Minnesota’s COVID-19 numbers continue to offer equal parts hope and worry.
Thursday’s data showed a significant drop in the number of people currently hospitalized, and deaths remained in the single digits. The state, however, logged another 1,047 newly confirmed cases.
Recent steep climbs in new cases have led health authorities this week to sound the alarm that Minnesota headed for serious trouble as fall turns to winter unless more Minnesotans start doing more to stem the spread, including wearing masks and socially distancing even at casual meetups with friends and family.
The recent surge in cases hasn’t translated to an increase in hospitalizations. It’s been largely driven by 20-somethings, who are generally less likely to suffer symptoms severe enough to require hospitalization. Officials, though, believe the waves of news cases will eventually push the hospitalization numbers higher.
The count of people currently hospitalized (272) fell from Wednesday, trending down from August when there were consistently 300 or more patients in the hospital daily on average. However, the count of those needing intensive care (138) rose slightly from Wednesday.
Of the 78,123 confirmed cases of the disease in the pandemic, about 90 percent of those identified have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.
Seven additional deaths reported Thursday brought Minnesota’s total in the pandemic to 1,837. Among those who’ve died, about 73 percent had been living in long-term care or assisted living facilities; nearly all had underlying health problems.
Over the past week, Minnesota’s seen its number of active, confirmed cases reach a record high.
In south central Minnesota, Blue Earth County has the most confirmed cases, now at 1,344, including five deaths. Rice County is next with 1,211 confirmed and eight deaths, while Steele County has 449 confirmed and two deaths. Le Sueur County has 399 confirmed and two deaths; Nicollet County 449 confirmed and 15 deaths; Waseca County 281 confirmed and three deaths; Goodhue County 265 confirmed and nine deaths; Brown County 135 confirmed and two deaths; and Sibley County 143 confirmed and three deaths.
Suburbs, southern MN drive new cases
Regionally, the Twin Cities and suburbs had been driving the counts of newly reported cases. This week’s data, however, show new cases exploding everywhere except Hennepin and Ramsey counties.
Thursday’s numbers showed cases climbing in southern and central Minnesota.
Northern Minnesota cases resumed their climb after jumping in July and then retreating. Beltrami County, home to Bemidji, has seen a steady climb the past few weeks. The county reported 329 cases and one death as of Thursday.
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 (370 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 399 cases and two deaths as of Thursday.
‘Weak spot in our response’
With newly confirmed cases rising steeply the past few weeks and college students and kids returning to school, officials are increasingly concerned Minnesotans have numbed to the need to stay vigilant, opening the door to more spread.
Young adults are a particular concern.
People in their 20s make up the age bracket with the state’s largest number of confirmed cases — more than 18,000 since the pandemic began, including more than 10,000 among people ages 20-24.
The number of high school-age children is also growing, topping 7,000 cases for students 15 to 19 years old.
While less likely to feel the worst effects of the disease, experts worry youth and young adults will spread it to grandparents and other vulnerable populations and that such outbreaks could cripple attempts to reopen campuses completely to in-person teaching.
Earlier this week, health authorities 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. The city also has a Minnesota State College Southeast campus.
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,” Malcolm said this week.
Sturgis toll rises
The newest numbers come a day after Minnesota officials said the state now had one death and 50 infections directly linked to the massive Aug. 7-16 motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D. , along with evidence of secondary spread.
That news served as grim reinforcement for the message health officials continue to try to hammer home: The pandemic is not nearly over in Minnesota despite a low daily death count and a relatively stable number of hospitalizations.
While Minnesota leaders are happy that new daily deaths remain in single digits and hospitalizations have flattened, “we are very worried about the high level of cases,” Malcolm told reporters.
“We are seeing very concerning, severe health consequences” among people who’ve been infected with COVID-19, even in cases that were relatively mild, Malcolm said, noting that’s one reason the state is trying to stem the disease.
The Sturgis 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.
Debunking a ‘nonsense’ rumor
Malcolm, infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann and other state health leaders have become increasingly concerned about unsubstantiated claims and outright false stories on social media. On Wednesday, they felt obligated to respond to one of the more outlandish ones.
