ST. PAUL -- The Minnesota Department of Health announced Sunday, March 15, that three of the 14 new cases of coronavirus in the state had no known source of transmission, marking the first instances of "community transmission" of the illness known as COVID-19.

The new state total now rests at 35. The health department tested over 500 samples on Saturday, bringing the total number of persons tested to 1,422.

The new cases in which there was no known source of connection to a person with the illness were identified in Ramsey, Hennepin and Dakota counties. The remaining new cases were identified in Olmsted, Waseca and Washington counties.

The bulk of the new cases were identified in Hennepin County, which had six, and Ramsey County, which had four. Olmsted, Waseca, Washington and Dakota Counties all had single cases. Only one of the new cases have been hospitalized.

Community transmission has been noted as an approaching benchmark of the heightened urgency of community mitigation efforts to slow the spread of the illness,

"They had not travelled outside of the state, and they did not have exposure with people they could identify who had travelled outside of the state, or a known case of COVID-19," said Kris Ehresmann, infectious disease division director, during a press conference on Sunday afternoon. "That indicated to us that their exposure was here in Minnesota, and suggests that we have community transmission happening . . . I will add that we have not had any clusters of the illness."

"It does matter how distributed the case count now is within Minnesota," state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said at an earlier Sunday press conference with Gov. Tim Walz. "It is encouraging that there are not major clusters anywhere right now. It is still spread out. We've had very few severe enough for hospitalization. It's when we start to see significant number that can't be explained that we start to say it is community spread of a significant nature."

"For a number of them," Ehresmann said, "they were pretty surprised that they were positive actually . . . These were people who were out in the community but they did not have any of the types of exposures that we had expected or were seeing in the previous cases."

Ehresmann said the individuals were not asymptomatic, and that the mild symptoms of the illness are nonetheless significant.

"It's not so mild that you didn't know it happened," she said. "You had fever and upper respiratory symptoms. It's worse than a minor cold, but not so bad that you are someone who would need oxygen . . . mild does not mean insignificant." She encouraged doctors to rule out the flu before recommending a coronavirus test.

Health officials stressed people who are sick should stay home, "no matter what your job is," Ehresmann, and those older than 70, and people with underlying health conditions, should stay home and avoid gatherings or situations of potential exposure, including travel.

"When you're on a plane, it's a lot cozier than it used to be," Ehresmann said. "In an airport you literally have the opportunity to act globally in a local location -- that's a completely different place than running to the grocery store to pick up more milk."

The age range of the new cases was diverse, ranging from residents as young as 20 to as old as 94. It included six individuals in their 20s, two in their 30s, two in their 40s, three in their 50s and one person in their 90s. At least a third of the Minnesota cases are people in their 30s or younger.

"We have a wide range of ages in terms of the cases," Ehresmann said. "Certainly I think that what we saw in terms of the experience in China and elsewhere was that persons 20 and younger are really the lowest risk. But absolutely, anyone is at risk for contracting COVID-19. So our recommendations are if you're in your 20s and 30s and feeling invincible, you're not.

"It's something we've been talking about for a number of days now," Ehresmann said. "We knew we we're going to have community transmission then, and our goal then and now continues to be to slow down the spread of this disease so our healthcare system and infrastructure can address the outbreak."

On Sunday, Walz announced that K-12 schools in the state would close as of Wednesday, March 18, and be closed until at least March 27. Some school districts already have decided to close earlier than Wednesday.

Health officials have opened a school and childcare hotline at (651) 297-1304.

The MDH COVID-19 webpage had over 500,000 visits on Friday, officials said. The MDH coronavirus hotline is (651) 201-3920 or (800) 657-3903 and is now open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.

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