Friday’s COVID-19 data delivered more evidence that the pandemic is trending for the worse in Minnesota.
Deaths and cases continue to rise steeply. The Health Department recorded 13 more deaths atop 55 deaths over the the prior two days, part of the deadliest reporting week since late May.
Some 1,700 newly reported cases continued an October with average new counts of more than 1,000 a day. Hospitalizations continue to trend higher, averaging 88 per day over the past week — a record high.
Active confirmed cases of the disease also remain at a record high.
In south central Minnesota, Blue Earth County has the most confirmed cases, now at 2,020, including seven deaths. Rice County is next with 1,605 confirmed and nine deaths, while Steele County has 741 confirmed and three deaths. Le Sueur County has 614 confirmed and five deaths; Nicollet County 714 confirmed and 17 deaths; Waseca County 922 confirmed and nine deaths; Goodhue County 557 confirmed and 11 deaths; Brown County 316 confirmed and three deaths; and Sibley County 243 confirmed and three deaths.
The newest COVID-19 numbers come at the end of a week where “record-breaking” has come up often, but not in a good way.
State officials expected that late summer and early fall gatherings, sporting events and informal meetups among Minnesotans would deliver a surge of cases in October. They also anticipated the wave would put more people in the hospital — and lead to more deaths.
Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm on Wednesday called the recent data sad but not surprising, and she warned Minnesota to brace for more cases, hospitalizations and deaths unless more people take personal responsibility to stem the disease’s spread.
“We do need to understand that more cases are going to lead to more people with serious disease, potentially with long-term complications we are only beginning to understand,” she said.
Of the 129,863 cases of the disease confirmed in the pandemic to date, about 88 percent have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.
The deaths reported Friday raised Minnesota’s toll to 2,314. Among those who’ve died, about 70 percent had been living in long-term care or assisted living facilities; most had underlying health problems.
The average positive test rate ticked up to 6.7 percent Friday, significantly over the 5 percent threshold that health officials find concerning.
Caseloads rising across age groups
New cases are up dramatically over the past month in all age groups. That includes a concerning rise in the number of new cases among Minnesotans ages 60 and older.
People in their 20s still make up the age bracket with the state’s largest number of confirmed cases — nearly 29,000 since the pandemic began, including more than 16,000 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 schools and campuses completely to in-person teaching.
The number of high school-age children confirmed with the disease has also grown, with more than 11,600 total cases among children ages 15 to 19 since the pandemic began.
Cases surging along Minnesota’s western border
Regionally, central, northern and southern 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 western Minnesota — the northwest, west-central and southwest areas of the state have been averaging more than 40 new cases per day per 100,000 people, higher than any of the state’s central and eastern regions.
The data don’t explain why. However, cases are surging currently in the Dakotas. North Dakota has the country’s worst per-capita spread rate.
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. Northwestern Minnesota continues to see cases rise swiftly relative to it population.
The largest current hot spot counties are all in northwestern Minnesota:
“We are seeing more deaths in greater Minnesota because we are seeing more cases there,” Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, said Wednesday. “We will see more and more deaths from greater Minnesota because of the high caseload.”
Ehresmann and Malcolm tied the recent steep rise in cases and deaths to “COVID fatigue” but also described people who are ill but refuse to get tested because they don't want to admit they have it and don't quarantine as a contributing factor in spreading the disease.
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.
Data the past two weeks also show newly confirmed cases continuing to accelerate 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.
Rethink those big holiday gatherings?
With the rampant spread across the state, Minnesota officials earlier this week strongly suggested people rethink their holiday plans and avoid multifamily celebrations or big gatherings with friends.
Traditional year-end holiday gatherings may simply may be too risky in a pandemic, Malcolm said Monday.
“The transmission is everywhere, not just one or two sources or one or two kinds of settings. It’s the individual decisions that we’re all making fueling the rate of increase we’re seeing,” Malcolm cautioned. “We need to take this seriously.”
While surges early in the pandemic were driven largely by illnesses tied to long-term care facilities and workplace sites such as meatpacking plants, officials say the current spread is diffused, making it even harder to trace and isolate cases.
“Going out for happy hour after work with your coworkers or getting together with a bunch of friends that you haven't seen for awhile, all of that seems pretty innocuous. But in reality all of those different interactions can lead to transmission,” Ehresmann told MPR News on Monday.
Later Monday, Ehresmann said Minnesotans should think about holiday gatherings of 10 or fewer this year instead of big potluck dinners across multiple families.
On Wednesday, she and Malcolm again implored Minnesotans to take personal responsibility to stem the spread of the disease, including wearing masks in indoor public spaces, socially distancing and staying home if you feel ill.
“It’s hard,” said Malcolm, “but it’s not complicated.”
MN launches in-home COVID-19 saliva testing program
The Minnesota Department of Health on Thursday launched an at-home saliva testing pilot program in two dozen counties or tribal nations around the state. Most locations have few testing options and many are in greater Minnesota, where spread of the virus has been rapid in recent weeks.
The state has contracted with Vault Health to provide the saliva tests, which have been rolled out at in-person collection sites around the state.
People in these counties will be able to order the same test through the mail. It will be shipped to their home and performed with the help of a health care professional over the internet. The test will then be shipped to a facility in Oakdale, and results will be available electronically in 24-48 hours.
Test-takers will be asked for insurance information, but it will be free if insurance won't cover it or if they don't have insurance.
— Catharine Richert | MPR News
Winter Carnival organizers say show will go on, with changes
Organizers of the St. Paul Winter Carnival say the annual celebration will go on next year, but with changes because of the pandemic.
The ice- and snow-carving events will move to drive-thru displays at the state fairgrounds, the St. Paul Heritage and Festival Foundation said. A 5K race around Lake Phalen will replace the usual runs out of downtown St. Paul. The two traditional parades have already been canceled.
Organizers say they are bringing back a softball tournament and moving the long-running jigsaw puzzle contest online via Zoom teleconferencing.
The Winter Carnival is scheduled for Jan. 28 through Feb. 7.
— Tim Nelson | MPR News
DFL state senator tests positive
A DFL state senator is in the quarantine phase after testing positive for COVID-19.
Sen. Dan Sparks of Austin said he test he took Oct. 8 came back positive. He sought the test after experiencing flu-like symptoms a few days earlier.
Sparks didn’t come to the Capitol for the recent special session and says he’s been doing his work remotely. A few other lawmakers have disclosed their own bouts with the virus since this spring.
— Brian Bakst | MPR News