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Live updates: Walz continues to 'lean into' COVID-19 testing for Minnesota

Here are the latest updates on the fight to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Wednesday, April 15

8:30 p.m.

According to a press release put out by the office of Gov. Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, Minnesota received roughly $1 billion in coronavirus relief from the federal government on Wednesday, as part of the CARES Act. 

The funds will serve to offset the economic toll the COVID-19 pandemic is having on the state.

The governor said, “the state is providing critical funding to hospitals, public health departments, and first responders as we work together to keep Minnesotans safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic. This critical federal funding will help support Minnesota’s state and local governments as we continue our efforts to combat the spread of the virus in Minnesota.”

The release says the state is expected to receive a total of $2.187 billion in coronavirus relief through the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund, with some of that funding going to "local units of government."

Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans said, “This is an important first step from the federal government as Minnesota responds to COVID-19 in a fiscally responsible manner.”

Minnesota can expect to see the remaining balance of payments allocated to the state by no later than April 24, 2020, according to the release.

5:30 p.m.

The Office of Governor Tim Walz and Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan announced the signing of a new COVID-19 relief package aimed at expanding COVID-19-related healthcare coverage for both insured and uninsured Minnesotans.

The governor's office says the package enables those with Medicaid and MinnesotaCare to receive care at temporary sites once they are set up.

The legislation grants full eligibility for uninsured Minnesotans to be covered for COVID-19 testing, and a 100% federal reimbursement will be offered for the associated clinic visit. 

Describing the bipartisan effort, Governor Walz said, “Our team partnered with legislators on both sides of the aisle in putting together this legislation to help Minnesotans weather COVID-19. We will continue working with our local, state, and federal partners to ensure Minnesotans have the support they need during this pandemic.”

According to the press release, The bill (HF 4556) represents the fourth legislative relief package passed and signed in the month of April.

“This legislation will help Minnesotans with and without insurance afford COVID-19 testing and care, streamline telemedicine, and extend administrative deadlines to provide Minnesotans with more flexibility,” said Flanagan.  

2 p.m.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz continues to emphasize a "ramping up" of testing as the best way to get people back to work amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Walz maintained on his daily COVID-19 update call Wednesday that Minnesota will need to be testing at a rate of 5,000 per day, or 35,000 to 40,000 per week, before the state can safely "reopen" in a more substantial way.

Both the Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota have said that they are able to help with this tall order, as they are testing in the thousands already and plan to expand. But their capacity is being used nationally, and will need to increase even further to provide that level of testing to Minnesota specifically.

"I believe Minnesota can be the one example of where this can work," Walz said. "I am going to push my team, I am going to push these researchers, I am going to push Mayo Clinic to lean into this."

There are still questions about the accuracy of serology tests, which measure antibodies to show whether a person has already had COVID-19. Walz said that these types of blood tests will be one of the main avenues to figuring out who may be able to go back to work and who may have some immunity.

He and Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) Infectious Disease Director Kris Ehresmann acknowledged that the science in this area is new, and they don't know for certain that someone who has had the coronavirus previously would have immunity, or how long that immunity would last.

RELATED: Mayo Clinic, U of M say they can help achieve testing 'moonshot'

Walz said some of the tests on the market are "just plain worthless." But there is a "good probability that there will be some immunity," he said, and Minnesota will utilize the more reliable tests including those from Mayo Clinic and the U of M.

"This is not the panacea, this is not the easy fix," he said, but "it is promising."

Although testing capabilities by Mayo and the U of M are increasing, MDH Commissioner Jan Malcolm said there are still challenges on the collection end where providers take samples for tests. The issues are related to availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) for those health care workers, and staff capacity to take those samples.

The benefit to serology tests, though, is that they are blood tests that do not require swabs, which are in very short supply globally. Ehresmann said Minnesota is in "a much better place" with serology test capability for that reason.

Walz said that in terms of Minnesota's supply of PPE, he is "feeling more confident" than he was a week ago.

"I think there's reasons to think that we are building toward the capacity that we need," He said. "But there's still an unknown."

“We cannot lose all that we’ve gained," Walz said. "We have put this state in a position where we’re saving lives and we can do it as well as anybody, and we want to prove that.”

