COVID-19 Latest Aug. 9

(Christine T. Nguyen/MPR News)

Minnesota’s count of new active COVID-19 cases remains steeply on the upswing, with the Health Department reporting nearly 1,200 new confirmed infections Friday — the second-highest daily case count in the pandemic — after reporting nearly 1,000 new cases Thursday.

Testing levels were very high for both those days, which explains much of the reported increase.

Still, the case counts and other data paint a picture that the pandemic is far from over, a point public health authorities have been hammering at for weeks as they implore Minnesotans to wear masks in indoor public spaces, socially distance, wash their hands and generally stay out of crowds to curb the disease’s community spread.

Of the 94,189 confirmed cases of the disease tallied in the pandemic to date, about 89 percent of those infected have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.

Six more deaths put Minnesota’s toll to 1,994. Among those who’ve died, about 72 percent had been living in long-term care or assisted living facilities; nearly all had underlying health problems.

In south central Minnesota, Blue Earth County has the most confirmed cases, now at 1,676, including six deaths. Rice County is next with 1,328 confirmed and eight deaths, while Steele County has 540 confirmed and two deaths. Le Sueur County has 460 confirmed and four deaths; Nicollet County 529 confirmed and 16 deaths; Waseca County 614 confirmed and eight deaths; Goodhue County 360 confirmed and nine deaths; Brown County 184 confirmed and two deaths; and Sibley County 191 confirmed and three deaths.

The newest numbers come at the end of a week where much of the data used to understand the COVID-19 pandemic in Minnesota trended the wrong way.

New counts of active confirmed cases continued to hit records, so much so that a group of public health and crisis experts downgraded Minnesota to “uncontrolled spread” status among states.

The Health Department also tweaked the way it reported on hospitalizations and intensive care patients due to COVID-19, moving from a daily, net bed count to reporting the number of new admissions to hospitals and intensive care units each day.

The numbers show admissions rising, especially among patients that don’t need intensive care.

Halloween ‘buzzkill’

Besides the tough numbers, public health leaders this week have also urged Minnesotans to explore alternatives to traditional Halloween festivities and trick-or-treating to avoid the disease, per the guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For COVID-19 watchers, it’s no surprise that the new guidelines recommend staying away from traditional door-to-door trick-or-treating, big indoor costume parties and haunted houses where screaming, saliva droplets and all, is a staple of the experience.

In urging virus-safe Halloweening, state infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann paused Wednesday as she spoke to admit: “Man, I feel like the public health buzzkill.” She quickly corrected herself: “It’s the virus that’s the buzzkill.”

Ehresmann and other health officials are expecting cases to rise further from get-togethers and other informal events during the Labor Day weekend, when people may have let down their guard against COVID-19.

They also have a new set of concerns — state high school sports officials this week agreed to stage fall seasons in football and volleyball weeks after saying they would postpone those seasons so as not to spread the disease.

Worries rise around college students, kids

People in their 20s make up the age bracket with the state’s largest number of confirmed cases — approaching 22,600 since the pandemic began, including more than 12,600 infections among people ages 20-24.

The numbers help explain why experts remain particularly concerned about 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 and that spread could hamper attempts to reopen campuses completely to in-person teaching.

The number of high school-age children confirmed with the disease has also grown, with more than 8,700 total cases among children ages 15 to 19 since the pandemic began.

With many schools in Minnesota attempting to teach in-person, officials say they are especially concerned about the rising numbers of teens becoming infected and how that could affect decisions to keep school buildings open.

Earlier this week, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said her department is receiving more than 60 reports daily of new cases affecting schools, although that doesn’t mean the spread is taking place at the school.

“We’re very concerned about what we’re seeing in the data. Educators have worked very hard to create a safe working plan, but the plan only works if we’re working together,” Ehresmann said Wednesday, adding that “it won’t be too much longer until many schools have difficult decisions to make.”

‘Virus doesn’t care where the state line is’

Regionally, southern and central Minnesota and the Twin Cities suburbs have driven much of the increase in new cases while Hennepin and Ramsey counties show some of the slowest case growth in the state.

Hot spots have included southwestern Minnesota, where 75 cases have been traced to a late-August wedding in Lyon County that officials describe now as the state’s largest single social spreader event.

On Wednesday, Ehresmann said investigators have identified 35 cases tied directly to a recent funeral in Martin County, and they expect more. Seventeen other cases are linked to the church where the funeral services were held, including cases among church staff.

