ST. PAUL — State health officials released new figures on Sunday, March 22, showing 32 new cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. It was the highest one-day jump since the 26 new cases reported Friday, bringing the new total statewide to 169, with one death.

Health officials believe the number is an undercount, and that coronavirus is circulating widely in the state.

"We are seeing more household clusters, and an increase in individuals whose source of exposure is community transmission," said Minnesota Department of Health Infectious Disease Division Director Kris Ehresmann during the health department's daily briefing on Sunday.

Ehresmann also offered the first of what is likely to become on ongoing series of hospital-sparing directives for the public as health officials begin the work of relieving all unnecessary use of the health care system to protect health care workers from exposure.

In this case, the day's message was to stay out of emergency rooms for tooth pain.

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"We're hearing that because of the executive order that canceled elective procedures," Ehresmann said of Gov. Tim Walz's order announced on Thursday, "many people are going to the emergency room if they have a dental emergency. If you are experiencing a dental emergency, please contact your dentist. We're asking dentists to provide emergency dental care as is needed based on their clinical judgment."

Ehresmann also made an appeal for those who are feeling well to donate blood. The state's blood banks are experiencing critical shortages, possibly a reflection of a misconception that giving blood is somehow not safe in the age of coronavirus, something health officials say is patently false.

"Give blood if you are without symptoms and can donate blood," Ehresmann said. "Please contact your local blood center, because they need donations."

The virus continues to fill in those counties on the map that had yet to record a case. For the first time on Sunday, residents of LeSueur and Cass counties were found to have the virus, continuing its outward expansion into rural Minnesota, with Clay County adding a second case as well. Two counties on the southern border of the state, Martin and Mower, now have six or more cases.

In all, the health department tested samples from 590 residents on Saturday, bringing the total tested by the state to 4,680. Ehresmann thanked Mayo Clinic for absorbing their backlog of 800 unprocessed specimens.

"Mayo reached out and we have shared materials back and forth," Ehresmann said.

While Mayo Clinic Laboratories is said to be able to process as many as 4,000 coronavirus tests daily, the state does not know how many tests are conducted privately. Mayo Clinic does not routinely release those numbers, nor are the figures accessible to Minnesota press. Mayo Clinic communications on Sunday implemented a new media policy limiting statewide media to scheduled, Mayo-chosen speakers available in 10-minute increments only, adding "we likely will have to decline other interview requests for the near term."

Ehresmann deflected a question raising the possibility that the health department utilize the presumably tenfold greater testing capacity at Mayo as a means of lifting its current restriction on testing, by forwarding its added testing burden to Mayo Clinic.

"The Minnesota Department of Health is continuing to prioritize our testing until we are assured of a stable supply of the reagents and there are multiple different platforms with different testing supplies needed," Ehresmann said, referring to the chemical ingredients needed to conduct a lab test. "As more platforms come on board that are using different supplies, that may change things. Certainly people can use those other laboratories, but as the lead public health agency in the state, we are continuing to focus on the highest-risk individuals."

It's not clear that Mayo Clinic Laboratories is constrained by the reagent shortages cited by state health officials. According to Dr. Bobbi Pritt of Mayo Clinic Laboratories, via press communications received before the restricting on Sunday of state media access to the clinic, "by using two different tests we are able to significantly increase the number of tests that we perform each day — up to several thousand daily. This also allows for flexibility in testing options in case the reagents (ingredients) for one test are no longer available due to national shortages."

Seventeen Minnesotans have been hospitalized with the virus so far. Seven have been released, with 10 currently hospitalized, five of whom are in critical condition. The rising numbers of patients in critical condition statewide for coronavirus continues to raise the question of the state's ventilator capacity.

Ehresmann declined to answer how many ventilators are accessible with the state, saying, "We are not providing information on the number of ventilators. There is a statewide health care coordinating center that is made up of the hospitals, the clinics, the health systems, so they are looking at coordinating the state's need for personal protective equipment and ventilators. They will be the ones determining that. We are in the process of collecting information on ventilators, but that's not something that were putting out publicly."

"I believe that that in some ways is considered proprietary," she later added.

Ehresmann said that just because Minnesota manufacturers were raising their production of needed equipment did not mean any new locally made materials would or should go preferentially to Minnesotans.

The CDC COVID-19 symptom checklist is here.

MDH COVID-19 hotline: (651) 201-3920.

School and childcare hotline: (651) 297-1304 or (800) 657-3504.

MDH COVID-19 website: Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) website.

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