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)

January’s COVID-19 data continues to show Minnesota on an encouraging path, with key metrics improving or at least holding relatively steady.

State health officials on Wednesday reported 1,237 newly confirmed or probable cases of the disease — along with 34 more deaths; 570 people were in the hospital with COVID-19, with 111 needing intensive care.

Two months ago, the number of known, active COVID-19 cases in the state hovered around 50,000. Now, that count stands at 10,775 — the first time since mid-October that active cases were below 11,000.

While the trends look hopeful following awful November and December — when new cases, hospitalizations and deaths spiked — public health leaders still caution that another surge, originating from year-end holiday gatherings, is likely in the coming weeks.

The COVID-19 cases reported Wednesday put Minnesota at 449,492 in the pandemic. Of those, about 96 percent have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.

The newly reported deaths raised Minnesota’s toll to 5,979. Among those who’ve died, about 64 percent had been living in long-term care or assisted living facilities; most had underlying health problems.

Cases spread across age groups, regions

People in their 20s still make up the age bracket with the state’s largest number of confirmed cases — more than 85,000 since the pandemic began, including more than 45,000 among people ages 20 to 24.

The number of high school-age youth confirmed with the disease has also grown, with nearly 35,000 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 older relatives and members of other vulnerable populations.

It’s of particular concern because people can have the coronavirus and spread COVID-19 when they don’t have symptoms.

A relatively small bump in new cases has been happening across the state.

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 late November, early December peaks, 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.

Vaccination frustrations boil

Even as the overall pandemic numbers continue to improve, Minnesota officials face a new difficult challenge to get Minnesotans inoculated as quickly as possible.

There is far more demand for vaccine than supply and the state is struggling to gain traction in its efforts to get shots into arms.

About 12,000 doses — roughly 20 percent of Minnesota’s current weekly allocation — are being distributed to nine sites around the state, part of a pilot program intended to speed vaccinations to people 65 and older as well as to educators and child care workers.

But the online booking process that launched at noon Tuesday quickly became overwhelmed, getting more than 1 million hits by early afternoon.

The first-day problems created serious frustration for many. Stories of unhappy seniors trying but failing to secure an appointment online or by phone bubbled across social media.

The situation drew quick condemnation from state Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary’s Point. On Twitter, she called the vaccine pilot program “absolutely unacceptable. All it did was give seniors false hope. The website is down and phone lines overloaded.”

Officials said later the state anticipates providing first-dose shots to all 12,000 people — 6,000 seniors and 6,000 educators and child care providers — who have appointments at pilot clinics this weekend.

“We absolutely expect this process to be much, much smoother in the future,” said Tarek Tomes, Minnesota’s chief information officer.

Minnesota is only receiving roughly 60,000 doses a week. At this current pace of vaccine supply, it will take more than four months to get through the 1 million or so Minnesotans added to the priority list after dropping the age eligibility to 65 and older, according to Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm.

As of Saturday, Minnesota has administered first doses to more than 200,000 people across the state, and 38,258 have received their second dose, according to the state's dashboard.

That’s from about 517,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine that have been shipped to Minnesota so far, including the federal program for long-term care facility vaccinations.

Gov. Tim Walz and other leaders have been pleading for patience.

The governor expressed hope that President-elect Joe Biden’s administration would come through. Biden has said he wants to vaccinate 100 million Americans during the first 100 days he’s in office.

When the federal government starts to deliver more vaccine, “we will be ready. The end of this pandemic is closer today than it was yesterday,” Walz said.

Officials are tempering that optimism with the reminders that the vaccine supplies are not here yet in the needed volume.

“Vaccine demand is certain to outpace available doses at this time” so Minnesotans will need to be patient, Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, said Tuesday. “We do not have enough vaccine for everyone who wants one, but we’re working hard to build a community vaccination system” to respond once the federal government provides more supply.

AG Ellison defends his role in enforcing COVID curbs

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison on Tuesday testified in a House committee about the various functions of his office. He was asked about court cases brought against some restaurants and fitness centers that opened in defiance of Gov. Tim Walz executive orders.

Ellison said his office has fielded questions or contacted 900 businesses since the pandemic began. Only 12 have required court intervention.

“It’s something we don’t like to do. And we tell them that. We would rather have voluntary compliance,” he said. “And thankfully, overwhelmingly Minnesota institutions have put their employees and their customers first and done the best they could even despite the difficult situation everyone’s in."

The attorney general said his office hasn’t lost a case yet related to the pandemic orders.

— Brian Bakst | MPR News

MN Senate extends online marriage license option

Minnesota lawmakers are moving quickly to extend a virtual option for obtaining marriage licenses during the pandemic.

By a unanimous vote Tuesday, the state Senate agreed to allow for couples to get their licenses without at least one of them appearing in person at a government office. That clearance had expired last week. The new deadline would be May 31.

"I don't think we want a bunch of angry brides, mother of the brides, father in the brides coming in if their marriage application would get delayed and the ceremony would not be able to happen,” said state Sen. Karla Bigham, DFL-Cottage Grove.

Improving conditions and the availability of vaccines will allow for a winding down of exceptions like these by the end of spring, said Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove.

A House vote and signature from Gov. Tim Walz are needed to allow for the extension.

— Brian Bakst | MPR News

Southern Minn newspaper group staff contributed to this article.

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