ROCHESTER, Minn. — Health officials on Tuesday answered concerns made earlier in the day by nurses that in rationing personal protective equipment while pursuing elective procedures, hospitals are putting nurses' lives at risk.

"We certainly hear the tensions around what is the appropriate use of conservation with PPE," said state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm in an afternoon press call with reporters.

"It's certainly now the case that what might have been automatic one-time use before is changing. There seems to be very good evidence that sterilization and reuse is an effective way to conserve and reuse."

State Commissioner of Administration Alice Roberts Davis said that the state's stockpiles of PPE are strong and that the supplies within hospitals of PPE is generally stable.

But health officials left the door open to scaling back elective procedures should PPE become scarce.

"One really important distinction is between elective and medically necessary procedures," said Malcolm. "What we were hearing loud and clear is the growing concern of very necessary procedures that were being put on hold, and that could have had important long-term consequences for health. If it's necessary to revisit the elective procedure guidance . . . nothing is off the table."

Malcolm noted that Gov. Tim Walz had marked today to remember and mourn the lives of those lost to COVID-19 by flying flags at half mast at all government buildings.

"This will be repeated on the 19th of every month through the remainder of the year," Malcolm said.

"We know that deaths due to COVID-19 are disproportionately affecting indigenous communities, people of color, the homeless, the elderly, people in long term care, congregate care facilities and individuals with preexisting conditions and disabilities. Now more than ever, we need to come together to support those most vulnerable and to honor and support the families of those lost."

State Director of Infectious Disease Kris Ehresmann said the state's rapidly growing contact-tracing workforce has developed strategies for the infection-control challenges of asking people from low-income households to isolate within small family living quarters.

"That is a concern, that there are individuals for whom the recommendation to safely isolate is really a challenging one," said Ehresmann. "So that is why it is part of our interview process is to ask if people have the capacity to isolate safely at home, and if they don't, that our local public health partners have worked on ensuring they have options to assist with housing."

Ehresmann did not speculate on whether, as some have argued, a higher viral load could play a role in worsening outcomes from COVID-19, or among persons from at-risk demographic groups.

At 1.5 million cases and 90,000 deaths, the United States is carrying one-third of the world's COVID-19 and nearly the same percentage of the world's mortality. It's a striking statistic for one of the most highly-funded health care systems in the world.

The rise in new cases within Minnesota is believed to be occurring within a preferable doubling rate however, according to Malcolm, and the eight counties that were recently the subject of intensive testing because of outbreaks in meat processing have stabilized as well.

But Malcolm called the 57 new hospitalizations on Tuesday "a big jump," and Ehresmann speculated that it could have been because of "a biphasic presentation" wherein people "have milder symptoms initially and later on develop more severe symptoms."

Also on Tuesday, the state closed on its purchase on a 71,000 square-foot former grocery-distribution warehouse for $5.4 million.

The state has purchased the site in case it needs emergency storage for deceased persons, and plans to spend another $1.5 million to transition the building for its new use.

Minnesota recorded 665 new laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 17 deaths from the illness on Tuesday, May 19, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

The total number of persons with diagnosed illness has now topped 17,000 for the state. Clay, Itasca, Kanabec and Olmsted counties all had one death on Tuesday. Two people died in Dakota and Ramsey counties, and nine people died in Hennepin County.

Thirteen of the 17 deaths recorded in Minnesota on Tuesday were among people who lived in long-term care.

A record 57 more people were hospitalized in non-emergency settings than on Monday, by far the biggest one-day jump in demand on the state's hospital system.

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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.