COVID-19 Latest Aug. 9

(Christine T. Nguyen/MPR News)

Minnesota’s newest COVID-19 data shows some moderation in the growth of new cases and hospitalizations, but officials remain worried the state is on the wrong path to stemming the spread.

The Health Department on Tuesday reported 502 new confirmed cases of the disease, and six more deaths.

The count of people currently hospitalized dipped to 294, slightly below the August average, while patients needing intensive care (136) inched up from Monday. Hospitalizations are way down from their late-May peak, but they’ve stayed stubbornly consistent at around 300 patients daily since late July.

Of the 1,823 in Minnesota who’ve died, about 74 percent had been living in long-term care or assisted living facilities; nearly all had underlying health problems.

Among the 76,355 total confirmed cases since the pandemic began, 90 percent of those diagnosed have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.

Minnesota currently has around 6,000 active, confirmed cases, a record in the outbreak, although the number (confirmed and unconfirmed) was likely higher in May when testing was much lower.

In south central Minnesota, Blue Earth County has the most confirmed cases, now at 1,278, including five deaths. Rice County is next with 1,199 confirmed and eight deaths, while Steele County has 436 confirmed and two deaths. Le Sueur County has 384 confirmed and two deaths; Nicollet County 442 confirmed and 15 deaths; Waseca County 270 confirmed and three deaths; Goodhue County 261 confirmed and nine deaths; Brown County 131 confirmed and two deaths; and Sibley County 140 confirmed and three deaths.

‘Edge of a cliff’

The newest numbers come a day after state public health leaders sounded the alarm that Minnesota is headed for serious trouble as fall turns to winter unless more Minnesotans start doing the right things, including wearing masks and socially distancing even at meetups with friends and family.

"We cannot afford to have this Labor Day weekend further accelerate the community spread, because if that happens, what comes next is going to be worse," Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm warned on Monday. “For a while now, we feel we’ve been kind of walking on the edge of a cliff.”

Minnesotans’ behavior in stores, restaurants and other public places isn’t so much the problem now, but “informal gatherings have really proven to be a weak spot in our response to the pandemic,” the commissioner said.

“Cases have now begun increasing at a faster rate than our testing,” said Malcolm. “We see outbreaks occurring in many settings in our state … a really concerning high level of community transmission.”

Malcolm and Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, conceded that many people, fatigued by six months of hearing about the need to take precautions against the disease, may be tuning out.

“The bottom line is people have to follow them in order for them to work,” Ehresmann said of the public health safety recommendations. “We can provide lots of guidance … but that’s not what will turn this pandemic around.”

20-somethings drive the spread

The recent surge in cases hasn’t translated yet to an increase in hospitalizations. It’s been largely driven by Minnesotans in their 20s, who are generally less likely to suffer symptoms severe enough to require hospitalization.

Officials, though, have warned for weeks that the waves of news cases will eventually push the hospitalization and intensive care numbers higher.

People in their 20s make up the age bracket with the largest number of confirmed cases — more than 17,500 since the pandemic began, including more than 10,000 ages 20-24.

Suburbs, southern MN drive new cases

Regionally, the Twin Cities and its suburbs had been driving the counts of newly reported cases. Monday’s data, however, show new cases exploding everywhere except Hennepin and Ramsey counties.

That trend continued in Tuesday’s numbers, with cases climbing in southern Minnesota and the Twin Cities suburbs.

The per-capita rate of infection in southern Minnesota has been rising steeply in the last week, basically doubling since July.

Northern Minnesota cases have resumed their climb after jumping in July and then retreating a bit. Beltrami County, home to Bemidji, has seen a steady climb the past few weeks. The county reported 321 cases and one death as of Tuesday.

Meatpacking operations had been hot spots for big outbreaks in southwest, west-central and central Minnesota earlier in the pandemic.

New cases had slowed considerably, although the problem has resurfaced recently in McLeod County (367 cases), where more than 20 employees at a Seneca Foods plant in Glencoe were identified recently in an outbreak.

Le Sueur and Waseca counties are also seeing big, recent case increases. Le Sueur showed 384 cases and two deaths as of Tuesday.