Malcolm said Wednesday that MDH is comfortable enough with its diagnostic testing capacity that they can begin to test more people beyond health care workers, hospitalized patients and people in congregate care. They've added police and other first responders to the priority list already.

"We've had to restrict the list more than we would have wanted at many points and we're now at the place where we are, we believe it's important to and we're able to, because of this added capacity that we've talked about coming online just recently, we're able to expand that priority list now," Malcolm said.

Ehresmann said they also want to expand serology testing to health care workers and essential workers, along with people at the highest risk for severe illness from COVID-19.

RELATED: Mayo Clinic ramps up serology testing in COVID-19 fight

RELATED: ‘Going full-on MacGyver’ – U of M doctor creates makeshift ventilators to battle COVID-19

Walz congratulated the University of Minnesota on receiving FDA approval for a low-cost ventilator. It's the first of its kind to be authorized, Walz said, and plans will be published online for others to follow.

Malcolm said of the eight new deaths reported Wednesday from COVID-19, all were people in long-term care facilities.

Malcolm said health officials are seeing "early indications" that infection control measures being put into place in these facilities are having a positive impact.

Half of the facilities with confirmed cases have only one case, she said, which indicates a limited spread. "It's important to take a moment to acknowledge the hard work of those facilities ... and to thank them for all the work they are doing to protect our loved ones," Malcolm said.

Malcolm said with regard to families wanting to pull residents out of these facilities, there are health risks inherent in moving people back and forth.

"In many respects they are the safest environment for our loved ones," she said.

She said they believe in general these are "good environments for our seniors," and MDH is urging families to have conversations with their facilities about their concerns.

RELATED: Here are the coronavirus cases confirmed in MN, WI

Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) Commissioner Steve Grove said his department plans to have unemployment insurance for the self-employed and independent contractors up and running by the end of April.

DEED is asking those workers to apply now, even though they'll be denied under current eligibility rules. Then when officials have the system set up to issue unemployment payments to this new category of applicants, they'll already be in the system and DEED will reach out to them proactively.

Gov. Walz also took a moment Wednesday to celebrate the passage of the Alec Smith Insulin Affordability Act.

Walz signed the act into law Wednesday after it was passed by both the Minnesota House and Senate.

"No Minnesotan should have to choose between food, rent, and a drug that they need to survive," Walz said.

11 a.m. 

Less than 24 hours after state lawmakers moved to help Minnesotans dealing with the coronavirus come daily numbers from the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) that underline a far more personal impact from the virus.

MDH says 1,809 Minnesotans have tested positive for COVID-19, an increase of 114 from Tuesday. The virus has now claimed 87 lives, up eight from 79 yesterday. Hospitals are currently treating 197 patients, with 93 in the ICU. Health officials say 445 coronavirus patients have been hospitalized since MDH began tracking the pandemic in late January. 

In a bit of good news, 940 people who contracted COVID-19 no longer require hospitalization and are recovering, more than 50 percent of all those who have tested positive.

MDH statistics indicate that more than 40,000 Minnesotans have been tested for the coronavirus, and that number will increase dramatically if Gov. Tim Walz and state health officials have their way. Walz says in order for him to "reopen" Minnesota for business the state will need the capacity to test 5,000 Minnesotans for COVID-19 or its antibodies each day.  

A breakdown of the more than 1,800 confirmed coronavirus cases shows 35% of those testing positive are between the ages of 20 and 44, with 34% between 45 and 64, and 29% over the age of 65. Hennepin County has the most COVID-19 cases with 651. Ramsey County has reported 164, Olmsted 153 and Dakota 103. 

Tuesday, April 14

5 p.m.

The Minnesota Legislature has approved a COVID-19 relief bill, the fourth such measure approved by the state in recent weeks.

The House passed the package 103-31 and sent it to the Senate, which approved it 64-3 and forwarded it to Gov, Tim Walz for his signature.

The bill contains “mostly policy tweaks that we need in order for Minnesotans to live their lives during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Democratic House Speaker Melissa Hortman told reporters before the vote. But she highlighted a provision that allows couples to obtain marriage licenses online or by mail rather than in person during the public health crisis.

