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Nurse Lauren Smith checks on medications inside one of her COVID-19 patient’s rooms in St. Mary’s Hospital at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., on Dec. 31, 2020. (Evan Frost/MPR News 2020)

The COVID-19 burden on Minnesota hospitals is growing rapidly again as the state struggles through a summer-fall surge that refuses to retreat.

Newly reported cases are trending at their highest level in 2021 — averaging 3,400 a day over the past seven reporting days. Active cases also reached a 2021 high — 25,623.

The rate of COVID-19 tests coming back positive topped 8 percent, according to MPR News calculations, higher than the 5 percent officials find concerning and a key signal that transmission of the virus is accelerating.

“We find ourselves in a really truly alarming spike in cases in recent days,” Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters Wednesday, adding that the current surge is due in part to the waning vaccine immunity among some who were inoculated early in the year.

Hospitalizations are a major concern right now.

Bed counts had topped 1,000 in October, putting huge pressure on the state’s short-staffed care systems.

Hospitalizations have been moving back and forth over that threshold since, but Wednesday’s Minnesota Health Department report showed 1,159 people hospitalized with COVID — a 17 percent jump from Friday — with 257 needing intensive care.

“We’re currently seeing the highest number of patients with COVID-19 in our hospitals since last December. And many of our hospitals are at or near capacity,” the HealthPartners medical system said Wednesday.

Bed counts had been about equally distributed between greater Minnesota and the Twin Cities region for weeks, but the newest numbers show hospitalizations rising faster now in the metro area.

Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday announced another emergency staffing team of 14 Minnesota National Guard members and nine federal nurses will treat patients at facility in Brainerd to help relieve hospital capacity in central and northern Minnesota by accepting up to 34 patients from area hospitals.

State officials also pleaded with Minnesotans to take care and take precautions against spreading the disease as Thanksgiving and other year-end celebrations approach and children return home from college.

“We don’t want to miss out on the holidays, but at the same time we don’t want to be the person who passes a potentially deadly disease to a loved one,” said Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director.

“We want to make sure we’re masking, that we’re testing as appropriate, that we’re (social) distancing when possible and washing our hands,” she added.

While numbers go up and down, Wednesday’s data shows Minnesota’s COVID-19 wave stuck at relatively high levels. State public health leaders continue to plead with Minnesotans to stay vigilant and get vaccinated, warning that another surge is possible.

Driven by the highly contagious delta variant, the entire state, except for Lake of the Woods County, shows a high level of COVID-19 transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The state’s death toll stands at 8,925, including 43 deaths newly reported on Wednesday. Deaths typically follow a surge in cases and hospitalizations. In past COVID-19 waves, it’s been the last of the key metrics to improve.

Minnesota seems to better positioned now than during its fall 2020 and spring 2021 spikes. More than 74 percent of state residents age 12 and older have received at least one vaccination shot, with nearly 71 percent now completely vaccinated.

The state is seeing progress in getting booster shots into Minnesotans who’ve already been vaccinated.

However, the struggle continues to get more Minnesotans vaccinated. Wide gaps remain in the vaccination rates among regions and counties.

“This spike is bad, it’s scary, but it would be so much worse ... if it weren’t for the fact that so many Minnesotans have the vaccine,” Malcolm said.

Asked why the surge is happening now given the relatively high level of vaccinations in the state, Malcolm acknowledged that part of it appears to be that the immunity levels of people who were vaccinated early in the year appear to be receding.

“We think it’s just a confluence of factors,” she said of the ongoing fall surge. “It’s the combination of waning immunity among those first vaccinated. It’s the relaxation of mitigation … a lot more (disease) circulating without masking.”

Nurse Jeanette Rupert works on a patient in the COVID ICU ward at Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park, Minn.Evan Frost | MPR News 2020

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