Enrollment in the state's two government health insurance programs for low-income Minnesotans has increased by about 150,000 since February, according to state reports.

The growth comes at a time when more than 740,000 Minnesotans have filed for unemployment insurance as a result of the business cutbacks and closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

While more residents are turning to the Medicaid and MinnesotaCare insurance programs at a time of economic crisis, state officials still expect that next year will see larger enrollment gains.

Enrollment in Medicaid managed care programs is up 10% to 925,000 while MinnesotaCare has jumped 28% to 87,000 since February.

Future growth in both programs hinges on the interplay between COVID-19 infection trends and state policies that affect business operations and employment.

With 404 newly reported cases Thursday, the state has seen 26,273 confirmed infections since the disease was first detected here in mid-March.

Researchers estimate that about 5% of the state's population has caught the virus, leaving many still susceptible to the illness until, or if, a vaccine can be developed

State officials also reported 29 additional deaths Thursday, with 20 of those fatalities among residents of nursing homes or assisted-living facilities, which account for about 80% of all COVID-19 deaths.

Although 512 patients are hospitalized with COVID-19 complications, 25 fewer people needed hospital care compared with Wednesday. Hospital numbers have gradually been decreasing since May 28, when there were 606 inpatients.

Intensive care units treated 244 patients, a decrease of 10 from Wednesday.

Many people don't enroll in public health insurance programs immediately after they become unemployed.

"Someone who loses their job often waits after having a period of being uninsured and needing care," said Matt Anderson, assistant commissioner for health care at the Minnesota Department of Human Services, which administers the programs.

While enrollment is up, people also are not leaving the program because under the state's emergency pandemic powers, the DHS is not requiring Medicaid recipients to submit the paperwork required every year to stay enrolled.

"Now more than ever it is important for individuals and their families to be able to have access to care," Anderson said. "There is also a significant public health interest in making sure that people have coverage so they can get tested and get care so they don't pass the virus on to others as well."

Although eligibility requirements vary, generally a family of four can make no more than $35,000 a year to qualify for Medicaid, while the income limit for MinnesotaCare for the same size family is about $52,000. Some MinnesotaCare enrollees also pay a monthly premium based on a sliding income scale.

Enrollment applications for the programs are down from a year ago, but Anderson said that likely would change as more people remain unemployed and need medical care.

Portico Healthnet, a St. Paul nonprofit that helps people enroll in public programs, said it have been getting inquires but not as many as anticipated.

"People tend to seek out insurance when they are needing to seek out medical care, and particularly in light of the last two months with COVID a lot people are not going for medical care if it is not an urgent issue," said Meghan Kimmel, the organization's president.

Some people on furlough could still be receiving employer health benefits, which would suggest that not all people receiving unemployment insurance need government health insurance, she added.

The pandemic continues to have ripple effects, with blood banks issuing a renewed call for donations as the state heads into the summer months, which often can be a challenging time.

"As hospitals resume elective procedures that were paused due to COVID-19, we've seen a 30 percent increase in blood demand," said Sue Thesenga of the American Red Cross Minnesota and Dakotas Region.

"Another thing that people forget is that red blood cells have a shelf life of 42 days of donation, so they constantly need to be replenished," she said.

The Red Cross is taking donations by appointment at its five area donation centers and blood drives statewide.

There are also warnings from federal and state officials about scammers posing as contact tracers, who are checking on people who are infected or might have been exposed to the virus.

The scheme involves a text message claiming that the recipient might know someone infected and telling them to click a link for more information. But by activating the link, malicious software might be downloaded to the phone or the user might be asked to divulge sensitive information, such as a Social Security number or bank information, on a website.

"As testing expands and more people are diagnosed with COVID-19, contact tracing efforts are providing an opportunity for scammers to try and defraud Minnesotans," Minnesota Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley said.

Minnesota officials say they do use text messages as part of contact tracing efforts, but they don't start with one.

"We would text someone only after contacting them by phone, so anyone who receives a text message without having already heard from public health officials by phone should ignore and delete the text," Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said.

Glenn Howatt • 612-673-7192