Minnesota’s COVID-19 trend lines remain encouraging rolling into February. Hospitalizations, caseloads and daily death counts continue to improve, along with the pace of vaccinations.
The state Health Department on Monday reported 8,906 known active cases — the first time since early October the state had fewer that 9,000 active cases and far lower than in late November when the count hovered around 50,000.
The numbers also continue to look good on hospitalizations — 387 Minnesotans were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Sunday, with 92 needing intensive care. ICU cases — a closely watched metric — are at their lowest level in more than four months.
The state’s recorded 462,528 confirmed or probable cases in the pandemic, including 727 reported Monday. Of those, about 97 percent of people have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.
Two newly reported deaths raised Minnesota’s toll to 6,202. Among those who’ve died, about 63 percent had been living in long-term care or assisted living facilities; most had underlying health problems.
The hopeful outlook is tempered now by concerns over new virus strains arriving in the United States. All three known new COVID-19 variants have now been confirmed in the U.S., including a case of the Brazilian strain identified recently in Minnesota.
“There’s still a lot of information that we don’t have about these variants,” Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, said Monday as she cautioned the state wasn’t out of the woods yet.
Beyond the new strains, she noted the state is starting to see outbreaks originating from the state easing gathering restrictions on bars and restaurants, as well as from youth sports.
“Although our case numbers are down, that doesn’t mean we’re feeling comfortable that everything’s great and we can open up,” Ehresmann said.
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 88,000 since the pandemic began, including more than 46,000 among people ages 20 to 24.
The number of high school-age youth confirmed with the disease has also grown, with nearly 36,000 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.
Caseloads are trending down across all regions of the state following a late December, early January blip.
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 during the pandemic. Counts among Indigenous people jumped in October relative to population.
Vaccinations push ahead
State leaders were challenged early on to get COVID-19 vaccine shots into arms quickly, and took criticism that the process was too slow at the start.
The latest numbers, though, show the upswing in vaccinations well underway.
Nearly 442,000 Minnesotans received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine as of Saturday, about 8 percent of the state’s population.
While there is not yet enough vaccine to meet the demand, state health officials said the infrastructure in place now will speed vaccinations once more doses are available.
On Monday, Gov. Tim Walz announced more than 35,000 Minnesotans ages 65 and older will be able to get vaccines this week at community vaccination sites but also at clinics and hospitals.
Minnesota is “increasingly moving the vaccine into communities to meet seniors where they are,” Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters Monday.
The state will push ahead with some semi-permanent mass vaccination sites along with delivering vaccine supplies through the existing channels of pharmacies, health clinics and hospitals.
Officials continue to caution that the state does not have enough vaccine for everyone who wants it at this point.
Making Minnesotans 65 and older eligible along with educators and health care workers added more than 1.1 million to the priority population, said Ehresmann.
Supplies are increasing, including another 11,000 doses or so weekly from the federal government atop the 60,000 to 65,000 weekly allocation, Ehresmann said. Still, “there is just not enough vaccine for everyone in those groups to be vaccinated all at once.”