July 10 update on COVID-19 in MN: Led by Twin Cities suburbs, case counts jump

A lab technologist works in the extracting of RNA from test samples.
Heather Peters, a lab technologist, works in the extracting of RNA from test samples in the Mayo virology lab at the Mayo Clinic Superior Drive facility in Rochester, Minn., in March.
David Joles | AP file

Updated 3:43 p.m.

Minnesota health officials on Friday reported a mix of hopeful and concerning data on COVID-19: Even as new deaths hold steady in single digits and the total number of current hospitalizations dips to near mid-April levels, the daily count of new cases continues to jump — with the Twin Cities suburbs leading the climb.

The Health Department said five more Minnesotans had died from the disease, putting the toll at 1,495 since the pandemic began. The number of people currently hospitalized (224) fell significantly from Thursday even as those needing intensive care (124) inched up.

Minnesota now has nearly 1,500 more active COVID-19 cases than it did in mid-June. Yet the share of active hospitalizations — a closely watched metric as officials try to manage the spread of the disease so it doesn’t overwhelm the health care system — has never been lower.

The daily count of confirmed cases, however, is on the upswing with 609 new cases recorded Thursday.

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The most dramatic recent increases are coming in the suburban counties around the Twin Cities — Dakota, Washington, Anoka, Scott and Carver. For the first time, they now have about as many new cases per capita as Hennepin and Ramsey counties.

New COVID-19 cases by Minnesota region
New COVID-19 cases by Minnesota region.

In mid-June, the five suburban counties were averaging about 70 new cases per day. Over the past week, they’ve averaged 132 new cases per day, a nearly 90 percent increase.

Hennepin and Ramsey counties have also seen an increase in cases, to an average over the past week of 193 new cases in a larger population. But that’s a smaller increase of around 60 percent from the central counties’ rate in mid-June.

Asked on Friday about the growing presence of COVID-19 cases in the suburbs, Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, said that while officials are seeing increases tied to bars and restaurants reopening and to house party activity in places like Edina, there was no single “hot spot answer” explaining the suburban surge.

‘Russian roulette’

Earlier this week Ehresmann warned Minnesotans against holding “COVID parties” as a way to become infected with the coronavirus in a convenient way.

The behavior of young adults in the pandemic has become a central concern among state officials recently as they investigate outbreaks tied to bars and other recently opened indoor social spaces.

New Minnesota COVID-19 cases by age, adjusted for population

As of Friday, Minnesotans in their 20s now make up the largest age group of confirmed cases — more than 9,200 since the pandemic began — with their numbers accelerating in recent weeks since bars were allowed conditionally to open their indoor spaces.

A graph showing the number of COVID-19 positive cases to date.

“It’s really playing Russian roulette,” Ehresmann said Wednesday, noting that even young people face the risk of significant health complications and can spread the disease to vulnerable family members.

Statewide mask order weighed

Winona, Rochester and Mankato this week became the latest Minnesota cities to order citywide mask mandates to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The city mandates will require people to wear a mask in public indoor spaces. Minneapolis, St. Paul and Edina have also mandated mask-wearing in the cities’ public spaces.

Gov. Tim Walz last week said he is also concerned enough about a potential outbreak that he’s considering a statewide mask order. Medical groups in Minnesota and the state Health Department support a statewide order.

The state’s now recorded 40,767 positive cases. About 87 percent of those infected have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.

Of those who’ve died, nearly 80 percent were living in long-term care or assisted living facilities, nearly all had underlying health problems.

State health officials are encouraging family members who visit loved ones in long-term care facilities to practice safety protocols, including wearing a mask and maintaining social distance.

Positive test rate bears watching

The number of confirmed cases and the rate of positive tests for the disease have risen noticeably the past few days, even as deaths and hospitalizations plateau.

On Wednesday, Ehresmann said the recent increase in the positive test rate may be due to focused testing in areas suspected of having significant community spread of the virus.

"I don't want to suggest the high positivity rate is a good thing unconditionally, but there are some situations in which it reflects that our testing is really reaching some of the populations that we need to reach," she said.

On Friday, Ehresmann acknowledged that national laboratories were seeing delays in getting test results back to people, but she implored Minnesotans with COVID-19 symptoms to stay home and wait for the results before going out in public and possibly infecting others.

She also noted that the Health Department is getting reports of some people seeking out COVID-19 testing every couple of days.

“Testing is not a substitute for masking and social distancing,” Ehresmann told reporters. While health officials are encouraging people to get a test, “getting tested over and over again is not necessarily an appropriate use of that resource.”

Meatpacking hot spots remain

Many of the outbreaks outside the Twin Cities metro area are focused around meatpacking plants. Officials have intensified testing in those hot spots, uncovering more infections.

That includes Mower County in southeastern Minnesota, where there were 974 confirmed cases as of Friday. Mower County is home to Hormel Foods and Quality Pork Processors. Both have been partnering with Mayo Clinic to ramp up employee testing.

