The Health Department on Wednesday reported 56 more COVID-19 deaths, shattering the pandemic’s previous record of 36, which happened Friday. Wednesday’s awful number puts Minnesota’s seven-day trend above 30 deaths a day for the first time in the pandemic.
Nearly 1,300 people are in Minnesota hospitals because of COVID-19, with nearly 300 needing intensive care, according to Health Department data.
Active, confirmed cases of the disease remain at record levels.
The numbers come a day after Gov. Tim Walz tightened restrictions on late-night social life to stem the spread of the disease. In a Wednesday morning interview with MPR News, he signaled that a single-day record for deaths was imminent.
"This is just inevitable if we do not change our behaviors and take some mitigation efforts, this will continue to spike,” he said.
The disease’s rampant spread is being fueled by informal gatherings and get-togethers with family and friends, transmitted unknowingly by people who have the virus but do not have symptoms, officials say.
Of the 194,570 confirmed or probable cases identified in the pandemic to date, about 81 percent have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.
The deaths reported Tuesday raised Minnesota’s toll to 2,754. Among those who’ve died, about 69 percent had been living in long-term care or assisted living facilities; most had underlying health problems.
Caseloads rising across age groups
New cases are up dramatically over the past six weeks in all age groups.
People in their 20s still make up the age bracket with the state’s largest number of confirmed cases — more than 40,000 since the pandemic began, including more than 22,000 among people ages 20-24.
The number of high school-age children confirmed with the disease has also grown, with some 16,000 total cases among children ages 15 to 19 since the pandemic began.
Those numbers help explain why experts remain particularly concerned about teens and 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. It’s especially concerning because people can have the coronavirus and spread COVID-19 when they don’t have symptoms.
Walz on Tuesday said the state has data showing infection rates rising around bar and restaurant activity after 9 p.m. among people ages 18 to 35, noting that people who have the virus but don’t have symptoms are unwittingly spreading it.
“This is dangerous because we can’t see it,” Walz said. “They are not sick,” he said of asymptomatic people, “but they are infected and they are contagious.”
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.
Northwestern Minnesota no longer has the state’s fastest-growing outbreak. It’s been passed by east-central Minnesota. But new cases are rising at accelerating rates everywhere.
Collectively, rural areas of Minnesota continue to report the most new COVID-19 cases.
Northern Minnesota, once the region least affected by the disease, has also seen its caseload grow dramatically in recent weeks.
In Itasca County in northeastern Minnesota, COVID-19 cases are surging to the point that county health officials have suspended individual contact tracing, citing a record high rate of infections through community transmission.
“If you are in a group setting, just assume that someone has COVID,” said Kelly Chandler, department manager for Itasca County Public Health, in a press release.
Latino cases jump
In Minnesota and across the country, COVID-19 has hit communities of color disproportionately hard in both cases and deaths. That’s especially true for Minnesotans of Hispanic descent.
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 slowest among Black Minnesotans, who reported the most new COVID-19 cases per capita for much of the spring and summer.
‘So much virus circulating in our state’
The overall numbers continue to paint a troubling picture of a rapidly worsening pandemic in Minnesota. The latest numbers continue to show rampant spread across Minnesota, not limited to just one region or demographic group, like earlier in the pandemic.
There’s increasing concern about the ability of hospitals to handle more. They were already filling in the summer and fall from normal use, and the surge in COVID-19 patients is putting hospitals in the Twin Cities “near the top of their capacity,” Malcolm said last week.
Staffing is becoming a challenge as more health care workers get sick, she added.
“Minnesota is in a bad spot … and it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, told reporters last week.
While more testing is uncovering more cases, “it’s not the testing that’s the problem,” Ehresmann said. “It’s the sheer fact that we have so much virus circulating in our state.”
MN opening more sites for free COVID testing
Minnesota is adding more than a dozen new COVID-19 testing locations over the next couple of weeks, including 10 in armories around the state and several locations at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
On Monday, the state opened a saliva testing site at the Minneapolis Convention Center. Similar testing is already available free of charge at sites in St. Paul, Mankato, Winona, Brooklyn Park, Moorhead, Duluth and St. Cloud.
Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said the saliva test is as effective as ones that use nasal swabs.
"There's more than one type of saliva test. This one was I believe the first that got FDA emergency use authorization and the reliability is very high,” Malcolm said.
Testing is free and available to anyone who wants to be tested whether they have symptoms or not. The state does not require identification or insurance for saliva testing, but does recommend that patients make an appointment. The tests taken at the Minneapolis Convention Center will be analyzed at a lab in the state and results should be available in 24 to 48 hours, state health officials say.
Other types of testing are available at medical clinics, pop-up sites and temporary locations throughout the state.
Health authorities recommend testing for anyone who is exhibiting symptoms, or people who have been exposed, think they've been exposed or think they need to be tested.
More details are available on the Minnesota Department of Health website.
— MPR News Staff
Record sixth special session set for Thursday
Minnesota lawmakers are coming back into special session on Thursday to decide if Gov. Tim Walz will maintain his emergency powers to manage the coronavirus response.
Walz called the special session in a proclamation Monday because he is again extending the executive order tied to COVID-19 measures his administration has taken. That will remain in place for an additional 30 days unless both the House and Senate vote to unwind the authority. That’s unlikely given that the Legislature is under split-party control.
Walz said the climbing cases require a nimble response. The governor told MPR News Wednesday that he is not inclined to give up those powers given some of the opposition he's seen to pandemic restrictions.
"I've had legislators tell me this is like the flu. I have four people in the hospital across Minnesota with the flu today. I have 1,400 across the state with COVID and 56 dead,” he said. “So, I need a little evolution in the thinking."
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said she’s expecting a quick special session.
“A real ‘Groundhog Day’ event — so very similar to what we saw in August and September when we were in the quiet period and talked about the emergency powers and did not pass legislation,” she said. “I anticipate that’s what kind of special session it will be.”
The Minnesota Legislature has had an unprecedented five special sessions already this year due to the pandemic. Last week’s election won’t alter party control next year, but Democrats will have a narrower edge in the House and Republicans will lead the Senate by a single seat.
— Brian Bakst | MPR News