COVID-19 Latest

A dose of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine is prepared before being administered at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. (Evan Frost/MPR News)

The final weekend of 2020 brings a continued mix of hopeful and grim developments in the COVID-19 pandemic in Minnesota.

Throughout the month of December, the average number of new COVID-19 cases and hospital admissions each day has been trending downward — still far above the levels seen in early fall, but far below the peaks seen at the height of the surge in November. Those trends continued in Saturday’s update from the Minnesota Department of Health.

The test positivity rate also is falling — its seven-day average stands at 5.3 percent, just slightly above the 5-percent threshold that state officials have long said is cause for alarm. That weekly average is the lowest it’s been since mid-October, and down from more than 15 percent in mid-November.

In the midst of those positive developments, thousands of health-care workers in the state have now received the COVID-19 vaccine, with vaccinations set to ramp up next week in Minnesota’s long-term care facilities.

But at the same time, the death toll continues to rise. The 57 deaths reported Saturday by state health officials sent Minnesota’s pandemic death toll past 5,100.

The average number of deaths each day is slowly ebbing, but remains startlingly high: On average, about 55 Minnesotans a day are now dying with COVID-19. That figure was 18 at the start of November, and fewer than nine on Oct. 1.

The Minnesota Department of Health did not release updated COVID-19 stats on Friday because of the Christmas holiday. Saturday’s update included data from Thursday, which normally would have been released on Friday.

Sunday’s update will include two days’ worth of data, to catch up from the holiday.

Here are Minnesota’s current COVID-19 statistics:

  • 5,107 deaths (57 reported Saturday)
  • 406,545 positive cases (2,170 new reported Saturday), with 382,705 off isolation (94 percent)
  • 5.4 million tests, 2.9 million people tested (about 51 percent of the population)
  • 5.3 percent seven-day positive test rate (officials find 5 percent concerning)

The number of active, confirmed cases in Minnesota was about 18,700 on Saturday — up slightly compared to the previous two reports but down from more than 50,000 at its peak in November.

Earlier this week — on Tuesday — state health officials said 1,073 people remained in the hospital with COVID-19, with 238 needing intensive care. Hospital admission rates continued to plummet on Thursday, but weren’t yet back to levels before the late fall surge.

Thursday’s data report brought Minnesota’s confirmed COVID-19 pandemic total to 404,403. In about 94 percent of those cases, people have recovered to the point that they no longer need to be isolated.

Even as they applaud the improving picture on caseloads and hospitalizations, state public health leaders have continued to warn that conditions could change dramatically if people don’t stay vigilant during the year-end holidays.

They’re imploring people to wear masks in outdoor gathering spaces, socially distance and take other measures to help curb the spread of COVID-19.

“We’re still in a situation where there’s just a lot of virus circulating in the community,” Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Wednesday.

Malcolm praised Minnesotans for heeding the guidance on public gatherings and social distancing and said vaccinations will help even more. But she cautioned that it doesn’t mean Minnesota can let down its guard.

The state must still take precautions “to help the vaccine do its job,” Malcolm said. “This is important not just to protect yourself and your immediately family but protecting your neighbors or people in your community you don’t even know.”

Caseloads spread across age groups

People in their 20s still make up the age bracket with the state’s largest number of confirmed cases — more than 78,000 since the pandemic began, including more than 41,000 among people ages 20 to 24.

The number of high school-age youth confirmed with the disease has also grown, with more than 31,000 total cases among those ages 15 to 19 since the pandemic began.

Although 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.

New cases ebb across Minnesota

Central and western Minnesota drove much of the increase in new cases over the past two months, while Hennepin and Ramsey counties showed some of the slowest case growth in the state.

Cases continue to fall statewide, but still haven’t dipped down to their levels before the state’s COVID-19 surge that hit in November and early December. Controlling for testing volume, the case positivity rate is falling in almost every county in Minnesota. Even the state’s most populous, Hennepin and Ramsey counties, have had a positivity rate below 5 percent over the past week.

After a spike in confirmed cases through much of November and early December, all regions of the state have seen new case numbers fall.

Hot spots continue to pop up in rural counties relative to their population.

Caseloads still heaviest among people of color

In Minnesota and across the country, COVID-19 has hit communities of color disproportionately hard in both cases and deaths. That’s been especially true for Minnesotans of Hispanic descent for much of the pandemic.

Even as new case counts ease from their peak a few weeks ago, the data shows people of color continue to be hit hardest.

Distrust of the government, together with deeply rooted health and economic disparities, have hampered efforts to boost testing among communities of color, officials say, especially among unauthorized immigrants who fear their personal information may be used to deport them.

Similar trends have been seen among Minnesota’s Indigenous residents. Counts among Indigenous people jumped in October relative to population.

Officials: Minn. expects to have 250K vaccine doses by year’s end

Gov. Tim Walz on Tuesday said the wheels are turning now on initial plans to vaccinate Minnesotans against COVID-19 and the process is working largely as expected.

Minnesota began injecting health care workers last week with the Pfizer vaccine after the firm received emergency federal approval. The state's first supply contained 46,800 doses; another 33,150 are expected to follow.

About 94,800 doses of vaccine produced by another company, Moderna, are expected this week, with much of that arriving in the next 24 hours, Walz told reporters. A second Moderna supply with about 32,900 doses is anticipated next week along with 42,900 more from Pfizer.

Walz said about 250,000 total doses are expected by the end of the month. Beyond that, things are still in flux.

The Moderna doses, which don’t require the kind of deep cold storage required for the Pfizer vaccine, are being scheduled now for residents and workers of long-term care facilities across the state.

Officials say 11,578 people in Minnesota had been vaccinated as of midmorning Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, said some Moderna shipments set for three local public health operations and one skilled nursing site have been delayed, and this week’s winter storm complicated delivery plans.

The state’s goal, she added, “is to make sure everyone who wants to be vaccinated has access to the vaccine … but we can only be successful when we have vaccine in the state.”

Walz extends pay cut for himself and his chief of staff

Gov. Tim Walz said Wednesday he’s adding six months to a 10 percent pay cut that he and his chief of staff are taking during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In April, Walz imposed a pay cut for himself and agency commissioners to save the state money and show solidarity with people struggling due to restrictions he imposed. Those were set to expire next week.

A new executive order leaves the 10 percent pay cut in place for only two people: Walz and chief of staff Chris Schmitter. Walz earns $127,000 a year; Schmitter makes about $140,000. The Cabinet-level pay will return to prior levels.

Walz said agency heads are working longer hours to manage the pandemic. Minnesota’s budget situation has also improved.

Walz also signed an executive order allowing out-of-state pharmacists to help administer the COVID-19 vaccine because of staffing strains among Minnesota pharmacists.

— Brian Bakst | MPR News

Indoor pools can reopen Jan. 4

Gov. Tim Walz has adjusted his coronavirus restrictions to allow indoor pools to reopen early in the new year.

The Executive Council ratified the change Wednesday to align it with the resumption of other group fitness and youth sports reboots.

“The purpose of this executive order is to reopen pools for a narrow range of activities in compliance with industry guidance, including lap swim, lessons and organizing sports to begin on Jan. 4, 2021," Assistant Health Commissioner Daniel Huff explained.

Walz allowed health clubs to reopen last weekend with precautions. But pools had been left out.

Before adjourning the meeting, the governor indicated there would be no more changes to COVID-19 gathering and business restrictions before 2021.

— Brian Bakst | MPR News

Southern Minn newspaper group staff contributed to this article.

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