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The Free Press and MPR News

MANKATO — Minnesota’s 32 newly reported COVID-19 deaths Thursday mark the biggest increase in fatalities since the pandemic began.

The latest jump in fatalities brings the state’s death toll to 809, with most of the new and total deaths occurring in long-term care facilities.

None of the fatalities occurred in south-central Minnesota, although confirmed cases rose by 10 in the nine-county region.

The region has now had more than 400 cases. New cases included six in Blue Earth County, two in Le Sueur County, and one each in Faribault and Martin counties, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

Blue Earth County has had 104 known cases. Most of the cases occurred in residents between 20 and 49 years old, although the residents who’ve needed to be hospitalized were between 62 and 91 years old.

Apart from the grim uptick in deaths statewide, confirmed cases dropped for the second straight day. The state reported 539 new cases, 18,200 total since the beginning of the pandemic, and 12,488 people who’ve recovered enough to no longer need isolation.

After the latest numbers came in, state health leaders on Thursday faced growing questions over Minnesota’s COVID-19 strategy and the toll it’s taken on religious services, graduation ceremonies and other important life rituals.

They acknowledged the cost, but cautioned that moving too quickly could worsen the pain.

With COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths continuing to rise toward a likely peak later in the summer, the state needed to continue to limit worship services and other gatherings, Jan Malcolm, the state’s health commissioner, told reporters.

“We’re hearing the frustration of people who feel as though our guidance is overly conservative,” she said. “We just keep reinforcing the degree of community spread … even when it isn’t completely visible.”

Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, implored Minnesotans to stay away from graduation ceremonies, saying that even graduations in outdoor stadiums are not safe from the virus, and so are not permitted.

She noted that even with proper safeguards, the disease could spread from students rushing to hug fellow classmates they haven’t seen in a while and other “unpredictable social behavior.”

Health officials, she said, knew of a case in Minnesota involving a person who helped set up a diploma ceremony and later tested positive for COVID-19. That person had contact with two people directly involved in the ceremony, which happened despite the state’s ban. Ehresmann didn’t say where or if a larger spread had been documented, but said the risk was there.

“As much as we wish we could be doing graduation,” Ehresmann said, “that is not possible at this time.”

The health officials’ comments came a day after Gov. Tim Walz unveiled plans to slow-walk the reopening of bars and restaurants, letting them serve sit-down customers beginning June 1, but only at outdoor tables.

A key hospitality group called the bar and restaurant plan disastrous for an industry already reeling from the economic fallout of COVID-19.

GOP leaders also attacked the decision.

The state’s Catholic Church leaders, as well as Lutheran leaders from Wisconsin and Missouri synods, said they would defy Walz’s order and resume services next week, believing they could do so safely.

The governor reiterated on Wednesday that he’s trying to balance the needs of the economy with public health as he works to keep the spread of the coronavirus from overwhelming the state’s hospital and care system.

“It is going to get worse here before it gets better. That is an absolute guarantee,” Walz said of the expected surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations now expected later this summer. Walz said he expects the state’s death toll to hit 1,000 by the end of the month and 1,500 by late June.

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