COVID-19 Latest

A sign directs people toward COVID-19 testing in Minneapolis. (Evan Frost/MPR News)

Minnesota’s upswing in new COVID-19 continued Thursday with 745 new confirmed cases, although a recent jump in hospitalizations for the disease has paused.

The Health Department reported 298 people currently hospitalized for the disease with 141 in intensive care. Those key metrics dipped slightly from Wednesday. Still, officials are increasingly concerned about the overall direction of those numbers as new case count rise.

The state also passed a milestone with officials reporting more than 1 million tests for the disease completed since the pandemic began.

Overall, the numbers offered a familiar refrain. Cases continue to trend upward, partially explained by slowly rising testing volume; hospitalizations are slowly trending up; deaths are flat.

Officials reported five more deaths, bringing the toll to 1,594 since the pandemic began. About 76 percent of those who’ve died had been living in long-term care or assisted living facilities, nearly all had underlying health problems.

Of the 53,692 confirmed COVID-19 cases during the pandemic, about 88 percent of those infected have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.

In south central Minnesota, Rice County has the most confirmed cases, now at 970, including eight deaths. Blue Earth County is next with 801 confirmed and four deaths, while Steele County has 318 confirmed and one death. Le Sueur County has 191 confirmed and one death; Nicollet County 287 confirmed and 13 deaths; Waseca County 123 confirmed and no deaths; Goodhue County 163 confirmed and eight deaths; Brown County 78 confirmed and two deaths; and Sibley County 76 confirmed and two deaths.

All this week, public health leaders have been ratcheting up their concerns that Minnesota is back on the wrong path in its fight against COVID-19’s spread.

With every decision Minnesotans make now about masking or not masking, socially distancing or not, “you are contributing to the solution, or to the crisis,” said Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director.

Health officials “cannot do this on our own,” Ehresmann said, adding that success depends on Minnesotans doing the “right thing” in their behavior. Given the massive outbreaks elsewhere in the United States, Minnesota does not want to be like “states that didn’t see the COVID train before it ran them over,” she warned.

More than a ‘blip’

Wednesday marked the first time in a month that total current hospitalizations rose above 300, the product of a weekslong upswing in new confirmed infections, coming a day after Minnesota saw one of its largest one-day increases in hospitalizations since the pandemic began. New cases continue their upward climb, too.

While hospitalizations still remain far lower now than at the late-May peak, officials have been bracing Minnesotans in recent days to expect a surge following the climb in new confirmed cases. That appears to be happening.

“As we have feared, we are seeing our hospitalizations begin to increase, and I don’t think it’s just a blip,” Ehresmann said.

She also noted 83 new cases in long-term care facilities, a jump from the prior day — but most of the new infections were found in health care workers at those facilities, not residents. That’s especially worrisome because it indicates people are bringing in the disease and exposing vulnerable people.

Cases growing across age brackets, up north

State health officials continue to worry about the recent spike of coronavirus cases in younger Minnesotans, including that those infected will inadvertently spread the virus to grandparents and other more vulnerable populations.

Minnesotans in their 20s now make up the age group with the most confirmed cases in the pandemic, with more than 12,500. The median age of Minnesotans infected has been trending down in recent weeks and is now 36 years old.

Investigators continue to see rising cases with bars and restaurants at their center and are looking at outbreaks in 28 establishments, Ehresmann said.

“Consider all the roles you play” in all daily interactions, she cautioned, noting that people who might not worry about themselves should worry about infecting vulnerable family members and coworkers.

Regionally, newly reported cases have been driven recently by the Twin Cities and its suburbs, but it’s present in all parts of the state, including the north, which had largely avoided the outbreak until recently.

New cases have also been rising in northern Minnesota. Cases in Beltrami County, home to Bemidji, have more than doubled in the past week and a half, from 53 to 122 on Friday. That jumped again to 164 as of Wednesday.

Ehresmann last week said the Beltrami case increase is tied to spread from athletic events and other public gatherings.

Walz’s schools decision imminent

Walz will announce a plan Thursday on bringing kids back into school buildings. The state Education Department has told school leaders to pretty much prepare for anything, including some combination of in-school and online instruction.

“Nobody wants kids in school more than me,” and state officials have been working for months on how to do that safely, Walz, a former high school teacher, said recently.

“We’re doing everything possible to get those kids back in those classrooms … to keep them there but also have some nimbleness” to move back to an online or hybrid model if cases start to climb, he said, adding: “This is gonna be a challenge.”

The DFL governor has suggested in recent days that there won’t be a uniform order that will determine whether school buildings reopen. On KFGO radio Friday, Walz reinforced that local decisions are important and it'll be up to school leaders to implement safety guidelines.

"It won't necessarily look the same everywhere,” he said earlier this week, “but the outcomes need to be the same — kids and staff safe in that learning environment.”

On Tuesday night, Minneapolis Public Schools said it plans to start out the school year virtually. Officials say they’ll create a better distance learning experience for families than during the time schools closed buildings last spring, and that the decision on when to return to school will depend on how COVID-19 evolves.

Separately on Wednesday, Walz announced plans to give away 4 million masks to businesses across the state for free to help comply with the mask mandate.

Walz and Minnesota health officials say the state needs 90 percent or better compliance to curb the spread of the virus and eliminate the need to walk back business openings.

Minnesota’s mask mandate took effect Saturday. State health officials said it would be several weeks before officials could assess its impact.

Most fall classes at U of M likely to go online

The University of Minnesota will likely have a majority of its classes fully online this fall. The university on Wednesday rolled out plans that allow for flexibility in classes because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 6,200 classes are listed as online or remote. So far, the Twin Cities campus has around 2,600 classes assigned to a room — which means they'll be either in-person classes or used in a hybrid of in person and online.

A spokesperson for the university said these numbers are not final. He said more than 60 percent of students who had planned to study on the Twin Cities campus have at least one in-person or blended format class on their schedule currently.

Students are free to adjust their classes to take them in the format that works best for them.

— Peter Cox | MPR News

Como Zoo reopens — with some COVID-19 restrictions

St. Paul’s Como Zoo reopened on Wednesday after being closed to visitors for months because of the coronavirus.

The zoo is allowing up to 250 people at a time, with reserved entry at half-hour intervals. All staff and visitors are required to wear face masks. Reservations are limited to four people at a time. Visitors will move through the conservatory and zoo on a one-way walking path, although some buildings will be closed and the zoo will only be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Como Zoo is the most recent major Twin Cities attraction to reopen. The Minnesota Zoo opened last week, and the Walker Art Center, the Bell Museum and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts opened earlier this month. The Minnesota Children's Museum will reopen Aug. 1 and the Science Museum of Minnesota is scheduled to reopen the first week of September.

— Tim Nelson | MPR News

Southern Minn newspaper group staff contributed to this article.

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