Minnesota’s grim week of COVID-19 records continued Friday as the Health Department reported more than 3,100 newly confirmed cases of the disease, the first time the daily report has topped 3,000 in the pandemic.
State officials said 18 more Minnesotans have died, continuing a troubling October of steeply rising cases, hospitalizations and deaths to COVID-19.
The newest numbers come at the end of one of the worst weeks in one of the worst months for Minnesota in the pandemic. Hospitalizations, caseloads and deaths rose steeply in October and seem poised to spill into November.
The number of people hospitalized in Minnesota because of COVID-19 is at an all-time high: 738 in the hospital with 176 needing intensive care.
With the state this week averaging more than 2,000 newly confirmed cases daily, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm braced Minnesotans to expect that to be the new norm for awhile.
“The way things are going, I’m sorry to say, I don’t think that (daily case) record is going to hold for very long,” she said Thursday.
The rampant spread is being driven now by the “thousands of seemingly small decisions” Minnesotans make daily to meet and gather with others without wearing masks, socially distancing or taking other steps to stem the spread, she said.
The deaths reported Friday raised Minnesota’s toll to 2,437. Among those who’ve died, about 70 percent had been living in long-term care or assisted living facilities; most had underlying health problems.
Of the 145,465 cases of the disease confirmed in the pandemic to date, about 86 percent have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.
In south central Minnesota, Blue Earth County has the most confirmed cases, now at 2,136, including seven deaths. Rice County is next with 1,742 confirmed and 10 deaths, while Steele County has 817 confirmed and three deaths. Le Sueur County has 671 confirmed and six deaths; Nicollet County 783 confirmed and 18 deaths; Waseca County 950 confirmed and 10 deaths; Goodhue County 681 confirmed and 11 deaths; Brown County 365 confirmed and three deaths; and Sibley County 273 confirmed and three deaths.
Caseloads rising across age groups
New cases are up dramatically over the past month in all age groups.
People in their 20s still make up the age bracket with the state’s largest number of confirmed cases — more than 31,000 since the pandemic began, including more than 17,500 among people ages 20-24.
The number of high school-age children confirmed with the disease has also grown, with more than 12,500 total cases among children ages 15 to 19 since the pandemic began.
Those numbers help explain why experts remain particularly concerned about teens and young adults as spreaders of the virus.
While less likely to feel the worst effects of the disease and end up hospitalized, experts worry youth and young adults will spread it to grandparents and other vulnerable populations. It’s especially concerning because people can have the coronavirus and spread COVID-19 when they don’t have symptoms.
That led Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday to urge testing Minnesotans ages 18 to 35, a group he says is driving much of the asymptomatic virus spread.
"We want them to get tested so they can then know if they're infected so they can isolate,” added Dan Huff, an assistant state health commissioner. “That will help us stop that source of transmission in an area we just see as a major reservoir for the disease spreading out through the state."
Cases surging along Minnesota’s western border
Regionally, central and northern Minnesota have driven much of the recent increase in new cases while Hennepin and Ramsey counties show some of the slowest case growth in the state.
Newly reported cases are highest in northwestern Minnesota. The data doesn’t explain why. However, cases are surging currently in the Dakotas. North Dakota and South Dakota, however, have the country’s worst per-capita spread rates.
Collectively, rural areas of Minnesota continue to report the most new COVID-19 cases.
Northern Minnesota, once the region least affected by the disease, has also seen its caseload grow dramatically in recent weeks.
Western and northwestern Minnesota continue to see cases rise swiftly relative to it population.
“We are seeing more deaths in greater Minnesota because we are seeing more cases there,” Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, said last week. “We will see more and more deaths from greater Minnesota because of the high caseload.”
Latino, Indigenous cases jump
In Minnesota and across the country, COVID-19 has hit communities of color disproportionately hard in both cases and deaths.
Minnesotans of Hispanic descent are testing positive for COVID-19 at about five times the rate of white Minnesotans. They, along with Black Minnesotans, are also being hospitalized and moved to intensive care units at higher rates than the overall population.
