s any good data to track the prevalence of COVID-19 in Minnesota when so few people can be tested, Malcolm said MDH is keeping an eye on syndromic surveillance — the tracking of people with symptoms, even if they haven’t tested positive.

The number of Minnesotans presenting with flu-like symptoms at sentinel providers — health care facilities that report such symptoms to MDH for flu-tracking reasons, is up in the most recent week, while the number of positive flu tests are down, something health officials believe is at least partly driven by social distancing.

With seasonal flu on the way out, an increase in influenza-like illness is likely to be driven by COVID-19. “While we would like to see more laboratory testing the reality is that we may not and so it’s important that we have these other tools,” said Infectious Disease Director Kris Ehresmann.

Walz added that antibody tests that detect who has some immunity to the virus and rapid tests that can quickly detect infections will be a game-changer in terms of his own decision making about state response to the virus, so he is focused on how to get and implement those technologies.

Wear masks for everyday life — but only if they’re homemade

The federal government is expected to ask all U.S. residents to wear masks in their daily lives, and state officials said that’s fine guidance — as long as people use homemade masks and continue to follow social distancing rules.

Malcolm, the MDH commission, said medical-grade respirators and surgical masks are in high demand for front line health care workers and should be saved for their use. Wearing masks can help prevent people who are sick from spreading the illness to others when they cough or sneeze. Wearing a mask does not mean you can safely gather in groups, though, Malcolm said. “It’s another good neighborly gesture to think about doing to protect others,” she said.

Walz responds to Trump’s 3M edict

With medical-grade masks in short supply, President Donald Trump is invoking the Defense Production Act to force 3M to sell them to the federal government rather than to foreign customers. Florida, in particular, has criticized 3M and accused them of profiteering by selling to higher foreign bidders instead of their state.

Walz told reporters he was still trying to assess Trump’s decision but said there have been mixed signals from the White House on securing protective equipment. The Trump administration has said states should find their own supplies and use the national stockpile only as a backup, but states have been competing against FEMA to buy that equipment, Walz said. “Now of course 3M being right here in our backyard is being told that all of those will go FEMA,” Walz said. “This is the ever-changing landscape of a very fragmented supply chain system.”

In a news release Friday, 3M said it has gone “above and beyond to manufacture as many N95 respirators as possible for the U.S. Market.” It also said the administration’s request to stop exports to Canada and Latin America has “significant humanitarian implications,” and warned other countries could retaliate against the U.S. and decrease the overall supply of respirators.

Minnesota prison planning

The Minnesota Department of Corrections is instituting a new stay-with-unit plan for prisons that is akin to the stay-at-home order for the rest of the state. Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell said Friday that he is responding to COVID cases — both test-based and symptoms based — in two state facilities.

The order requires prison populations to remain in their living unit which, depending on the facility could be a handful of prisoners or up to 100. They will eat meals together and other activities will be isolated by living unit to avoid mixing prisoners from different parts of a facility together.

“With the close quarters of prisons, this intermingling can allow for a virus to spread quickly,” Schnell said of normal operations. “Our Stay With Unit plans are designed to minimize the potential for the spread by increasing the opportunity for social distancing and provide for unit separation that reduces the opportunity for serious outbreaks.”

The Stay With Unit plan is an acceleration of what has been done to restrict visitors and vendors and to spread out meal service to allow more social distancing. The corrections system is also looking at advancing the discharge of prisoners into community settings once they are within 90 days of release.

Schnell said there are seven test-confirmed cases of COVID-19 among inmates at the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Moose Lake and 13 presumed cases. There are also two staff members at Moose Lake — one tested and one presumed — among staff. At the Red Wing juvenile facility, there are two staff members with test-confirmed cases. The youth residents there are quarantined. The Stay With Unit plan is being imposed at Moose Lake immediately and will be rolled out system-wide next week, Schnell said.

Today on MinnPost

Around the Web

  • A national expert on respiratory protection and infectious diseases argues the “masks-for-all” recommendations emerging from public health officials aren’t based on sound data.
  • Smartphone location data analyzed by the New York Times shows many lower-income people continue to move around for work while wealthier people are staying home. Why limiting travel for coronavirus is a luxury.
  • Minnesota officials say they don’t want to arrest people who violate the governor’s stay-at-home orders. In the coronavirus hot spot of New Orleans, police are warning they will continue arresting people if large gatherings don’t stop. The Advocate on how a culture of community events like second-line parades is working against public health.

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

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