Coronavirus Daily Briefing: Walz talks with Trump, officials discuss JBS plant outbreak and its impact

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Monday, Gov. Tim Walz said he had a productive talk with President Donald Trump over the weekend regarding the state’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Walz said he talked to Trump about personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing troubles in the state, and he left the conversation with Trump feeling "aligned" and like they were on the same page with how the state is attacking COVID-19.

"This is an all-state effort," Walz said of businesses working with the state.

Walz said he was appreciative of the 10-minute call with Trump and he felt it was important to explain the state’s plan to the president. Walz said Trump told him he’s been hearing good things out of Minnesota and they’ll work to help the state with its problems with PPE and supplies. According to Walz, Trump told Walz he could call him if he has questions or wants to talk in the future and was appreciative of Walz reaching out.

The conversation came after Trump tweeted, "LIBERATE MINNESOTA!" last week as protesters swarmed the grounds outside the Governor’s Mansion. However, Monday morning, Trump acknowledged his good conversation with Walz and said he was working to get everything state officials have been requesting.

Walz said he believes some prominent business leaders from the state likely called the White House to discuss the state and its response. He added that Trump was very gracious on the call.

As for the protests last week, Walz said "there are safer ways of doing that," but noted he supports people’s right to protest.

When asked if residents should be prepared for the ‘stay at home’ order to be extended, Walz said they’ll look to keep modifying the order, as they’ve been doing. He said they’ll continue to slowly open things up and get more people safely back to work, but the ever-changing data will help drive those decisions.

He noted that it’s not sustainable economically, health-wise or psychologically to shelter-in-place for 18 months, which is what some project how long it could take to get a vaccine distributed. Walz said the goal is obviously to have a vaccine in the future but they’re planning for how to get things reopened soon and without a vaccine. He added that they have to see what works and what doesn’t, and they need to make decisions driven by science and data.

In terms of testing, the goal remains to be able to test everyone, Walz said. While they’ve run into some issues along the way, the governor said this week is set up for better change. He added that significant testing is expected very soon and his hope is that the state reaches 40,000 tests this week.

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The governor was also asked about some of the effects of the ‘stay at home’ order, such as sporting events being canceled and high schoolers missing out on certain events. Walz said he agrees that the shelter-in-place has a mental and physical toll, adding that he believes it’s detrimental for students to be losing contact with friends, teachers and coaches.

When asked about suicides, Walz acknowledged it’s an issue but said he also asked for increased mental health funding last year and it was denied. He said the state is working to ensure everyone who needs help knows resources are available to them. Walz again reiterated opening things up too soon will just cause more problems but if it was possible to reopen things without affecting anyone’s health he’d do it immediately.

Some of the things people miss most are going to be the hardest to get going again, Walz said in reference to sporting events.

After a spike in COVID-19 cases was reported in Nobles County last week, many tied to the JBS pork plant in Worthington, JBS announced Monday that the Worthington plant is being closed indefinitely.

Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) Commissioner Jan Malcolm said state officials started noticing numbers spike in Nobles County and quickly identified a strong link to the JBS plant. Malcolm and Walz both praised local and county officials for the way they responded and handled the outbreak. Health officials interviewed 41 of the 77 patients in the county as of Monday and 33 of those 41 were JBS employees or family members of workers, Malcolm said.

Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) Commissioner Thom Petersen noted that Minnesota is the second-largest pork producer in the country and they’re already working with officials in Worthington to help them resume operations at the JBS plant as soon as possible.

However, Petersen reassured Minnesotans that there’s no evidence meat-packing or processing is related to any spread of the virus. He urged residents to follow normal food-handling guidelines for safety but reiterated that pork is safe to eat.

The closure of the Worthington plant will also affect farmers, but Petersen said the state is working with smaller plants to build capacity, including by giving them grants to handle more pigs from farmers. Petersen said there are roughly 20 other large packing companies in the state and the goal is to keep them all open and running.

That being said, more plant closures obviously create more challenges. According to Petersen, Minnesota has enough pigs to meet current demand but said it could be challenging in future, depending on more plant closures and how long the closures last.

Petersen also acknowledged many farmers are struggling during these times but urged them to reach out to the department because the department has resources for farmers.

Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink said state officials have worked to develop guidelines for the meat-packing sector and also used guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The department is now offering state assistance to all plants across the state and sending those guidelines to the plants.

Leppink added that they’re also asking facilities to volunteer information regarding the health status in their working areas.

"Our objective is to keep these plants open. However, in doing so while also keeping their employees safe," Leppink said.

Kris Ehresmann, the director of Infectious Diseases at MDH, said the JBS outbreak in Worthington could have been related to the Smithfield outbreak in Sioux Falls because there is some regular transmission between the plants in the areas. However, she noted there is community transmission as well, so it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact causes right now.

Walz also reiterated that nobody shut down the JBS plant. The government, the company and its employees all want it to be running, but the virus is making it impossible right now, he said.

In some good news, the state announced it was receiving help from Ecolab and thanked the company for its work.

Ecolab CEO Doug Baker said he and Ecolab are delighted to help out and they appreciate the opportunity. The company reached out to other Minnesota companies, including 3M, Polaris, Toro and others, to set up procurement teams to help the state. Those teams are now vetting procurement vendors for the state.

Minnesota Department of Administration Commissioner Alice Roberts-Davis said Ecolab’s work has already made a difference, including by finding vendors selling counterfeit supplies.

Roberts-Davis also announced the state is working with hospitals to better accommodate them in regards to supplies. She said the state has increased the minimum amount of supplies remaining from zero to three days worth to four to seven days of supplies left for hospitals to be able to reach out for the state to get their supplies replenished.

Meanwhile, Malcolm noted the lack of critical care staff became an issue at a facility in Wayzata Saturday.

By Saturday night, all 46 residents of the assisted living facility in Wayzata were relocated due to lack of critical staff at the facility. Malcolm said some moved in with family and seven went to a hospital.

Monday, MDH reported 114 new COVID-19 cases, creating a total of 2,470 cases in the state. A total of 143 deaths have also been reported, with nine additional deaths reported Monday. Of the total, 602 cases have required hospitalization, with 237 patients still hospitalized as of Monday and 126 in intensive care, and 1,202 patients have recovered.

According to the Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering, worldwide, the virus has infected about 2,420,440 people and killed about 166,205. More than 635,476 people have recovered, worldwide, as of Monday.