ST. PAUL — Health officials reported an additional four cases of coronavirus in the state on Thursday, March 12, bringing the statewide count to nine.

They also initiated a recommendation that schools begin so-called "social distancing" measures to reduce crowding of students, though state officials specifically refrained from calling for school closures at this time.

The new cases were identified in Ramsey, Dakota, Hennepin and Stearns counties. All are recovering at home and are believed to have had a recent history of international or domestic travel to affected locations or direct exposure to a person known to have COVID-19.

"None of these cases would be related to community spread," said Minnesota Department of Health Infectious Disease Director Kris Ehresmann in a conference call Thursday with reporters.

Health officials framed their new advice to schools as the beginning of a period in which they would increasingly direct their attention toward open-ended mitigation measures affecting the daily lives of healthy persons in order to better protect the sick.

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"The Minnesota Department of Health is not recommending school closure at this point in time," Ehresmann said, citing global data showing children are at lowered risk of contracting the virus, only 2% of overall cases globally. Other reasons included the concern for "unintended consequences" of school closure, including continuity of education, access to nutrition and other services, and that closure would require parents needed for jobs in health care to stay home.

"Many parents are health care providers, so closing schools also has an impact on our health care system."

The Health Department said its recommendation for social distancing measures centered on any activity that clusters children.

"We're asking schools to implement what is referred to as social distancing," said Ehresmann, "a term we've used that simply means staying far away from other people. . . . Our goal is to minimize the number of times that people are closer than 6 feet. Because of that, we're asking schools to reduce the frequency of large gatherings."

Ehresmann cited the need for schools to limit the number of attendees in assemblies, "to alter schedules to reduce mixing," by staggering recess if possible, or and to stagger entry and dismissal times. While not calling for their cancellation, she said health officials are "asking that schools limit inter-school interactions."

Ehresmann added that if feasible, schools should consider regular checks of temperature of students staff and visitors, and that temporary closings of schools may be needed if a student or staff tested positive for the virus

"We're moving in to a phase where people's personal lives will likely be impacted," she said. "Up until now, we've focused on ill people staying home. That is still our message, if you're sick, you need to stay home. However, moving into community mitigation means we'll be making decisions that will affect all of our lives, even if we are healthy . . . and these could last for a while."

Mayo test

Also on Thursday, Mayo Clinic announced that it has developed a test for coronavirus.

Mayo said that the test has been fully validated and that data from this test will be submitted to the Food and Drug Administration for review and emergency use authorization.

"This test should help ease some of the burden that is currently being felt at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state public health laboratories," says Dr. William Morice II, president of Mayo Clinic Laboratories. "We are doing everything we can to help relieve the burden during this time to provide answers for patients here in Rochester and around the world."

All positive samples will be sent to the Minnesota Department of Health or CDC for appropriate follow-up testing and confirmation. Then test results will be communicated with public health officials, per their respective guidelines.

Globally, the outbreak now stands at 128,000 cases and more than 4,700 deaths. Within the U.S., there are 1,323 confirmed cases and 38 deaths. The Health Department has tested 316 Minnesotans so far, including 105 on Wednesday. The Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 page was visited 116,000 times on Wednesday, and the hotline received 881 calls.

The COVID-19 Hotline can be reached at 651-201-3920 Monday - Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

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