COVID-19 Latest Oct. 27

Hand sanitizer stations and stickers requesting social distancing were set up at the New Ulm Community Center in August in order to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 with in-person primary election voting. (Hannah Yang/MPR News file)

A rough week in Minnesota’s fight against COVID-19 came to a difficult close on Friday as the Health Department reported 6,812 new cases, 68 deaths and record hospitalizations.

The numbers continue to show the virus running rampant across all parts of the state. The one ray of hope: the climb in newly reported cases eased from its recent high as testing volume rose, suggesting a peak in the current surge may be in sight.

Still, current conditions remained severe. The trend lines for deaths and hospitalizations continue to climb.

About 260 people a day have been admitted to hospitals over the past seven days with COVID-19, another record high. Some 1,700 people are in Minnesota hospitals with about 20 percent needing intensive care. The numbers have more than doubled since Nov. 1.

Active, confirmed cases of the disease topped 50,000 for the first time in the pandemic:

The newest numbers come a day after state officials and two hospital system executives warned the surge is putting a heavy strain on care workers.

Current conditions are “very dire,” Dr. Penny Wheeler, CEO of Allina Health, said Thursday. The virus is sidelining health care workers, including 800 at Allina, and the state’s health system is “getting perilously close” to being unable to care for everyone who needs care, she said.

Wheeler begged Minnesotans to wear masks, socially distance and take other measures to reduce COVID-19’s rapid spread. “We have to take a hit for the time being to care for one another.”

Of the 256,700 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 identified in the pandemic, about 79 percent of people have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.

The deaths reported Friday raised Minnesota’s toll to 3,150. Among those who’ve died, about 69 percent had been living in long-term care or assisted living facilities; most had underlying health problems.

Caseloads climbing across age groups

New cases have been spiking over the past three weeks in all age groups.

People in their 20s still make up the age bracket with the state’s largest number of confirmed cases — nearly 52,000 since the pandemic began, including more than 28,000 among people ages 20 to 24. The rapid increase, however, has tapered off in recent days.

The number of high school-age children confirmed with the disease has also grown, with some 20,500 total cases among children ages 15 to 19 since the pandemic began.

The numbers help explain why experts remain particularly concerned about teens and young adults as spreaders of the virus.

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.

Walz said recently the state has data showing infection rates rising around bar and restaurant activity after 9 p.m. among young adults, noting that people who have the virus but don’t have symptoms are unwittingly spreading it.

Virus surges in swaths of rural Minnesota

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.

The fastest growing outbreaks remain largely along the state’s western border with the Dakotas, where the virus is spreading unchecked. But new cases are rising everywhere in Minnesota.

Collectively, rural areas continue to report the most new COVID-19 cases per capita.

The latest figures came on the same day new curbs intended to ease the spike in COVID-19 caseloads, hospitalizations and deaths are set to take hold.

“We’re at a dangerous point in this pandemic,” Walz told Minnesotans Wednesday. “How we act, and how this virus moves, will have huge implications on the number of people who will be hospitalized and, ultimately, those who will lose their lives.”

Latino cases climb

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.

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 hold true for Minnesota’s Indigenous residents. Counts among Indigenous people jumped in October relative to population.

Cases among all races and ethnicities continue to rise, although currently the growth is slowest among Black Minnesotans, who reported the most new COVID-19 cases per capita for much of the spring and summer.

‘They don’t want to watch you die at Christmas’

Public health leaders have begged Minnesotans over the past month to take personal responsibility to reduce the disease’s spread by wearing masks in social gathering places, socially distancing and staying home if you don’t feel well.

The uncontrolled spread is being driven now by Minnesotans’ informal gatherings and get-togethers with family and friends where it’s transmitted unknowingly by people who have the virus but do not have symptoms, officials say.

State officials on Monday pleaded with Minnesotans not to gather for Thanksgiving outside their immediate household. They also asked college students to consider not going home for the holiday. (The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday also called on people not to travel over Thanksgiving.)

That advice was a change from the state Health Department’s prior recommendations. The agency last week said it’d be OK for people to have gatherings up to 10 from three households.

The acceleration of the spread, however, forced the state to change its guidance. Left unchecked one model suggests Minnesota could hit 20,000 new cases per day by the start of the new year, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said earlier this week.. That’s nearly three times the current seven-day average.

“Two weeks ago, I thought a 5,000-case day was horrific,” Malcolm said. “Now, that looks like a good day.”

On Thursday, Dr. Cindy Firkins Smith, president of Carris Health CentraCare in Willmar, Minn., said the rising numbers of health care workers unable to work due in some way to COVID-19 had put an unprecedented strain on their system.

The west-central Minnesota hospital executive said more than 10 percent of her 12,000 rural Minnesota workforce was out recently because of COVID-19, either having to quarantine because of illness or exposure, or because they have to take care of family members.

“We don’t have anybody to replace them,” she said. “There’s no calling New York. There’s no calling Texas. There’s no calling the Twin Cities. There’s no calling anywhere to get help.”

