ROCHESTER, Minn. — State health officials conceded on Monday, Sept. 21, that a visit by President Donald Trump to Bemidji on Friday, Sept. 18, ignored state requirements to limit attendance to outdoor events to 250 persons, guidance that Gov. Tim Walz had outlined in a public letter early last week.
Estimates placed the actual number in Bemidji to see Trump at 2,000, and there appeared to have been no formal social distancing.
While restaurants and bars that ignore crowd limit guidance have faced the risk of fines and other penalties, health officials during a media call Monday would not comment on any repercussions for the organizers of the Trump rally, or the airfield that hosted the event.
"It does not appear that they were very focused on the guidance" said State Commissioner of Health Jan Malcolm. "I can't comment today on any follow-up activities. I've not been involved in any of those conversations in the last couple of days, but I will ask if any of my colleagues have any information."
State health officials on Monday, also announced that they will open the state's first temporary COVID-19 PCR saliva testing site Wednesday, Sept. 23, at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.
"The testing site is the first of a planned 10 semi-permanent sites across the state," deputy health commissioner Dan Huff said. "They are open to all Minnesotans who believe that they need COVID test."
Health officials also addressed guidance the CDC had briefly posted that COVID-19 can be transmitted through breath that can hang in the air, much like measles. The CDC later withdrew that position. The CDC has reversed course before: A few weeks ago, the CDC briefly stated that asymptomatic people who have been exposed to the virus should be tested, then removed that advice under pressure from the White House. It recently reinstated that advice.
"We know that aerosolization can play a role in transmission, so we've been attentive to that," said state director of infectious disease Kris Ehresmann. "The challenge with COVID is that we're continually learning new things. For the public that's very frustrating."
Finally, health officials addressed reports that a carefully identified COVID-19 survey team was confronted last week by armed residents.
"I'm sorry to say that did happen, and it was very much a concern to us," Malcolm said.
"They were confronted by a group of three men, one of whom was armed," Huff said. "Our team responded appropriately — they left the situation as quick as they could — and they did report the incident to the Department of Public Safety, which is working with local law enforcement."
A day after setting a one-day record for new cases at 1,318, the state of Minnesota reported 937 cases of COVID-19 on Monday. The new cases bring the state's laboratory-confirmed case count to 90,942.
The new cases include 87 cases in Dakota County, 32 cases in Olmsted County, 40 cases in Stearns County, and 43 cases in St. Louis County.
Ehresmann said MDH epidemiologists have encountered "an apparent reluctance by COVID-19-positive adults or parents of COVID-positive children to share key information with public health investigation callers." Ehresmann added that "this may be due to people seeking to avoid the limitations that go with COVID-positive people, or those with a risk of exposure."
'While this may be tempting in the short-term," Ehresmann said, "it actually makes it hard for all Minnesotans, because it boosts the risk of COVID spreading to others in your schools, athletic teams, churches workplaces, and some of those people might be at high risk of complications."
Ehresmann said the result of failing to cooperate with investigators will be "prolonged problems in their community, schools and social circles."
Four more Minnesotans were reported to have died of the virus. One death each was reported in Beltrami, Douglas, Mower and Renville counties. Two of the deceased were residents of long-term care.
To date, 1,969 Minnesotans have died of the virus, and that total is likely to reach 2,000 by the first of October.
The state reported an additional 16,938 tests for the day.
There are currently 256 residents hospitalized with the virus, 128 in an ICU setting.
Correction: Health officials Monday would not comment on any repercussions for the organizers of the Trump rally. The headline for this story was updated at 5 p.m. Sept. 22 to make that clear. We regret the error.
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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.