COVID-19 Latest Aug. 9

(Christine T. Nguyen/MPR News)

Thursday’s COVID-19 numbers showed more than 1,000 newly confirmed cases of the disease in Minnesota, a fact that pushed the state’s total caseload in the pandemic past 100,000.

The newest counts came amid strong testing levels — more testing typically brings more cases, and the positive test rate trended down a bit.

Still, the 100,000-case milestone was a difficult reminder of what Health Department officials have been warning about for weeks: the pandemic is far from over. On Saturday, Minnesota’s recorded death toll from the disease passed 2,000.

New hospitalization rates remain their highest in months. The trend of active confirmed cases also stands at record levels.

Thirteen deaths reported Thursday raise Minnesota’s toll to 2,049. Among those who’ve died, about 71 percent had been living in long-term care or assisted living facilities; nearly all had underlying health problems.

Of the 100,200 cases of the disease confirmed in the pandemic to date, about 90 percent have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.

In south central Minnesota, Blue Earth County has the most confirmed cases, now at 1,768, including seven deaths. Rice County is next with 1,364 confirmed and eight deaths, while Steele County has 567 confirmed and two deaths. Le Sueur County has 483 confirmed and four deaths; Nicollet County 562 confirmed and 17 deaths; Waseca County 768 confirmed and nine deaths; Goodhue County 396 confirmed and nine deaths; Brown County 208 confirmed and two deaths; and Sibley County 204 confirmed and three deaths.

‘Escalating roller coaster effect’

State public health authorities say outbreaks are being driven now largely by formal and informal get-togethers among friends, families and co-workers who are not staying vigilant against the disease.

The state is starting to see the surge officials expected from Labor Day weekend gatherings, sporting events and college student meetups before the start of fall semester, Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, told reporters Wednesday.

“It’s a function of what happened at the beginning of September … but sort of the ongoing ripple effect of community transmission we’ve seen all summer,” she said.

Analysts are seeing higher numbers even on days of the week with typically low case counts. The highs and lows are both rising. “That escalating roller coaster effect is definitely in place, and we’re concerned about the activity that we’re continuing to see,” she added.

Ehresmann on Wednesday also called on Minnesotans to get a flu shot, noting that public health authorities are concerned about a one-two punch of COVID-19 and flu outbreaks this fall and through the winter.

The state order in the spring that shut down retail stores, salons and indoor dining at restaurants because of COVID-19 also helped squelch the spring flu season, she noted. With bars, eateries and other retail operations partially reopened now to indoor business, officials are uneasy about what might happen now.

Worries continue around college students, kids

People in their 20s make up the age bracket with the state’s largest number of confirmed cases — more than 23,000 since the pandemic began, including more than 13,500 infections 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 campuses completely to in-person teaching.

The number of high school-age children confirmed with the disease has also grown, with some 9,400 total cases among children ages 15 to 19 since the pandemic began.

With many schools in Minnesota attempting to teach in-person, officials say they are especially concerned about the rising numbers of teens becoming infected and how that could affect decisions to keep school buildings open.

Surges seen in southern, central Minnesota

Regionally, southern and central 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. Northern Minnesota is also on the upswing.

In southwestern Minnesota, at least 75 cases have been traced to a late-August wedding in Lyon County that officials have previously described as the state’s largest single social spreader event.

Thirty-nine cases have now been traced to a Martin County funeral, with one person hospitalized.

Southeastern Minnesota, specifically Winona, has been another hot spot as students return to college at Winona State and other schools. The problem has been compounded by similar outbreaks nearby across the Mississippi River at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

Walz mulls regional easing of restaurant, business curbs

Gov. Tim Walz said Tuesday he may be open to easing limits on the number of people allowed in businesses, including restaurants, in parts of the state where the pandemic appears to be well-controlled.

Walz pointed to schools as a good example of organizations adapting to the changing COVID-19 environment.

After meeting with small business owners in Stillwater, Walz brought up the idea of regional capacity restrictions.

"It's possible, yes, and I don't want to put that out there and create news where there's not news,” he said. The governor noted that it's difficult to discuss easing restrictions at a time of exploding numbers of new cases in Minnesota.

Still, he said the option should be on the table at some point. "I think that is one of the strategies that we're giving a hard look to."

— Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

‘No reason to doubt’ health workers who say they felt threatened

State officials last week said a fact-finding team with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was threatened in mid-September by residents of Eitzen, in far southeastern Minnesota, as the workers attempted to survey residents on COVID-19.

The state Health Department said the team reported their car was blocked in and they were confronted by several people — one of them allegedly armed. Eitzen’s mayor later responded saying the account was not accurate and that a city official and two other residents responded to concerns about people going door to door in an unmarked car with California plates.

The mayor said no one was threatened and no gun was present.

Asked about the discrepancy, Dan Huff, an assistant Minnesota health commissioner, stood by his department’s description.

The agency has “no reason to doubt the details of their reports,” Huff said of the CDC workers, noting that Eitzen and other incidents in Minnesota were serious enough that the CDC decided to pull its team from the state.

— MPR News Staff

More free COVID-19 testing sites announced

Six cities across the state will have free COVID-19 testing this week as part of community testing efforts by the Minnesota Department of Health.

There will be testing sites Thursday in Bemidji, Bloomington, Maplewood, Marshall, Moorhead and Thief River Falls. There's also testing next Saturday in Maplewood.

Find a complete list of locations and times here.

MDH said you don’t need insurance or identification, and you can get tested even if you don’t have symptoms. They're asking people to make an appointment ahead of time — more information is on the state health department website.

The testing sites are intended for those local communities; if you live farther away, MDH suggests getting tested at your local clinic.

— MPR News Staff

Virus spread shifts the school guidance map

The evolving COVID-19 pandemic in Minnesota continues to change school reopening recommendations around the state.

The most recent batch of recommendations, released Sept. 17, cover cases from Aug. 23 to Sept. 5 — a period that happened to see a late-August spike in new COVID-19 cases.

The result? A full 25 counties saw their COVID-19 case counts slip past one of the Health Department’s thresholds, changing their recommendation toward more distance learning for more students.

In the most recent update, six counties are recommended to have all students do full-time distance learning: Blue Earth, Lyon, Stevens, Waseca, Winona and Yellow Medicine counties. All but Waseca County were previously recommended to allow at least some in-person learning.

Not every county got worse. Eleven counties saw their case rates improve compared to last week’s results, and saw their recommendation shift to more in-person learning.

Overall, 24 largely rural counties have a recommendation of in-person for all students.

A formula produced by the Health Department generates the guidance for districts to help decide whether to have in-person learning, distance learning, or a mix, based on the rate of COVID-19 cases in that district’s county over a two-week period.

These recommendations are only considered the starting point for school districts, which make their own learning plans in cooperation with the Health Department.

Minnesota’s yo-yoing COVID-19 case numbers in recent weeks have meant some drastic swings in school districts’ safe learning recommendations, but state health officials say they’re taking the data irregularities into account when working with schools to set learning plans.

Because Minnesota’s calculation uses weeks-old data and calculates cases by the day a person got tested rather than the day the tests were reported, this update is not affected by recent reporting delays caused by the Labor Day weekend.

— David H. Montgomery | MPR News

Southern Minn newspaper group staff contributed to this article.

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