Update: Comparing COVID-19 in Minnesota and its neighbors in Upper Midwest

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Samples are tested for COVID-19.
Samples are tested for COVID-19 on March 3, 2020, at the Minnesota Department of Health.
Courtesy of Minnesota Department of Health

Updated: April 4, 5:15 p.m.

As of April 4, Minnesota had 865 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

How does that compare to other states in the Upper Midwest? Because of how COVID-19 is being tracked, it isn’t an easy question to answer.

In terms of raw numbers, Minnesota and Wisconsin had the most confirmed cases in the Upper Midwest, higher than Iowa and the Dakotas.

Spread of the novel coronavirus in the Midwest

Minnesota and Wisconsin are more populated than Iowa and South Dakota. So, the higher numbers of cases don’t necessarily mean the disease is more prevalent there. Here is a look at COVID-19 cases per million residents.

Spread of the novel coronavirus in the Midwest

Some smaller states actually have higher rates of COVID-19, adjusting for population, than do larger states with more total cases.

All of these figures exist in an unusual circumstance, however. Tests for COVID-19 remain in short supply in the United States, and many people who wanted to be tested have been unable to do so.

These figures don’t reflect the number of people who may have COVID-19; they only reflect the current number of people who have tested positive. A state that tests fewer people for coronavirus will get fewer positive results, but that doesn’t mean it has fewer people with the disease.

Minnesota and the Dakotas had tested more people, adjusting for population, than Wisconsin, though Wisconsin finally caught up on March 21. (Iowa stopped reporting negative tests or total tests conducted as of March 13, but started again one week later.)

Spread of the novel coronavirus in the Midwest

A final factor to consider is how many positive tests states are seeing compared to the number of tests they issue. If a state is rationing its limited supply of tests only to people with the highest probability of COVID-19 infection, they’ll get a higher share of positive results than a state that also tests lower-probability patients.

While Upper Midwest states originally showed a big divide in what share of COVID-19 tests were coming back positive, with more time they have converged around a positive rate around 5 percent.

Spread of the novel coronavirus in the Midwest

So few tests are available in the United States that all of these figures are likely underestimating the number of COVID-19 cases, in part because mild cases of COVID-19 can share many symptoms with more familiar diseases such as the seasonal flu.

MPR News will continue to provide updated information as fresh data becomes available.

Editor’s note (March 19, 2020): This story has been updated to reflect that Iowa stopped reporting total COVID-19 tests. Graphics have also been updated to remove “pending” COVID-19 tests from state’s totals.

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