Care workers, she added, are increasingly frustrated by the unwillingness of Minnesotans to take precautions.

“It’s heartbreaking for health care workers to finish an exhausting workday only to stop at the grocery store and see people not wearing a mask,” she said.

She pleaded with people to follow state guidelines and stay home for Thanksgiving to avoid spreading the virus.

“The people working in the hospital not only don’t get to celebrate with the people they love, they’re going to be watching people die that day,” said Smith. “And they don't want to watch you die at Christmas. So please don’t (gather). Just this year, please don’t.”

COVID curbs courts’ work across Minnesota

New Minnesota court restrictions will limit criminal trials and courthouse service access as the judicial branch responds to an acceleration of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Judicial Council voted unanimously Thursday put the freeze on in-person jury trials that will take effect on Nov. 30. Chief Justice Lorie Gildea plans to formalize the pause in an order coming Friday.

Todd County Judge Jay Carlson, vice chair of the council, made the motion to halt new trials. “Other than new trials that are currently in progress we’re not going to commence any new trials until February unless the chief judge again in consultation with the chief justice has granted a specific exception for a criminal jury trial to commence,” he said.

Exceptions will be made for in-custody defendants or other defendants that made a speedy trial demand prior to the order. Some grand jury proceedings will also be suspended.

Judges on the council said that staff and jurors have become more reluctant to come into court buildings as COVID-19 spreads rapidly.

During the pandemic, the court system has pushed many of its proceedings into virtual settings, including motions hearings in some criminal and civil cases.

The courts also are expected to limit walkup counter service in government buildings, urging people to either make appointments or use virtual methods where possible. But each county will retain at least one public service counter with daily hours.

“I think we should all just send good vibes out into the universe for a vaccine very, very soon,” said Judge Krista Martin of Pine County.

— Brian Bakst | MPR News

Record COVID cases stressing hospitals in Fargo

At Sanford Health, chief medical officer Doug Griffin says the Fargo, N.D., hospital is averaging 500 patients a day with more than 100 of those being treated for COVID-19. That's four times higher than the COVID-19 caseload last spring.

"We simply have to reduce the need for hospital beds. It will be quite awhile before the vaccine makes an impact because our hospital and the hospitals across the nation really are full. There is nowhere else to go," Griffin said.

Griffin said Sanford has hired 120 travel nurses to address a staffing shortage caused by COVID-19 cases among workers. The company's asking retired nurses to return to work.

Sanford is also expanding bed capacity and triaging all nonemergency surgeries.

— Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Red Lake chair: National Guard to aid reservation nursing home

The tribal chair of Red Lake Nation says the state is sending help to deal with rising COVID-19 cases on the northern Minnesota reservation.

Darrell Seki said that as of Monday there were 46 people with active COVID-19 cases on the reservation. He said that includes 19 residents and 13 staff at the Jourdain Perpich Extended Care Facility in Red Lake.

"Due the increased number of COVID cases in our area, Gov. Walz will activate National Guard nurses to assist at the nursing home as our registered nurses and CNAs have tested positive," Seki said in an online post.

Seki said it's been impossible to hire additional staff because so many other nursing homes are also dealing with shortages.

"See what happened is they opened it up for visiting for a week. The residents start getting COVID,” he said. “Then all of a sudden our nurses are getting, our director of nursing is one, even our director of the nursing home got COVID."

The governor's office did not respond to a request for information about potential National Guard deployment to tribal nations in Minnesota.

— Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Olmsted County suspends contact tracing as COVID cases surge

A second Minnesota county has said COVID-19 cases are growing so rapidly that they can’t keep up with standard case investigations.

Olmsted County, including Rochester and its surroundings, has jumped from an average of 67 cases a day at the beginning of November to more than 120 cases a day.

Health officials say they can no longer trace the contacts of everyone with a confirmed case. They’re asking people who test positive to reach out to people they’ve been in close contact with on their own.

Positive cases also need to alert their employers, school or child care provider.

Itasca County in northern Minnesota took similar steps last week, and the state of North Dakota did as well, saying the COVID-19 outbreak has outstripped the standard public health measures to fight it.

— Tim Nelson | MPR News

Staff illness reaching crisis levels at nursing homes

Just a month after the state eased restrictions on family visiting long-term care residents, industry officials say COVID-19 is making visits more dangerous than ever.

Patti Cullen, president of Care Providers of Minnesota, said that staff illness is reaching crisis levels in nursing homes, and elderly patients remain as susceptible as ever to the coronavirus.

She said visits shouldn’t even be on the table because of the prevalence of COVID-19 in the community outside care centers.

"Other than virtual visits or outdoor visits, there is no safe way," she said.

Cullen said that it isn’t just a matter of keeping vulnerable residents safe, but keeping care facilities available to take recovering patients from hospitals. She said they need to take patients to free up hospital beds for people who need a higher level of care.

— Tim Nelson | MPR News

Southern Minn newspaper group staff contributed to this article.

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