COVID-19 Briefing: Testing remains an issue in state, unemployment insurance program being created to assist self-employed

Tuesday, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and other state leaders discussed the latest developments regarding COVID-19 in the state.

Walz addressed the extension of the peacetime emergency, which was signed by the governor on Monday. He said state leaders and health professionals continue to follow the most conservative model in approving orders. Getting the emergency approved by the Executive Council allows the Legislature to overturn and stop it at any time if they wanted. The peacetime emergency and ‘stay at home’ order are different, Walz pointed out.

The governor also said he talked with the federal delegation Tuesday morning to get more insight on what help could be coming later for the COVID-19 pandemic. He also reminded people who are sick and worried about personal protection equipment (PPE) or getting others sick to still see a doctor if they must.

"If you need to see a doctor, you need to see a doctor," Walz said.

Some other highlights Walz addressed during the call was the Legislature passing the insulin affordability bill and another COVID-19 response bill.

Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) Commissioner Jan Malcolm added that dental care providers are strongly encouraged to provide emergency care during the pandemic.

Earlier Tuesday, MDH reported 45 additional COVID-19 cases, bringing the total to 1,695 reported cases. Seventy-nine total deaths have also been reported, with nine additional deaths reported from Monday to Tuesday. The department stated, as of Tuesday, the state has completed 9,480 tests and private labs have completed 29,761 tests, for a total of 39,241.

MDH Director of Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Kris Ehresmann, said the state has already begun to review all COVID-19 deaths. She said underlying health conditions continue to be focused on, with 98.5% of deaths falling in that category. The older generation continues to be the most impacted demographic. Ehresmann also said 57 of the 79 deaths have been patients in long-term care.

Regarding deaths and how they are recorded involving COVID-19, all of Minnesota’s numbers are people who have tested positive for the virus. If it is originally ruled as a COVID-19 death but the medical examiner finds a different cause of death, it can then be changed, but only by the medical examiner, not MDH officials or anyone else.

Testing remains an issue in the state and across the country. Walz said he doesn’t feel overly confident the state can overcome a shortage of reagents but thinks they can ramp things up to cover the short-term. Malcolm added many health care providers are trying to make their own tests.

When asked about serology tests for front line people who are interacting with sick patients, both Walz and Malcolm said the state is working to replicate the tests that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Mayo Clinic and University of Minnesota researchers will be working on the task. Serology tests are tests that check to see if a person had previously been infected and may have immunity.

"We need to do it and we need to do it with a sense of urgency," Walz said.

Malcolm added that the accuracy and validity of the tests still need to be evaluated. Minnesotan officals will check their reliability before they run with anything.

COVID-19 in Minnesota: 1,695 total cases, 79 total deaths

Homeland Security and Emergency Management Commissioner Joe Kelly said the state response continues, and the public dashboard is being continually updated with the latest data online. Kelly added they are continuing to work to acquire PPE for first responders. The focus remains on weather this week as well, with water levels in Oslo coming down. The National Guard has been helping with flooding but could be recalled Friday or Saturday if the situation is under control.

Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) Commissioner Steve Grove said the amount of unemployment insurance (UI) applications have now doubled 2019’s amount (451,790). Grove said 14% of the state’s labor force has applied for UI application benefits, with 45% men and 55% women. People of color continue to be more affected by layoffs amid the pandemic, Grove noted.

A pandemic unemployment insurance program (PUA) is being set up actively, as Grove tweeted out more information on it earlier Tuesday.

The program is essentially a brand new program being created, as it shows differences between the normal system Minnesota has in place. No state has yet paid any self-employed workers at this time. Grove urged Minnesotans who are self-employed to apply as soon as they can so when the system is up and working, the state can then reach out to applicants and get them benefits. The program is expected to be up and running by the end of the month.

DEED, MDH and the Department of Labor are continuing to work to adopt protocols for re-entry into work for businesses. Grove said they are getting many ideas and working with businesses to do so.

"The last thing we want to do is extend this pandemic by reopening things too quickly and more people getting sick," Grove said.

Grove and Walz pointed to a Sioux Falls, South Dakota plant was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and over half of the state’s positive tests have come from the food plant.

Smithfield Foods closed its facility until further notice on Sunday. According to the state, 438 confirmed cases have come from the plant. Walz mentioned he is worried about sending workers back too soon for that reason. If it were to happen in Minnesota however, Malcolm noted the state is ready for a response of that degree.

Walz said he has also spoken with agriculture groups and food and commercial workers to discuss current issues and how to help them.

Walz added that testing will ultimately decide the fate of businesses opening up, as the goal remains to test at least 5,000 people a day.

"The virus will dictate what it’s going to do but it doesn’t have to control us," he said.