Coronavirus: At-risk Minnesotans told to stay home, large events canceled

Gov. Tim Walz has declared a peacetime state of emergency in Minnesota.
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Jan Malcolm, Minnesota Department of Health

The State of Minnesota has declared a state of emergency and announced a series of measures to limit the spread of coronavirus, which includes canceling or postponing large events across the state.

Gov. Tim Walz, at a briefing Friday lunchtime, said that the state is recommending that gatherings of 250 people or more be canceled or pushed back, including but not limited to concerts, sporting events, conferences and school events.

It is is also calling for the cancelation of small events "that do not allow social distancing of 6 feet per person," which includes events in crowded auditoriums or rooms. The state is also recommending that events where there are high numbers of vulnerable people should be limited to 10 people at most.

What's more, those most at risk of suffering serious complications from COVID-19 are now being advised to stay at home, avoid gatherings and avoid travel. Those highest at risk of coronavirus tend to be those aged over 65, or those with underlying health issues such as heart problems, diabetes, asthma, and COPD.

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said this doesn't mean this is a widespread ban on leaving your home, and shopping should not be affected by these recommendations.

These efforts are designed to make "person-to-person transmission less likely" by limiting contacts between people that are closer than 6 feet, with respiratory illnesses requiring close contact to be passed on, although it can also be transmitted through touching infected surfaces and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

"There is no doubt that these recommendations are going to mean inconvenience and disruptions, for many low risk Minnesotans," Malcolm said.

"We need to remember that for most people who become infected with COVID-19, the illness will be mild," she added. "However, for a smaller percentage of people ... there will be severe illness."

"As the situation evolves, there may be points where specific or broader closures would be ordered."

Concern remains over testing capability

Malcolm said there are no confirmed cases of community transmission in Minnesota yet, but that's difficult to confirm as Minnesota's policy has so far only been to test those with links to international travel, or those who have been exposed to existing COVID-19 patients.

The state on Thursday expressed hope it will eventually be able to test all upper respiratory issues for COVID-19 with Malcolm saying the state wants to expand its capacity so it can test 15,000 people per month.

South Korea, which is reporting a reducing number of new cases, tests 10,000 people per day.

Latest: Confirmed coronavirus count in Minnesota jumps to 14.

Gov. Walz has expressed concern about the availability of testing, saying he has raised this with Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading the federal response to COVID-19.

"Our capacity for testing is limited," Malcolm added, "but it's just a fact that we do not today have the testing capability to test absolutely everyone who might want a test for whatever reason."

"The supply chain and what we're seeing just globally truly is a issue of concern that is a day-to-day challenge for us."

To further help identify and limit the spread, Gov. Walz said his administration will look to remove financial barriers for people who need to be tested, as well as expand paid sick time.

Canceling large gatherings is considered by virus experts to be one of the best ways to limit the spread of the coronavirus, the total number of cases for which has now reached 14 in Minnesota, including two patients hospitalized, one more serious than the other. 

The Department of Health on Thursday said that it was not advising schools shut down at this time, citing the need to keep parents – particularly healthcare workers – at work, as well as noting that children are less at risk from the virus.

It is however saying that sick students and staff should staff at home until they are symptom-free for at least one day, and has also told schools to stop large gatherings and activities.

Here are the state's recommendations to mitigate the spread of COVID-19: 

  • Event organizers cancelling or postponing gatherings with 250 or more people, including concerts, conferences, professional and amateur performances or sporting events.
  • Event organizers cancelling or postponing smaller events (those with less than 250 people) that are held in settings that do not allow social distancing of 6 feet per person.
  • Event organizers limiting attendance to no more than 10 people for events where the majority of participants are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19.
  • People and families at higher risk of severe COVID-19 illness staying at home and avoiding gatherings or other situations of potential exposures, including travel.
  • Employers making telework arrangements for workers whose duties can be done remotely.
  • Employers staggering work schedules and limiting non-essential work travel.
  • Health care facilities and assisted-living facilities more strictly limiting visitors.
  • Faith-based organizations offering video or audio events.
  • Hospitals and other health care facilities implementing triage before entering facilities (for example, parking lot triage, phone triage, and telemedicine to limit unnecessary visits).

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