Minnesota recorded its highest daily death toll from COVID-19 on Sunday just as the state is preparing to loosen some workplace restrictions to allow tens of thousands of residents to return to work.
The state recorded 28 new deaths from COVID-19 on Sunday, marking the first time that the state has averaged more than one fatality linked to the illness per hour. The state also saw its youngest confirmed victim, a person in their 40s.
"This is a heartbreaking loss for our state and my thoughts are with each grieving family," Gov. Tim Walz tweeted Sunday. "This won't be the last hard day, but if we continue to look out for each other and stay home we can help protect our neighbors and loved ones."
Minnesota's mortality milestone comes as the United States is speeding toward 1 million confirmed COVID-19 cases nationwide. Just over 100,000 people in the U.S. have fully recovered from the illness, while nearly 50,000 have died.
Officials at the White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recommended reopening shuttered state economies only after a state's COVID-19 case count declines over 14 days.
Minnesota is moving ahead with an initial loosening of workplace restrictions on Monday, allowing as many as 100,000 in manufacturing and office work to return to their jobs, joining the 2.6 million Minnesotans who are already working. Meanwhile, residents are waiting to see whether Walz is going to extend or modify the statewide stay-at-home order that is set to expire May 4.
The 28 new deaths reported Sunday included the state's youngest person yet to die of a confirmed case of COVID-19.
State Health Department officials said the person in their 40s had underlying health problems and lived in an assisted-living facility in Hennepin County. As of Sunday, the state's COVID-19 mortality statistics show people between the ages of 44 and 109 have died. (Investigators are still examining the death of a 38-year-old man from Cambridge who had asthma.)
All told, 272 people have died in Minnesota after getting COVID-19. The 28 latest deaths happened between 4 p.m. Friday and 4 p.m. Saturday and were included in the state's daily report Sunday morning.
In general, COVID-19 is thought to pose greater health risks for the elderly, especially those living in group settings. The median age of people who have died from COVID-19 in Minnesota is 83, while the median age of confirmed cases is 52. At least three-quarters of people who have died with COVID-19 in Minnesota were in group-living facilities.
COVID-19 is an illness caused by a new kind of coronavirus first identified in China late last year. The virus, which spreads through droplets of water on the breath of those infected, has been difficult to diagnose and track because of the slow pace of reliable testing. That means the confirmed daily case counts reported around the nation likely underrepresent the actual number.
Since March 6, Minnesota has confirmed 3,602 cases of COVID-19, including 156 new diagnoses on Sunday. Of those cases, 1,774 people — slightly less than half of the total — have fully recovered and no longer need to remain in isolation. Just under 59,000 COVID-19 tests have been completed in Minnesota.
Researchers are racing to find a vaccine to prevent the virus or new ways to help infected people fight it.
John Bessler, husband of U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., revealed Sunday that he participated in a federally sponsored experimental treatment program for COVID-19. Bessler, who was briefly hospitalized with the virus in March, became the seventh person who had recovered from COVID-19 to donate plasma as part of the Mayo Clinic's program.
Patients in the study receive an infusion of antibody-rich plasma from people who have recovered from COVID-19.
"We are working with physicians and hospitals across the nation to determine if antibody-rich plasma donated by patients who have recovered from COVID-19 can help fight the virus in patients with active COVID-19 disease," Dr. Michael J. Joyner, principal investigator of the Expanded Access Program for Convalescent Plasma, said in a statement.
Meat-processing plants have proved to be hot spots of infection, as have congregate-living facilities like nursing homes.
In Nobles County, widespread testing for COVID-19 has led to 352 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and one confirmed death. The sprawling JBS USA pork-processing plant in Worthington closed indefinitely last week amid a wave of COVID-19 cases among workers.
Hormel Foods said Friday that it was indefinitely closing two Jennie-O Turkey Store plants in Willmar after 14 workers tested positive for COVID-19. Kandiyohi County, where the plants are located, had 35 confirmed cases as of Sunday, a sharp increase from one week earlier when the county had two confirmed cases.
Just across the state border, the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Sioux Falls became a hot spot with more than 700 confirmed COVID-19 cases. An investigation by BuzzFeed News documented missteps by the company, including posting early health notices only in English, and waiting until 238 workers had confirmed cases before pausing operations to clean the entire plant.
Meanwhile, group-living facilities in Minnesota have become hot spots for active cases, from Duluth to New Hope to Winona.
Minnesota has more than 100 investigators doing intensive contact-tracing work to locate and isolate those who have been exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19, and the state may need to add hundreds more as testing and confirmed cases ramp up in coming weeks.
Walz has issued 45 executive orders related to COVID-19 that have dramatically reshaped the daily lives of Minnesotans, closing schools, canceling medical procedures, ordering work from home and shuttering thousands of public spaces across the state.
But while the coronavirus is highly communicable, it doesn't appear to be contagious from more than 6 feet away. That has led to growing pressure to reopen public spaces where people or groups can remain 6 feet apart.
Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka appeared in a video on Twitter on Sunday saying he wants churches to reopen once there is a plan for that to happen safely. The East Gull Lake Republican said many pastors in Minnesota are ready to restart Sunday services, understanding that worshipers need 6 feet of social distancing and may not be able to touch anything during the service.
"If you can congregate at a big box store safely on a Sunday, you should be able to attend your place of worship," the Minnesota Senate Republicans said in a tweet that contained Gazelka's statement on reopening churches.
Last Thursday, Walz published an illustration of a dial that showed places of worship tend to pose greater risk of transmission than small social settings like family gatherings, but less risk than sporting venues. As the state "turns the dial" to lessen social restrictions over time, the least-risky social settings will be the first to reopen, while the most unpredictable settings will take the longest.
Although at least 80% of people who get the virus have only mild symptoms, as many as 5% may go on to require critical care in a hospital, including intubation for a mechanical ventilator. Those statistics are rough averages that are difficult to refine without better estimates of the actual number of people who have gotten COVID-19.
As of Sunday, there were 170 people in regular hospital beds with COVID-19 and another 115 receiving intensive care in hospitals.
Joe Carlson • 612-673-4779