Other highlights include provisions that will: make it easier for health care providers to use telemedicine; cover some testing costs for the uninsured; extend various deadlines and expiration dates, including for mediation of disputes between farmers and creditors; codify temporary rules under which lawmakers can vote remotely and state agencies can exercise emergency powers and; make it easier for government bodies to meet remotely while complying with open meeting laws.

The Legislature earlier approved bills providing an initial $21 million for the Minnesota Department of Health, and $200 million for health care providers. A third bill ensures that first responders, health care workers and child care workers who serve the families of those front-line employees qualify for workers compensation if they catch COVID-19.

Lawmakers approved a long-awaited insulin affordability bill as well as additional relief for coronavirus on Tuesday.

2 p.m.

Governor Tim Walz clarified that the Peacetime Emergency order is different from the Stay at Home order. The extension to the Peacetime Emergency to May 13 does not affect the Stay at Home order, which is currently set to expire May 4. 

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said that Monday was a low-volume testing day, which is why there weren't many more new cases Tuesday. However, there were nine deaths Monday, bringing the total to 79. There's a total of 1,695 positive cases in the state.

Emergency Management Director Joe Kelly said he will be meeting with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to discuss plans it can provide in setting up alternative care sites to help deal with any surge in COVID-19 cases.

Commissioner of Department of Employment and Economic Development Steve Grove said that more than 450,000 Minnesotans have applied for unemployment insurance in the past month, which is more than double the total from all of 2019.

People who are self-employed or are contractors should apply for benefits now even though they will be denied at the moment. This is because their information will be in the system, which will allow them to received the benefits faster once this category of workers is able to receive benefits, which Grove said should be by the end of this month.

Walz said the state is going full speed to expand testing to unprecedented levels. Walz said he is optimistic the state will be able to ramp up testing in the early short run. He also expressed hopes to move into the type of testing that would show who has already had the virus and is immune. 

Malcolm said different health institutions are trying to develop different testing methods in order to avoid material shortages. 

Fifty-seven of the 79 deaths in the state due to the virus have been individuals who were in long-term care, Infectious Disease Director Kris Ehresmann said. Ninety eight point five percent of the people who have died due to the virus have underlying or pre-existing health conditions, Ehresmann added.

11 a.m.

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) reported 45 new lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state on Tuesday, and nine additional deaths related to the virus.

There are now 1,695 total positive cases, and 79 deaths. Of the people who have tested positive, 909 no longer require isolation.

In total, 405 people have been hospitalized, and 177 of them are still currently in the hospital. Seventy-five of those people are in the ICU.

The number of people who have been tested in Minnesota since late January is inching closer to 40,000. As of Tuesday's update, it stands at 39,241. Gov. Tim Walz said Monday that he believes the state will need to be testing more like 40,000 people per week before it will be possible to fully reopen the economy.

RELATED: Live updates: Walz says testing is key to reopening economy

The median age of all cases is 52 years old, and 65 for hospitalized cases and ICU patients. The median age of people who have died is 87. The youngest person to test positive was 4 weeks old, according to MDH, and the oldest was 104.

Hennepin County has the most cases at 588, and 40 deaths. Ramsey County has 153 cases and seven deaths, and Olmsted has 147 cases and two deaths. Dakota County has passed the 100-case mark with 103, and has reported five deaths.

Researchers and public health officials in Minnesota have estimated that for every one lab-confirmed case, there are 100 more that have not been officially detected.

RELATED: US clears first saliva test to help diagnose COVID-19

RELATED: Stillwater neurologist makes cloth masks for healthcare workers

KARE 11’s coverage of the coronavirus is rooted in Facts, not Fear. Visit kare11.com/coronavirus for comprehensive coverage, find out what you need to know about the Midwest specifically, learn more about the symptoms, and see what companies in Minnesota are hiring. Have a question? Text it to us at 763-797-7215. And get the latest coronavirus updates sent right to your inbox every morning. Subscribe to the KARE 11 Sunrise newsletter here. Help local families in need: www.kare11.com/give11

The state of Minnesota has set up a hotline for general questions about coronavirus at 651-201-3920 or 1-800-657-3903, available 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. There is also a data portal online at mn.gov/covid19.

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