ROCHESTER, Minn. — Nearly all Minnesota health plans have agreed to continue waiving copayments related to the care of COVID-19 through September 30, said State Commissioner of Health Jan Malcolm at an afternoon press call Tuesday, May 26.

Minnesota health plans had been required to cover testing without cost sharing, but had agreed to waive copays for hospitalization until June 1.

The agreement removes the potential that 570 patients now in the hospital for the illness and hundreds if not thousands more to come, could face thousands of dollars in medical bills on top of lost wages and disability.

The MDH also announced Tuesday it had awarded $97.6 million in health care grants across Minnesota, legislative-appropriated funds to shore up primary care clinics, long term care sites, hospitals, health systems and first responders.

The funds are to pay for additional staffing, PPE and other expenses associated with preparation for the pandemic.

In other news, health officials responded to the report that, at 13% over the past seven days, Minneapolis has the fourth-highest positive COVID-19 case rate in major urban areas across the country, according to the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

The 11% positive case rate reported Tuesday is also among the highest in the country. State health officials said that focused testing has given the state a higher positive rate.

"It is important to know how much our testing has ramped up in recent weeks, and the fact that we are aggressively testing long term care, aggressively testing in the sites of those food processing plants outbreaks," said Malcolm. "We don't believe the cases associated with counties and those plants remain an issue only for those counties, but do in fact contribute to community spread in other communities."

"Up until this weekend our testing has really focused on settings in which we expect to see a high positive rate," said state director of infectious disease Kris Ehresmann, "and many of the long term care facilities where testing has occurred have been in Hennepin County and Minneapolis. Additionally, some of the plants where we have done testing, some of those individuals may go home to the cities on the weekend."

"We may see that number go down, but right now we are sampling in areas we know have high numbers of positive cases," Ehresmann sad. "We're taking it seriously, but we're not surprised or shocked. It makes sense based on how we're seeing cases play out."

Malcolm confirmed that the state does not yet have a date for when restaurants can return to offering indoor seating.

"When the governor talked about next stages beyond June first, he didn't set dates for a reason," Malcolm said. "We're in a pretty volatile phase in the curve with numbers going up and down and hospital capacity seeming to accelerate..

"I know that's not a satisfying answer, and that people would like a certain date, but we would be doing a disservice with a certain date. One thing we don't want to do is say that even if the indicators get worse, it does not matter we are going ahead on X date because we said we would."

Minnesota added 652 new laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19 on 5,839 tests Tuesday. The state now has 21,960 laboratory-confirmed cases, though health officials believe that number to be an undercount.

"We are continuing to do well by the metric of case-doubling time," Malcolm said. "We're looking for nothing shorter than 7 days to doubling, and we are now at 16 days."

The state health department reported 18 deaths, 15 occurring among residents of long term care. One death was recorded each in Chippewa, Clay, Goodhue, Nicollet and Ramsey counties. Three deaths were reported among residents of Dakota County, and 10 deaths were recorded in Hennepin County. The state now has experienced 899 deaths from COVID-19.

To encourage the public to seek testing, health officials recently set up free, walk-in testing stations manned by the Minnesota National Guard. During walk-up testing at six locations Saturday, officials had planned for 6,600 visitors, and took 10,000 samples.

The state collected samples from a large number of asymptomatic people who sought testing as well.

Nearly 10% of the new cases reported Tuesday were in Dakota County, which added 62 cases in a single day. Previous outbreaks in counties home to meat processing have all but vanished, with Nobles County reporting just 9 cases, Kandiyohi 3, Cottonwood 1, Martin 1, and Stearns 8.

Mower County continues its elevated case total with 18 and has now reached 206 cases, a near quadrupling in 10 days. Todd County is also the location of a spike in cases. It added 16 cases Tuesday, and has now reached 220 cases, a nearly 500% jump in 10 days.

The state continues to monitor climbing ICU use. ICU use has jumped significantly in recent days, and is up by 51 beds in two days to reach 258 patients. Health officials said 87 % of ICU beds in the metro were occupied over the weekend, but attributed much of that use to hospitals catching up on delayed services entailing complex recoveries.

"They expect to see this pattern of ICU numbers in coming weeks as a result of the hard work to get deferred cases caught up," Malcolm said, "and then those numbers will normalize." Adding in the additional 312 patients hospitalized with COVID-19, and 570 Minnesotans are using the healthcare system to battle the illness.

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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.