In Waseca, Minnesota officials have confirmed an outbreak of more than 120 cases at the federal women’s prison there, which they said began when federal authorities transferred people into the facility from outside the state who had COVID-19.

Southeastern Minnesota, specifically Winona, has been another hot spot as students return to college at Winona State and other schools. The problem has been compounded by similar outbreaks nearby across the Mississippi River at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers on Tuesday extended his statewide mask mandate through late November in response to the rising COVID-19 caseload.

The virus doesn’t care where the state line is,” Ehresmann said. “The virus cares about where people are gathering together.”

Judge seems skeptical of mask mandate challenge

A federal judge gave a skeptical airing Wednesday to a lawsuit challenging Gov. Tim Walz’s mask mandate on several grounds.

U.S. District Court Judge Patrick Schiltz heard arguments in the case attempting to prevent enforcement of the Minnesota requirement that people wear face coverings in public indoor spaces amid the pandemic.

Schiltz sharply challenged lawyer Erick Kaardal, who brought the case, over his contention that the mandate conflicts with another law making it illegal for people to conceal their identity with a mask or another disguise.

“To prosecute someone in a pandemic for wearing a mask who is trying to comply with an order and who is trying to protect their health and who is trying to protect the health of their neighbors, you think that would be reasonable?” Schiltz asked Kaardal, who represents the Minnesota Voters Alliance and several individuals.

Kaardal said the two directives need to be reconciled.

“The court represents ordinary people. How would ordinary people interpret this?” Kaardal said. “It looks to me like the state Legislature didn’t want people concealing their identity in public.”

He filed the case on the grounds that the mask rules could have ramifications at polling places, but the legal effort goes far beyond that.

The judge and Kaardal had several tense exchanges during the nearly three-hour hearing. One came as discussion turned to whether the mask mandate violates First Amendment rights related to free expression.

“According to your logic, you’re unpatriotic if you don’t believe everyone should wear a mask everywhere,” Kaardal said to Schiltz.

“I didn’t and would never use the word ‘patriotic’ in an argument. It has nothing to do with the issues before me. That’s a moral judgment that it’s not my job to make,” Schiltz replied.

“I’m saying the logic of your position, Mr. Kaardal, is if there is a criminal law out there that says X is a crime and you have every way possible to express your opposition to that law. What your position is that you also have a First Amendment right to express your opposition by violating that criminal law,” he continued. “I’m saying I’m unaware of any case that so holds.”

Schiltz didn’t rule on any matters in the case but told attorneys, including for the government entities named as defendants, that he was leaning against impeding the mask requirement on constitutional grounds.

The case is one of several pending challenges to executive actions Walz has taken to respond to COVID-19’s spread.

— Brian Bakst | MPR News

Virus spread shifts the school guidance map

The evolving COVID-19 pandemic in Minnesota continues to change school reopening recommendations around the state.

The most recent batch of recommendations, released Sept. 17, cover cases from Aug. 23 to Sept. 5 — a period that happened to see a late-August spike in new COVID-19 cases.

The result? A full 25 counties saw their COVID-19 case counts slip past one of the Health Department’s thresholds, changing their recommendation toward more distance learning for more students.

In the most recent update, six counties are recommended to have all students do full-time distance learning: Blue Earth, Lyon, Stevens, Waseca, Winona and Yellow Medicine counties. All but Waseca County were previously recommended to allow at least some in-person learning.

Not every county got worse. Eleven counties saw their case rates improve compared to last week’s results, and saw their recommendation shift to more in-person learning.

Overall, 24 largely rural counties have a recommendation of in-person for all students.

A formula produced by the Health Department generates the guidance for districts to help decide whether to have in-person learning, distance learning, or a mix, based on the rate of COVID-19 cases in that district’s county over a two-week period.

These recommendations are only considered the starting point for school districts, which make their own learning plans in cooperation with the Health Department.

Minnesota’s yo-yoing COVID-19 case numbers in recent weeks have meant some drastic swings in school districts’ safe learning recommendations, but state health officials say they’re taking the data irregularities into account when working with schools to set learning plans.

Because Minnesota’s calculation uses weeks-old data and calculates cases by the day a person got tested rather than the day the tests were reported, this update is not affected by recent reporting delays caused by the Labor Day weekend.

— David H. Montgomery | MPR News

Southern Minn newspaper group staff contributed to this article.

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