ST. PAUL — State health officials on Friday, March 13, announced that five more individuals tested positive for the coronavirus in Minnesota, bringing the number of cases confirmed in the state to 14.
Department of Health officials at a news conference at the Capitol announced the new cases along with new community mitigation efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the illness that stems from the coronavirus.
Cases have been detected in Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Hennepin, Olmsted, Ramsey, Stearns and Wright Counties, according to the Department of Health's website. And two of those have been hospitalized. In total, 555 people had been tested for the illness as of Friday.
The University of Minnesota in a statement Friday said that one of those confirmed to have the illness was a student at the Twin Cities campus. That individual was isolated off-campus and was being monitored by health professionals.
Each of the cases was related to travel or interaction with someone who has traveled, department of health officials said. But to mitigate further spread, the officials announced they would call on Minnesotans to cancel or postpone events with 250 people or more in attendance and limit gatherings of people vulnerable to the illness to under 10.
"We're trying to slow down and spread out the impact of coronavirus in Minnesota," Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said. "It makes a world of difference if we can slow it down and spread it out."
But Malcolm said the state wouldn't close down schools at this time. She said health officials would encourage "social distancing" measures to reduce the crowding of students where possible. Children or teens with health conditions should ask to take up their schoolwork remotely, if possible, Malcolm said.
Malcolm pointed to global data that shows children are at a lower risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19. And she said closing the schools could force many parents to stay home from critical fields of work and keep students from free and reduced-price meals and other services as a result of closing schools.
"School children are a very very small percentage of the cases globally," Malcolm said.
And Gov. Tim Walz said schools and parents should start planning for contingency plans if the pandemic requires the state to eventually close schools.
The Minnesota State High School League on Friday also announced that it would cancel all prep sports activities. The University of Minnesota this week announced that it would hold all classes online rather than in-person and the colleges and universities of Minnesota State said they would extend spring break a week to avoid the potential spread.
And professional and collegiate athletic associations began announcing the cancellation of major tournaments or said they would hold games without fans in the stadiums.
State officials also advised assisted living facilities and nursing homes to limit visitors and screen those coming into the facilities for symptoms. Officials also advised employers to let employees work from home where possible and allow sick employees to stay home. Faith organizations should consider video or audio services and urge members to put space between themselves and others.
"There's certainly no doubt that these recommendations are going to be an inconvenience and disruptions for many healthy and low-risk Minnesotans," Malcolm said, but the mitigation efforts could prevent putting vulnerable individuals into contact with those carrying the virus.
Shortage of tests strains state health officials
As more sick individuals across the state sought testing to determine whether they had COVID-19, the state's supply of tests began to run short, Malcolm said.
"Our capacity for testing is limited," Malcolm said. "It's just a fact today that we do not have the testing capability to test everyone who might want to test for whatever reason. We've had to be judicious in the testing criteria and in prioritizing those for whom the test results are most urgent."
Malcolm said the state requested from the federal government the capacity to test 15,000 samples a month. Vice President Mike Pence spoke with Walz on Friday and indicated that the federal government would work to get additional tests to Minnesota as quickly as possible.
President Donald Trump on Friday declared a national emergency around the pandemic but said he wouldn't accept responsibility for the limited distribution of COVID-19 tests.
Walz declares peacetime emergency
Walz declared a peacetime emergency in Minnesota, saying it would open up options like calling on the National Guard in the event of continued spread of COVID-19. He likened the move to sign the executive order to opening a toolbox.
"We are going into a heightened state of readiness to prepare Minnesotans," Walz said. "I would ask you all to think of this as opening a toolbox. We are not taking a tool out of it as of today."
The Minnesota Legislature was set to continue meeting next week after announcing late Thursday that it would cancel all hearings and meetings Friday and over the weekend. Legislative leaders walked back access to the House chamber on Thursday and House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, on Friday told lawmakers that there would be efforts taken there to put in place community mitigation protocols.
Several professional groups this week announced that they would suspend their planned rally days at the Capitol this year to avoid the potential transmission of COVID-19.
Legislative leaders encouraged Minnesotans to remain engaged with the Legislature but said sick individuals should stay home and relay comments to lawmakers via telephone or email.
"The people deserve to have their voice heard," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said, "we are however encouraging people to make their voice heard via phone calls, emails and smaller groups."
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