COVID-19’s toll in Minnesota continued its grim ascent Tuesday with the Health Department reporting 15 more deaths, nearly 2,200 more cases and a record number of hospitalizations.
Newly confirmed cases were up on relatively low testing, skyrocketing the positive test rate above 15 percent — more than 3 times the threshold officials say is concerning.
It’s a jump so startling that MPR News checked with the department to see if it was an error. It was not.
State officials had expected that late summer and early fall gatherings would bring a surge of cases in October. They also anticipated the wave would put more people in the hospital — and lead to more deaths. That appears to be happening.
Of the 137,536 cases of the disease confirmed in the pandemic to date, about 89 percent have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.
The deaths reported Tuesday raised Minnesota’s toll to 2,368. Among those who’ve died, about 70 percent had been living in long-term care or assisted living facilities; most had underlying health problems.
Tuesday's report showed a new COVID-related death in both Le Sueur and Nicollet counties.
In south central Minnesota, Blue Earth County has the most confirmed cases, now at 2,066, including seven deaths. Rice County is next with 1,674 confirmed and 10 deaths, while Steele County has 782 confirmed and three deaths. Le Sueur County has 645 confirmed and six deaths; Nicollet County 747 confirmed and 18 deaths; Waseca County 937 confirmed and nine deaths; Goodhue County 624 confirmed and 11 deaths; Brown County 333 confirmed and three deaths; and Sibley County 260 confirmed and three deaths.
Some events ‘no longer safe’
The newest numbers come a day after Gov. Tim Walz and public health experts painted an increasingly worrisome picture of a COVID-19 outbreak now driven more by people letting their guard down at family gatherings and celebrations, sporting events and informal meetups rather than at stores, restaurants and bars.
The governor’s top health officers again urged Minnesotans to rethink their plans for large family gatherings at Thanksgiving and other upcoming holidays, warning they pose a rising risk.
Given the current high levels of community spread in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest, get-togethers of “large extended families, multiple families from around the region, that absolutely would be a really, really bad idea this year,” said Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director.
There have been more than 70 related outbreaks from weddings since June, and that's lead to more than 600 cases among those attending, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said.
The “vast majority” of COVID-19 spread is coming from these kinds of events, said Ehresmann. “Things that were relatively safe a month or two ago are no longer safe."
Reaching for a football metaphor, Walz, a former high school football coach, called on Minnesotans Monday to make a “goal-line stand” against the virus by wearing masks, socially distancing and staying home if you feel ill.
“We can write a different story about what COVID-19 does in Minnesota, but it’s going to take all of us,” he told told reporters.
Asked about possible moves to tighten business restrictions given the current surge, Walz said stores and other public settings weren’t the concern they had been earlier.
“It's just a matter of using the tools that we have in place,” he said, adding that if the pandemic continues to accelerate, he will look for other actions to slow its spread.
Caseloads rising across age groups
New cases are up dramatically over the past month in all age groups. That includes a concerning rise in the number of new cases among Minnesotans ages 60 and older.
People in their 20s still make up the age bracket with the state’s largest number of confirmed cases — more than 30,000 since the pandemic began, including nearly 17,000 among people ages 20-24.
The numbers help explain why experts remain particularly concerned about 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 and that spread could hamper attempts to reopen schools and campuses completely to in-person teaching.
The number of high school-age children confirmed with the disease has also grown, with more than 12,100 total cases among children ages 15 to 19 since the pandemic began.
Cases surging along Minnesota’s western border
Regionally, central, northern and southern 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.
Newly reported cases are highest in western Minnesota. The data doesn’t explain why. However, cases are surging currently in the Dakotas. North Dakota has the country’s worst per-capita spread rate.
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. Northwestern Minnesota continues to see cases rise swiftly relative to it population.
The most recent hot spots are all counties in northwestern Minnesota.
“We are seeing more deaths in greater Minnesota because we are seeing more cases there,” Ehresmann said last week. “We will see more and more deaths from greater Minnesota because of the high caseload.”
Ehresmann and Malcolm tied the recent steep rise in cases and deaths to “COVID fatigue” but also described people who are ill but refuse to get tested because they don't want to admit they have it and don't quarantine as a contributing factor in spreading the disease.
Latino, Indigenous cases jump
In Minnesota and across the country, COVID-19 has hit communities of color disproportionately hard in both cases and deaths.
Minnesotans of Hispanic descent are testing positive for COVID-19 at about five times the rate of white Minnesotans. They, along with Black Minnesotans, are also being hospitalized and moved to intensive care units at higher rates than the overall population.
Similar trends hold true for Minnesota’s Indigenous residents. Counts among Indigenous people have jumped in October relative to population. The number of new COVID-19 cases among Native Americans has grown by about 75 percent in recent weeks.
October data also show newly confirmed cases accelerating among Latino people in Minnesota.
Distrust of the government, together with deeply rooted health and economic disparities, have hampered efforts to boost testing among communities of color, particularly for undocumented immigrants who fear their personal information may be used to deport them.
Anoka-Hennepin board votes to continue sports, defying guidelines
Anoka-Hennepin schools voted Monday to keep high school sports and other activities going, even as they close the schools to in-person learning.
The district decided last week to move to distance learning for middle and high school students in response to rising COVID-19 cases. State guidance says schools have to at least meet guidelines for in-person instruction to offer sports and other out-of-class activities.
But citing athletic staff belief that COVID-19 can be managed among high school teams, and indications that nonschool teams will play anyway, school board members voted to defy state guidelines.
Board member Jeff Simon said he believed kids were going to participate anyway, and school was the best place for it.
“They're involved with and charged with and concerned about individual health and containing the spread of COVID-19, so continuing activities under the current structure following the Minnesota high school league recommendations for safe participation really allows the state a continued voice and management of the activity process going forward.”
District Superintendent David Law also told board members that there may be other districts that are defying the guidelines as well.
— Tim Nelson | MPR News
More free testing scheduled in Minnesota communities
As Minnesota continues to see more than 1,000 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases a day, state health officials have scheduled another round of free testing sites this week.
Free testing will take place Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in Little Falls, Red Wing and Waconia, as well as Tuesday in Tyler, Thursday in Madison and Thursday and Friday in St. Paul.
Find more details — and schedule an appointment — on the Minnesota Department of Health website.
Officials said the free testing sites are targeted to areas with COVID-19 outbreaks, or barriers to accessing existing test sites.
Free saliva testing sites are now open in Duluth, Winona, Moorhead, Brooklyn Park and Mankato. Find more information here.
— MPR News Staff