ST. PAUL -- The Minnesota Department of Health reported 19 new cases of coronavirus in the state on Monday, March 16, bringing the total number of cases in the state to 54.

Residents of Blue Earth and Benton counties have tested positive for coronavirus for the first time, and Hennepin County is now home to the highest number of patients in the state. All of the newly identified patients are recovering at home.

At the time of a 1 p.m. press conference on Monday, Infectious Disease Division Director Kris Ehresmann could not say if any of the new cases reflected so-called "community spread" of the illness, a term for the confirmation of persons having contracted the illness without known exposure to individuals at heightened risk of the virus. On Sunday, health officials confirmed three cases of community spread within the state for the first time, citing new cases in Hennepin, Dakota and Ramsey counties.

Of the 19 new cases announced on Monday, interviews of just nine cases had been been conducted in time for the briefing, all of them producing known sources of contact. Ten patients remained to be interviewed, potentially increasing the number attributable to community spread. "People should assume COVID-19 is circulating in their community, and not take a false sense of security," said Ehresmann. "We do recognize that COVID-19 is likely circulating broadly."

Of the new cases, 10 were persons in Hennepin County, 2 each in Dakota and Ramsey counties, with one additional case each in Olmsted, Washington, Blue Earth, Anoka and Benton counties. The ages of the new cases ranged from 21 to 74 years of age.

The state also announced on Monday its adoption of new CDC recommendations that no persons gather in groups larger than 50 in Minnesota, or smaller groups of any size if individuals cannot maintain a 6-foot separation from other persons.

Also on Monday, Mayo Clinic announced the opening of drive-through sample collection centers in Mankato, New Prague and Fairmont. Tests will only be offered to people who have been pre-screened over the phone with a Mayo Clinic Health System provider.

Ehresmann said that while it would be ideal to conduct widespread testing, due to a global shortage of testing materials and a concern for protecting the health system, the health department would begin to prioritize the testing of health care workers and hospitalized patients. She encouraged private labs coming online with means of testing to take up the demand for persons outside of the health care system.

"There is a huge demand for testing in the public, which is understandable," Ehresmann said. "As we're seeing more and more disease activity, we really need to start focusing on the testing of health care workers and hospitalized patients, as that has an impact on bed availability and staffing." Ehresmann added that persons with mild symptoms seeking testing for curiosity's sake is of limited value in terms of patient care.

"People do not need to be tested if they are able to manage their symptoms at home," she said. "Since there is no treatment for mild cases of COVID-19, there is no clinical decision that would be made based on the test result." She reiterated the all persons who feel sick should stay home.

"If you have upper respiratory symptoms we recommend you stay home. If you feel you need to seek medical care you should contact your medical provider, but you do not need to seek medical care just because COVID-19 is circulating."

After the first five days in which the state reported one new case in the state daily, over the past five days the count has arisen by 4, 5, 7, 14 and 19 new cases respectively, although testing has increased during this time as well. In a new daily record, the state and private labs added over 470 tests on Sunday, raising the total number tested within the state to 1,893.

Health officials also reiterated that supplies of blood are diminishing of late and sought to diminish public concern about giving blood. "Donating blood is a safe process and people should not be concerned about giving or receiving blood at this time," Ehresmann said. "Our blood banks are prescreening individuals by checking temperatures and have set up social distancing measures."

Health officials have opened a school and childcare hotline at (651) 297-1304 or (800) 657-3504. The MDH coronavirus hotline took over 1,500 calls yesterday, and can be reached at (651) 201-3920, or (800) 657-3903 toll free. It is now open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.

Globally, cases have topped 169,000 with 6,500 deaths. Within the U.S. there have been 3,774 confirmed cases and 69 deaths. There were 530,000 visits to MDH dedicated coronavirus webpage Sunday.

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