College concerns grow as fall semester nears

Worries continue about the growth of COVID-19 among younger Minnesotans, including that those infected will inadvertently spread the virus to grandparents and other more vulnerable people.

State health authorities have been reiterating their concerns about college students joining end-of-summer parties and other gatherings that could feed the spread of COVID-19 and bring it onto campuses this fall.

Officials on Monday also noted a spike in Winona County they attribute to college-age people returning to schools there. Winona State University and St. Mary's University are based in Winona, as is a campus of Minnesota State College Southeast.

Minnesota’s Sturgis cases rise; 1 in ICU

State health officials worried for weeks about Minnesotans carrying COVID-19 back from the massive Aug. 7-16 motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D.

The cases came rolling in shortly after the rally ended. Minnesota now has 49 cases tied to the Sturgis rally, with two people in the hospital and one in intensive care, Ehresmann said Monday.

“The lasting effects of this large event are still being seen,” she said.

Officials have urged anyone who went to self-isolate for 14 days, get tested if they don’t feel well and stay home until they get the test results.

The rally drew some 460,000 people from across the country. Most people didn't take significant precautions against COVID-19 infections. A few people wore masks and some said they were avoiding crowds, but many others packed close together at bars and rock shows.

‘Worrisome trend’

The newest numbers come after the state’s case total climbed by nearly 2,000 over the weekend.

The number of new cases reported each day has been trending upward in the past couple weeks after falling earlier in the month. The percentage of tests coming back positive has also been trending up.

That drew the attention of White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx, who was in Minnesota on Sunday.

Birx noted to reporters that there’s a “worrisome trend” here because Minnesota now has nine counties where the rate of positive cases detected in tests now tops 10 percent, up from just a couple not long ago.

Statewide, the percent of positive COVID-19 tests has been over 5 percent since Thursday.

That Birx meeting on Sunday appeared to galvanize Malcolm on Monday.

Birx, she said, made “strong and pointed warnings” about Minnesota’s current position in the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that the Twin Cities and its suburbs stood out to the federal government as one of the few urban areas in the country where case counts are surging in recent weeks.

Malcolm said that Birx emphasized that it was critical Minnesota bring down the case growth and level of community transmission before winter, when people return to more of an indoor existence, creating more close contact and accelerating the opportunity for spread.

Experts: Stay vigilant on kids’ health as school resumes

As Minnesotans prepare to send their children back to school in person, online or some combination of the two, parents are dealing with a variety of unknowns. One challenge is explaining the virus and the need for changes to their lives to children.

Dr. Megan Culler Freeman, pediatric infectious disease fellow at the University of Pittsburgh, said it's OK to acknowledge and be honest about the uncertainty of this school year to kids.

"You can teach them the reason that we wash our hands, the reason that we wear masks is to try to keep us safe from getting sick,” Freeman said. “So, I think just being very honest with your kids is the way to go."

Usually, during the school year, a child might get the sniffles or a low-grade cough, which might not have been as big as a concern in life before the pandemic as it is now. Dr. Gigi Chawla, the chief of pediatrics at Children's Minnesota, said that parents will have to reassess that old style of assessment of sickness.

"Kids with a little bit of a sniffle, a runny nose, sneezing and learning to cough in the crook of their arm and actually we just can't allow that this fall or winter, we really do need to all take the position that if your child is sick in any way that that would mean that they should stay home until they're well,” Chawla told MPR News.

Some private and public schools in the state have started back already, though most public schools in Minnesota start back next week.

— Peter Cox | MPR News

U Crookston imposing COVID-19 curfew

The University of Minnesota Crookston has imposed a 9 p.m. on-campus curfew in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Chancellor Mary Holz-Clause said the curfew is designed to keep students away from bars or large off-campus gatherings.

School officials will reevaluate the curfew on Sept. 8, based on the number of COVID-19 cases in the area, and local health care capacity.

"Decisions are very much made based upon what's happening locally, because we know it can change from one community to another,” she said. “And those will be the factors that will help guide that decision as we go forward."

Holz-Clause says exceptions will be made for students with off-campus jobs.

— Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Southern Minn newspaper group staff contributed to this article.

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