Similar trends hold true for Minnesota’s Indigenous residents. Counts among Indigenous people have jumped in October relative to population. The number of new COVID-19 cases among Native Americans has grown by about 75 percent in recent weeks.
October data also show newly confirmed cases accelerating among Latino people in Minnesota.
Distrust of the government, together with deeply rooted health and economic disparities, have hampered efforts to boost testing among communities of color, particularly for undocumented immigrants who fear their personal information may be used to deport them.
Spread threatens to swamp ‘flood walls’
Unlike earlier in the pandemic, health authorities believe the current outbreaks are being driven more by people letting their guard down at family gatherings and celebrations, sporting events and informal meetups rather than at stores, restaurants and bars.
Officials had expected that late summer and early fall gatherings would bring a surge of cases in October. They also anticipated the wave would put more people in the hospital — and lead to more deaths. That’s come to pass.
The current wave is especially worrisome because the state’s seeing cases rise again in long-term care facilities, where some of the state’s most vulnerable people live.
Despite efforts to protect those facilities, Minnesota saw 186 new cases in long-term care on Tuesday alone, said Ehresmann.
Many of these cases are due to community spread — health care workers getting infected outside the facilities and then bringing it in. “Even with the flood walls we built up, if the waters rise high enough, we’ll still have big problems,” Ehresmann said Thursday.
Some events ‘no longer safe’
The newest numbers come two days after Walz and public health experts painted an increasingly worrisome picture of a COVID-19 outbreak now driven more by people letting their guard down at family gatherings and celebrations, sporting events and informal meetups rather than at stores, restaurants and bars.
The governor’s top health officers again urged Minnesotans to rethink their plans for large family gatherings at Thanksgiving and other upcoming holidays, warning they pose a rising risk.
Given the current high levels of community spread in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest, get-togethers of “large extended families, multiple families from around the region, that absolutely would be a really, really bad idea this year,” Ehresmann said Monday.
There have been more than 70 related outbreaks from weddings since June, and that's lead to more than 674 direct cases among those attending, and one death, Malcolm said Wednesday.
The “vast majority” of COVID-19 spread is coming from these kinds of events, said Ehresmann. “Things that were relatively safe a month or two ago are no longer safe."
Ehresmann reiterated that point Wednesday as she cautioned Minnesotans against attending big Halloween parties and other events outside of a person’s immediate household. That kind of fun, she said, "is riskier now than it was a month ago.”
Anoka-Hennepin board votes to continue sports, defying guidelines
Anoka-Hennepin schools voted Monday to keep high school sports and other activities going, even as they close the schools to in-person learning.
The district decided last week to move to distance learning for middle and high school students in response to rising COVID-19 cases. State guidance says schools have to at least meet guidelines for in-person instruction to offer sports and other out-of-class activities.
But citing athletic staff belief that COVID-19 can be managed among high school teams, and indications that nonschool teams will play anyway, school board members voted to defy state guidelines.
Board member Jeff Simon said he believed kids were going to participate anyway, and school was the best place for it.
“They're involved with and charged with and concerned about individual health and containing the spread of COVID-19, so continuing activities under the current structure following the Minnesota high school league recommendations for safe participation really allows the state a continued voice and management of the activity process going forward.”
District Superintendent David Law also told board members that there may be other districts that are defying the guidelines as well.
Asked about the school board’s move Tuesday morning, Gov. Tim Walz said he will take up the issue, adding that he will put a priority on public health.
“I understand the desire to make sure these activities stay available for kids. I have an eighth grader that I want to see playing these things. But we also have to manage it with the public health,” he said.
Walz said the state Health and Education Departments will communicate with Anoka-Hennepin schools, but didn’t elaborate on what the departments would be telling the state’s largest district.
“But I do need to stress that the health and safety of both students, those educators and the community always hold precedence,” Walz said.
— Tim Nelson | MPR News