Ehresmann said they have been hearing of online rumors “to the effect that children who test positive for COVID have been taken from their family members by child protective services.”
That’s false, she said, noting that misinformation is a “real thing” and that people should carefully consider the sources they rely on for information.
“It’s hard to believe,” she added, “we’re at a point where such nonsense needs to be addressed.”
Saliva tests coming for K-12 teachers, daycare staff who want one
Earlier in the pandemic Minnesota officials vowed to make sure any K-12 teacher or day care provider would have access to one free COVID-19 test. On Wednesday, Malcolm said those teachers and staffers would soon be instructions on how to access those tests.
Schools and school staff will be receive instructions this week on how to get a unique code to access a saliva test. The code can be used to access a single test through the end of the year, Malcolm said.
She emphasized that teachers and staff are not required to take a test before returning to classrooms or continuing in child care, but urged those eligible to use the option if needed.
“Maybe you’re feeling symptomatic. Maybe you were exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID,” she added.
— MPR News Staff
MN History Center to reopen after monthslong pandemic closure
After being closed for months amid the pandemic, the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul will reopen to the public on Oct. 1.
The center will limit the number of visitors and advance tickets are recommended. Special exhibits on Prince and First Avenue have been extended through Jan. 3.
The Minnesota Historical Society, which runs the center, says it's ready to also resume self-guided tours of the State Capitol as soon as the Department of Administration reopens the building. The historical society added that its Mille Lacs Indian Museum trading post in Onamia, Minn., will also reopen on Oct. 1. The museum itself will remain closed this year.
The center's research library is still being reconfigured to safely host visitors during the pandemic. It's set to reopen later this year.
— Andrew Krueger | MPR News
HealthPartners to take part in Oxford’s COVID-19 vaccine trial
HealthPartners Wednesday announced that it will be enrolling at least 1,500 people in a clinical trial that will determine whether a vaccine developed by Oxford University is effective at preventing COVID-19.
Participants must be 18 or older, in good health, and not have had COVID-19 already. Researchers are particularly interested in people who have a high risk of contracting COVID-19, such as health care workers, first responders, and food service, grocery store and meat-packing workers.
They’re also looking for people who have stable health conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure that make them more likely to develop severe forms of COVID-19. They’re also looking for people of color to participate.
The trial is a randomized double-blind study. About two-thirds of enrollees will receive the vaccine, while one-third will receive a placebo. Medical experts say there are initial signs the vaccine is working and safe, and hasn’t shown serious side effects among people who got the injection.
Researchers from the HealthPartners Institute will oversee the trial enrollment in partnership with physicians from across the organization’s care system. HealthPartners is the only health system in Minnesota and one of about 100 sites in the United States, Peru and Chile involved in the clinical trial, led by AstraZeneca.
“This research compliments our other efforts to advance COVID-19 testing, treatment and care and is an important part of our mission to improve health and well-being,” said Andrea Walsh, HealthPartners president and CEO.
Although the effort has been the subject of political criticism in the run-up to the presidential election, HealthPartners researcher Charlene McEvoy said the trial is focused on science.
“The American people’s health, the world, is depending on us doing this right. This should not be political,” McEvoy said.
The trial is expected to run for two years, but approval of widespread use may come sooner.
— Tim Nelson | MPR News
Surly Brewing closing its beer hall indefinitely
Calling it a "gut-wreching decision," Surly Brewing Co. announced Wednesday that it will close its beer hall in November. The Minneapolis brewery said in a statement on its website that "beer halls are, by definition, gathering places, and gathering places and pandemics don't mix."
The company says revenue from the space is down 82 percent from the same period last year.
The closure comes just days after workers at the brew hall voted to unionize. In a post on its Facebook page, the union said the move is illegal and clear retaliation for workers forming a union. Company owners say the plans to close the beer hall were put in place weeks ago.
Surly is credited for helping launch the craft-beer boom in Minnesota. It opened its destination beer hall in 2014.
— Peter Cox | MPR News