Coronavirus Daily Briefing: Testing slowly ramping up, officials working to get meat plants reopened

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Minnesota health officials on Monday gave the latest update on the COVID-19 situation in the state.

Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) Commissioner Jan Malcolm and Infectious Disease Division Director Kris Ehresmann talked about making sure the spread of COVID-19 doesn’t accelerate with the weather getting nicer and also touched more on testing in the state. Gov. Tim Walz didn’t participate in Monday’s briefing.

Malcolm said, with the weather getting nicer, they know it’s going to be challenging because people want to get outside and enjoy the weather and recreational areas. But Malcolm urged people to follow MDH and CDC guidelines to continue social distancing, stay close to home and ensure that you aren’t putting others at risk when enjoying the outdoors.

When asked about the high rate of deaths compared to the overall number of cases, Malcolm and Ehresmann noted that the state has been focusing its testing on vulnerable populations, such as those in long-term care facilities, as they’ve built up testing capacity. As they ramp up testing, Malcolm and Ehresmann said they expect that to level out, but they certainly don’t believe COVID-19 is any deadlier in Minnesota than in other places.

As for testing, Malcolm said they’re working to overcome some logistical issues and operational problems as they ramp up testing but said testing numbers will continue to rise as they move toward 5,000 tests per day and beyond that. Walz had previously said his hope was to get to 5,000 tests per day by May 4, when the ‘stay at home’ order is set to end. The goal set last week when the state, Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota announced their partnership is 20,000 tests per day. As of Monday, the state was at about 2,500 tests per day.

Malcolm added that they’re working to avoid using supplies that are most constrained and are trying to find alternative solutions. She also said the state would like to have more federal support to be able to really ramp up testing.

In addition to testing, Ehresmann said the department is continuing to build up its contact tracing staff to follow COVID-19 spread and see where outbreaks are happening. Just Monday, another 20 contact tracers started. She noted that, with the state’s hiring freeze, they’re redeploying some staff from other areas to help, as well as training and bringing others aboard.

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Food processing plants continue to be a focus for labor and health officials.

Ehresmann said MDH began reaching out to meat processing plants following the Smithfield outbreak in Sioux Falls a couple of weeks ago. At the Minnesota plants that have had outbreaks thus far, such as those in Worthington and Willmar, local health officials have been taking the lead and evaluating things like social distancing and employee screening practices as MDH advises them.

Minnesota Department of Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen said his department is working to keep plants running but said if plants close they will work to get them back up and running safely again as quickly as possible. He noted that a plant in Windom closed last week but has already reopened.

He also said they’re working to build capacity at meat plants for animals but said there are just too many and some will have to be euthanized.

Despite some plant closures, the food supply is stable, Petersen said. However, due to the different "disruptions," prices could increase at times, depending on how the situation continues to unfold.

Petersen added that the department is working with the USDA and other states, especially Iowa, noting that it’s going to be a regional effort to handle the number of animals with any plant closures.

Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink also weighed in on the situation, saying her department is working to keep plants and other businesses operating and ensuring they’re following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. The department is also offering free consultation and assistance to employees and employers.

Monday was the first day several businesses could reopen after an order from Walz last week. State officials said the order affected about 20,000 businesses and between 80,000 and 100,000 employees.

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Leppink said the department is making sure businesses are aware of the current guidelines they need to follow and offering to assist them with any problems. However, she noted that the state departments don’t have the resources to go business-to-business to ensure each employer is following the guidelines. They ask any employees who see a business not following the guidelines to let the department know so they can follow-up on it with the business.

Monday, MDH reported 214 new COVID-19 cases and 14 new deaths, moving the state’s totals to 3,816 cases and 286 deaths. Of those, 223 deaths have been patients in long-term care facilities. The department stated, as of Monday, the state has completed 11,493 tests and private labs have completed 49,775 tests. A total of 1,842 patients have recovered and no longer need to be isolated.

According to the Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering, the virus has infected about 2,994,690 people worldwide and killed about 207,270. More than 881,640 people have recovered worldwide as of Monday.