By Minnesota Public Radio, The Associated Press and The Free Press
Minnesota authorities have been bracing the public to expect more deaths linked to COVID-19.
That came into clear focus Friday as the Health Department reported four Minnesotans had died, up from two Thursday, while the number of cases jumped to 398 from 346.
All four of those who died in Minnesota were in their 80s, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters Friday afternoon. Three had been living in group care facilities.
Gov. Tim Walz said the state has 1,268 adult ventilators on hand for intensive care cases and is working to secure more, believing they will be needed; 14 COVID-19 patients in the state remain in intensive care.
Overall, 34 people remain hospitalized in Minnesota and 180 have recovered, the state Health Department reported Friday.
The state’s first two COVID-19 deaths involved Ramsey County residents. The health department hasn’t yet released details on the two latest deaths.
South-central Minnesota cases increased from 29 to 41 in the Minnesota Department of Health’s latest update. Total cases across the state rose from 346 to 398, with 34 hospitalizations.
Blue Earth, Waseca, Le Sueur and Martin counties all had new cases. Martin County’s six newly confirmed cases brought its total to 18, the most in the region.
Le Sueur County has four new cases and 10 total. Blue Earth has one new case and seven total, while Waseca County has one new case and three total.
The new data on cases and deaths comes as officials continue to call on Minnesotans to stay home to help slow the disease’s spread. Restaurants remain takeout-only; public school buildings are shuttered now until early May.
Walz’s two-week, stay-at-home order kicks in Saturday. Rosedale, Burnsville and HarMar malls are expected to close over the weekend. The Mall of America is already closed.
Authorities said they would close vehicle services offices at the end of business Friday through April 10 to comply with Walz’s order. The state will extend expiration dates for licenses and permits set to expire in this period. Vehicle registration can be renewed online or by mail.
Also on Friday, state emergency management director Joe Kelly asked Minnesotans not to call 911 with general coronavirus questions and instead contact the state hotline at (651) 201-3920 or 1-800-657-3903 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Some 911 call centers were being inundated with coronavirus calls, he said.
Besides working to slow the spread of the coronavirus so it doesn’t overwhelm the health care system, state leaders are trying to confront the economic toll created by tens of thousands of Minnesotans thrown out of work. About 28 percent of working Minnesotans will be temporarily jobless the next couple of weeks.
The Legislature on Thursday approved $330 million in relief on top of the $200 million it approved earlier this month to bolster the health care system.
The new package includes $200 million to cover state agency costs, plus money for small businesses; child care providers that stay open to care for the children of health care and emergency workers; aid to local governments and tribes; money for food banks; aid to veterans and surviving spouses; and shelter for the homeless.
The New House Republican Caucus, including Rep. Jeremy Munson, R-Lake Crystal, voted against the package.
But lawmakers couldn’t agree on everything that was proposed in the private conference calls that shaped the bill. Some ideas could find a home in a future aid package.
In an interview, Democratic House Speaker Melissa Hortman listed guarantees that hourly school workers would get paid while schools are closed, help for affected renters on top of the governor’s freeze on evictions, a presumption that first responders who catch COVID-19 got it on the job and should qualify for workers compensation, and flexibility for the courts on statutes of limitations and rights to speedy trials.
Republicans, and some Democrats, said they want to see more aid to help small businesses stay alive. This bill was Phase 2 and there needs to be a Phase 3, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, told reporters. Business property tax relief, delays in sales tax payments and fee waivers should be part of that, he said.
The governor and others are urging Minnesotans not to head for their cabins in greater Minnesota to ride out the pandemic, warning that could overwhelm rural stores and hospitals if people get sick in lake country or spread the virus there.
He’s also said that while he hopes the Minnesota State Fair will go on as planned in late August and early September, it’s still too early to make a definitive call.
He is also worried about the spread of hate. Reports are rising about Minnesotans of Asian descent being targeted for hate speech or discrimination in the state, apparently because of the outbreak’s reported origin in China. Walz said Thursday that Minnesotans are better than that.
Malcolm and Walz on Friday also faced questions about the computer models officials have been using to chart a course for the state through the pandemic. Walz had said previously the modeling projected more than 70,000 Minnesotans would die if nothing were done to check the spread.
Asked what the current projections showed given the stay-home efforts and other measures, the governor and health commissioner demurred.
“I know there will be more deaths,” Walz said. “It’s agonizing, and I find it unacceptable … unfortunately, there will be more of that.”