In an effort to protect those on the front lines of the battle against COVID-19, state officials are enlisting the purchasing skills of Minnesota's largest corporations to acquire masks and other protective equipment from suppliers across the globe.

The move comes as health care workers, first responders and others in essential businesses report shortages of equipment designed to keep workers and patients safe, resulting in rationing and reuse of what used to be widely available products.

As of Monday, the state had no health care worker gowns stockpiled, one of the pieces of personal protective equipment, or PPE, that states are scrambling to purchase.

"If you don't have PPE … it is very hard for the governor and team to give the go-ahead ultimately to reopen the state," said Doug Baker, chief executive at St. Paul-based Ecolab, who enlisted the help of 3M, Donaldson, Target, Polaris, Toro and other corporations.

"We all have offices all around the world that can buy things," he said. "The state doesn't go out and do this by nature."

The stay-at-home order issued by Gov. Tim Walz first took effect on March 27 and was designed to reduce social interactions by 80% to allow the health care system to build up inventories of intensive care beds, ventilators and PPE. At the time, Minnesota had 398 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with 34 hospitalized and four deaths.

Since then, the number of infections has leapt sixfold to 2,470 cases, including 114 new positive tests announced Monday — the sixth consecutive day that 100 or more confirmed cases were reported by state health officials.

A total of 143 people have died, including nine new deaths reported Monday. Eight of the deaths were residents at long-term care facilities.

Clusters of cases in rural Minnesota, including the JBS pork processing plant in Nobles County, have pushed up the number of confirmed cases outside the metro area.

Since last week, 301 new infections have been detected in rural counties, a 48% jump from a week earlier. Still, nearly two-thirds — 62% — of the state's confirmed cases are in metro-area counties.

The state's hospitals were caring for 237 COVID-19 patients, including 126 in intensive care units.

Supply evaporates

While state emergency inventories have increased when it comes to gloves and face shields, the supply of 3,000 gowns that were available a week ago to distribute to hospitals and others has evaporated.

At M Health Fairview Southdale Hospital, the lack of disposable gowns resulted in a return to reusable gowns that have some nurses concerned. To reuse the gowns, nurses must put them on and take them off inside the patient rooms, then leave them hanging on the walls in those rooms when they leave for reuse later.

If coughing results in any infected particles landing on the gowns, then the clean sides of those garments could get infected and the caregivers could be exposed, said Ericka Helling, a Southdale intensive care nurse who treats COVID-19 patients.

Normally rooms with such infectious patients would be considered "red zones" to never enter without gowns already on, she said. "Now you're walking into a red zone and you're not all the way protected yet, because your protection is hanging in a red zone."

A corporate statement from the health system indicates that a shortage of gowns is an immediate concern.

"We continue to accept bulk donations of PPE including isolation gowns, N95 masks, goggles/face shields, PAPRs and CAPRs," the statement said. "We are also exploring additional conservation methods for isolation gowns, including safe ways to sew gowns that can be laundered."

Late last week the state launched a "homemade mask drive," another sign of the need created by the demand for protective equipment.

Volunteers are asked to deliver homemade masks to local fire departments from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. They will be distributed to local congregate care facilities for residents and workers.

Walz said Monday that the stay-at-home order, which is set to expire May 4 after it was extended on April 8, is more likely to get changed rather than lifted completely.

"We modified from the first stay-at-home order as new information came in and I think our intention would be to try to continue to do that," he said.

Under previous modifications, businesses that were allowed to reopen included landscaping firms, garden centers and, as of this past weekend, golf courses and outdoor shooting ranges.

Some Republican members of the Legislature, and street protesters, have said the stay-at-home restrictions have served their purpose and now are creating a harmful drag on businesses and the economy.

Walz also said he is likely to announce this week a decision on K-12 schools and school sports.

"At this point in time I am not super optimistic about it," he said, specifically talking about the crowd sizes and close contact associated with sporting events.

"We are thinking now long term on schools and what does long-term distance learning look like," Walz said.

Shortly after Walz declared a peacetime emergency in mid-March, schools were closed except to provide child care to essential workers and free or reduced priced meals to those who qualify. Distance learning commenced a few weeks later.