The drumbeat of rising COVID-19 caseloads, hospitalizations and deaths continued Tuesday in Minnesota.
The Health Department reported another 5,945 newly confirmed or probable cases of the disease, another high count following three days with nearly 24,000 newly reported cases; 26 more Minnesotans were reported to have died.
The overall numbers continue to paint a troubling picture of a rapidly worsening outbreak in Minnesota not limited to just one region or demographic group, like earlier in the pandemic.
Hospitalizations shot up, with 343 new admissions. That's more than the previous two days combined and nearly 20 percent higher than the previous daily record set last week.
The seven-day trend in hospital admissions is at a new high. Hospitalizations have doubled in the past two weeks, placing more pressure on the state’s already stressed hospital systems.
More than 1,600 people are in Minnesota hospitals now because of COVID-19, with more than 300 needing intensive care.
Of the 236,949 confirmed or probable cases identified in the pandemic to date, about 79 percent have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.
The deaths reported Tuesday raised Minnesota’s toll to 2,943. Among those who’ve died, about 68 percent had been living in long-term care or assisted living facilities; most had underlying health problems.
Thanksgiving get-togethers ‘very risky’
Tuesday’s numbers come a day after state officials 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.
That advice, laid out Monday, 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.
Now, though, the disease’s rampant, accelerating spread is forcing the hand of public health officials. By Thanksgiving, Minnesota could be seeing more than 10,000 new cases reported daily, Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters.
“The ground is really shifting under our feet and we need to adapt quickly,” she said.
Officials are also urging college students to reconsider traveling home for Thanksgiving.
“It's very risky right now to get together with friends,” Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director said. “We strongly discourage travel over Thanksgiving break, especially if you plan to return to campus.”
Caseloads rising across age groups
New cases have been spiking the past two 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 49,000 since the pandemic began, including more than 26,700 among people ages 20-24.
The number of high school-age children confirmed with the disease has also grown, with more than 19,000 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.
The numbers led him to order new restrictions on late-night social life in Minnesota, including a 10 p.m. curfew for indoor service in bars and restaurants.
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 are along the state’s western border with the Dakotas, where the virus is spreading unchecked. But new cases are rising at accelerating rates everywhere in Minnesota.
Collectively, rural areas continue to report the most new COVID-19 cases per capita.
Northern Minnesota, once the region least affected by the disease, has also seen its caseload grow dramatically in recent weeks.
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.
‘Darkest part of the pandemic’
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.
“Our behavior is driving this … literally thousands and thousands of small decisions happening around Minnesota that are the issue here,” Malcolm said recently.
There’s increasing concern about the ability of hospitals to handle more. Staffing is becoming a challenge as more health care workers get sick.
COVID-19 is taking a toll on hospital staffing, making care more difficult to provide, even as demand grows. The trends indicate the situation will get much worse in the near future Malcolm told MPR News early Monday.
“We know that hospitalizations lag by about two weeks from, or possibly more than two weeks behind the cases,” she added. “So the hospitalizations we’re seeing today are based on cases that were one-third of what we’re seeing today.”
With COVID-19 raging now, Walz and public health authorities made it clear that the current situation is worsening as the virus runs largely unabated across the state. He signaled that more restrictions on daily life may be coming. That may include winter high school sports.
“It is no secret that the country, and especially the Upper Midwest, is in the grips of the darkest part of this pandemic,” Walz told reporters Monday.
While the governor expressed hope of a “light at the end of the tunnel” amid news of effective vaccines on the way, he acknowledged the grim counts will continue.
Walz called on Minnesotans to take personal responsibility for helping stem the disease’s spread, noting that Minnesota will soon pass 300,000 total cases and 3,000 deaths in the pandemic. “That will not be the end. The only question is how bad does it get.”
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
Health Department to start tracing efforts with texts
People who have tested positive for COVID-19 or who have been in contact with a positive case will now be notified by text before receiving a phone call from a contract tracer.
The hope is to increase the rate of answered or returned phone calls to contact tracers. The text will include the contact tracer’s number.
“The idea is to more effectively reach and inform those who test positive for COVID-19 and their close contacts about what they need to do to prevent further spread and to better protect the state’s most vulnerable populations through improved outreach and communication,” Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Friday.
— MPR News Staff