371 fatalities; ‘just  getting our arms’ around the spread

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz answers questions while holding his mask at a news conference inside the Department of Public Safety in St. Paul, Minn., on Thursday, April 30, 2020. Walz unveiled a plan that extends the state's stay-at-home order and keeps bars and restaurants takeout-only until May 18, but also makes changes to allow some additional business operations.

Minnesota’s top health official on Friday defended extending the state’s stay-at-home order as necessary in the face of rapidly rising numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths.

While state leaders recognize the disruptions to daily life, “we do have sort of an index of caution around the fact that we’re seeing the case numbers increase rapidly” as testing ramps up, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters Friday.

Health authorities, she added, have been “very sobered” by outbreaks in southwestern Minnesota and other hot spots, and “at a time when we feel like we’re just getting our arms around the true spread of the disease, there’s some reluctance to open more broadly.”

Malcolm’s remarks came hours after her department reported 371 Minnesotans have now died from the disease, 28 more than Thursday; 369 remain hospitalized with 118 in intensive care. Total cases since the pandemic began leaped again by nearly 600, to 5,730, as testing accelerated.

The big jumps in cases discovered the past few days, driven by the testing increase, pushed down the percentage of people who’ve recovered from the disease since the pandemic began to around 40 percent. Prior to this week, recoveries had been running about half of total cases.

Noting that federal guidelines recommend states don’t start to reopen their economies before seeing a two-week downward trend in COVID-19 cases, Malcolm said: “We’re a long way from that.”

Stay-home order extended for two more weeks

The latest numbers come a day after Gov. Tim Walz extended his stay-at-home order but allowed some additional retail store operations. Bars and restaurants, however, remain takeout-only until May 18.

Retailers and other businesses will be able to offer curbside pickup of purchases starting Monday, putting up to 30,000 Minnesotans back on the job, the governor’s office said. Dog groomers can work, too, if pets are picked up and dropped off curbside.

Other customer-focused businesses, however, will likely remain disappointed. For example, salons and barbershops can sell products for curbside pickup but still can’t provide haircuts or other in-shop services.

“Even as we reopen it’s not going to be the same,” Walz said Thursday, but “there is every reason to be positive that Minnesota is going the right way.”

Earlier this week, Walz allowed some factory and office workers who don’t have customer-facing jobs back into their work spaces, with safeguards. On Wednesday, he expressed hope that smaller businesses could soon reopen with social distancing and other hygiene measures in place.

The governor, though, has made clear that places that depend on public crowds, including bars, eateries and big sporting events, would be among the last to return to normal business operations.

As restrictions relax and testing ramps up, health leaders said Minnesotans should expect to see the COVID-19 outbreak widen, but they expressed confidence that Minnesota’s health care system was prepared to deal with an expected surge of cases and hospitalizations.

A new effort between the state, Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota to dramatically ramp-up testing in Minnesota and quickly identify and isolate COVID-19 cases appears to be paying off.

The state on Thursday reported 3,279 completed tests from the prior day — the first time daily testing topped 3,000. On Friday, the state topped 4,000 tests for the first time, reporting 4,124 completed.

Walz said the state should be testing 5,000 people daily as part of the plan to reopen the economy.

Malcolm on Friday offered some good news on that front. She said federal officials have come through with supplies of nasal swabs crucial to the state’s testing ramp-up, which will help give Minnesota access to a total of 190,000 swabs during May.

Long-term care facility concerns

Most of those in Minnesota who’ve died from COVID-19 were living in long-term care facilities and and had underlying health problems. Because of that, state officials have made testing and investigation of those centers a priority.

Forty-seven deaths are tied to one facility, the St. Therese nursing home in New Hope, northwest of downtown Minneapolis.

There are more than 100 facilities in the state with at least one COVID-19 case, although many have only one or two cases. Twenty-one facilities have 20 or more cases said Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director.

“We’re seeing COVID in the facilities because it’s in the community,” said Ehresmann, noting one of COVID-19’s more alarming traits — people without symptoms can have the virus and spread it.

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