ST. PAUL — Minnesota is poised to make a $7 million purchase to secure a warehouse facility to temporarily house the remains of those who die of COVID-19.
Gov. Tim Walz and state health and emergency response officials on Friday, May 8, said they were in negotiations to secure the facility using funds from the state's COVID-19 response account. They declined to disclose where the facility was housed but said the acquisition was aimed at preventing the need for mass graves or other makeshift morgue facilities as other countries have had to do as COVID-19 deaths increased.
The Minnesota Department of Health on Friday reported the number of test-confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state climbed to 10,088 and deaths from the illness and its complications reached 534. Twenty-five of the 26 people whose deaths were reported Friday resided in long-term care facilities.
In total, 101,270 have been tested for the illness and 473 remained in the hospital Friday with 198 in intensive care. Another 5,697 had been able to leave isolation after testing positive for COVID-19.
With deaths from the disease expected to climb as the state approaches the peak in cases, state officials said they were preparing a facility to store the remains of Minnesotans who succumb to the illness and its complications.
Social distancing requirements in the state have delayed funeral services, in some places filling up funeral home and hospital morgue capacity, Homeland Security and Emergency Management Director Joe Kelly said. And the state sought to get ahead of a situation where human remains would exceed existing capacity.
"We need to have a capability, we need to have a plan for a large number of deaths," Kelly told reporters. "We want to provide a facility where we can properly, safely and with the appropriate dignity and respect that we think we owe our fellow Minnesotans and their families to temporarily store them until their families are ready to lay them to final rest."
The facility was paid for through the state's COVID-19 response fund and on Friday, Walz asked lawmakers to top off funding to the account and to extend the fund's lifespan so he could continue making emergency purchases to respond to the pandemic. Lawmakers in March approved the creation of the fund and put in $200 million to be spent on COVID-19 response. There was $65 million remaining in the fund as of Friday and it was set to return to the state's general fund if legislators didn't act before next week.
"What we're asking of them is to take a look at this as being a great tool that we've been able to work together on, it made our response move faster and what we really need them to do is to ... move the expiration date," Walz said. "I would just hope they could find a compromise by Monday to continue that on."
Republican lawmakers have asked more oversight in how the dollars get spent. Any appropriation above $1 million needs clearance from a panel of legislative leaders.
Pandemic has outsized impact on communities of color
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has hit Native Americans and people of color in Minnesota disproportionately hard, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said. And the state was working to address living and work conditions and other factors that could put those communities at additional risk.
"We're seeing these inequities emerging in our COVID-19 data," Malcolm said. "We know that black and Hispanic Minnesotans are disproportionately represented in the total number of cases and hospitalizations compared to their population in the state."
Black Minnesotans comprise 6.6% of the state's population but have made up 17% of all test-confirmed COVID-19 cases. Hispanic people make up 5.5% of the state's population and almost 14% of the state's confirmed COVID-19 cases.
And around one in four Native Americans and about one in three black Minnesotans experiencing homelessness in the state tested positive for COVID-19.
“This public health crisis is exposing and exacerbating the racial, economic and educational inequities that have been here all along,” Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan said. "The data is really clear; we cannot allow these communities to remain invisible as we consider our response to the recovery effort."
Flanagan said the state created an advisory committee to help bolster response to support pandemic response among Native American communities and communities of color, as well as among immigrant and refugee communities.
Supply of Remdesivir coming to Minnesota
A drug in clinical trials to treat COVID-19 is soon to be available for use in Minnesota, Malcolm said. Gilead, the manufacturer of Remdesivir, donated supplies of the drug to the federal Department of Health, Malcolm said, and federal officials are working to distribute the drug to state departments of health.
And part of that supply is set to come to Minnesota, Malcolm said. The drug will be distributed across the state and health systems. Remdesivir has been shown to accelerate the recovery of severe cases of the disease by 30%.
"This is the first shipment, we hope there will be more, but with the processes we have in place, in contact with infectious disease physicians and ethicists, we are developing criteria for how we will distribute that Remdesivir around our health care system with an eye to maximize the number of lives that we can impact," Malcolm said.
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Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 hotline: 651-201-3920.
COVID-19 discrimination hotline: 833-454-0148
Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 website: Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) website.