While some of Mower County’s positive cases are associated with people who work in the facilities and with the people they live with, county officials say they are also seeing transmission among people who live in the county but work in other counties where coronavirus is present.

A graph showing the percentage of cases tested and their current status.

Nobles, in southwestern Minnesota, reported 1,676 confirmed cases Friday with six deaths, the same as Thursday. About 1 in 13 people now have tested positive for COVID-19 in the county since the pandemic began, although the count of new cases has slowed considerably in recent weeks.

Worthington’s massive JBS pork processing plant was the epicenter of the Nobles outbreak. The JBS plant shut on April 20 but has since reopened with expanded hygiene and health monitoring measures.

Similar problems have been reported in Stearns County, where COVID-19 cases tied to two packing plants — Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant in Cold Spring and Jennie-O Turkey in Melrose — skyrocketed in May. An undisclosed number of workers at both plants have tested positive for the virus.

There were about 55 confirmed cases in Stearns County in early May. By Friday, confirmed cases were at 2,481 with 19 deaths.

Kandiyohi County in west-central Minnesota is also dealing with a significant caseload more than two months after officials with the Jennie-O turkey processing plant there said some employees had tested positive for the coronavirus.

As of Friday, the Health Department reported 587 people have now tested positive in the county. The county had confirmed three COVID-19 cases in late April.

Cases have also climbed noticeably in Lyon County (332 cases), around a turkey processor in Marshall. Cases the past few weeks have also grown in Cottonwood County (138 cases), home to a pork processing plant in Windom in southern Minnesota, but the counts there have since stabilized.

Developments from around the state

Bar-driven outbreak reported in Rochester

Olmsted County public health officials say they've identified more than 25 cases of coronavirus among people bar-hopping in downtown Rochester.

Public health officials are asking people who went to bars in downtown Rochester between June 26 and July 7 get tested for coronavirus.

Officials said they have identified a cluster of cases that they can't pin to any specific bar because those who tested positive went to multiple locations. They said that the cases so far have involved alcohol consumption, and no mask-wearing or social distancing.

One bar, Dooley's Pub, closed down last week after several staff members tested positive for COVID-19.

Public health officials say there's been an uptick in cases teens and 20-year-olds in recent weeks. Meanwhile, state public health officials have been tracking similar clusters in other parts of Minnesota, including Mankato, St. Cloud and the Twin Cities.

— Catharine Richert | MPR News

Survey signals support for returning kids to school

An informal, nonscientific survey of Minnesotan families shows 64 percent of those responding indicating they'd feel comfortable sending their students back into school buildings this fall.

Less than 12 percent said they would not feel comfortable sending their kids back to school. Most cited concerns about public health as the reason, according to data released Thursday by the Minnesota Department of Education.

The agency said it collected more than 130,000 completed responses between June 15 and July 6. State officials are expected to announce plans for the 2020-21 public school year no later than the week of July 27.

— MPR News Staff

MN will borrow from feds to sustain jobless aid

Minnesota will soon borrow from the federal government to make sure unemployment benefits keep flowing to those who qualify. 

Many states are doing the same, given the depth and duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. Minnesota is expected to have to tap into federal resources within the week.

“Six hundred thousand people have received benefits and over $5 billion. The previous record in a given year was 250,000 people and $2.8 billion,” Jim Hegman, the state’s unemployment director, told a Minnesota House committee Thursday. “So we did in four months what in the midst of the Great Recession we didn’t even do in a full year.”

He said Minnesota last borrowed to pay benefits during the recession that began in 2008.

It’s likely that the borrowing will be repaid using standard taxes assessed on businesses, which feed the fund in the first place. The money comes to the state at little or no interest, and Congress will face pressure to forgive the loans given how widespread the financial fallout from the pandemic has been.

Hegman’s testimony came during a House Jobs and Economic Development Finance Committee hearing into a proposal related to unemployment benefits tied to idled mining operations.

A pending proposal would supply up to six more months of benefits to people laid off from a mining or a mining industry support job. That’s if they’ve exhausted their standard benefits before operations halted by COVID-19 pandemic or other disruptions can resume.

State Rep. Julie Sandstede, DFL-Hibbing, said the extension would prevent Iron Range towns from being hollowed out during the current dip.

“Unfortunately we’re facing a devastating trifecta in the downturn of taconite, timber and tourism,” she said.

Most of northern Minnesota’s mines have slowed down or been temporarily shut with demand for goods down.

The bill could come up in a special session expected to be called for next week.

— Brian Bakst | MPR News

Top headlines

Long-term care opens doors to outside caregivers after months of COVID-19 closures: The Minnesota Department of Health put out new guidance Friday that allows residents to designate one person, identified as an “essential caregiver,” to visit inside the residence and to have physical contact with them. What is your family planning to do under the new guidance? Share your story with us here.

Unscientific survey shows most MN families want in-person school, despise distance learning: A new survey from the Minnesota Department of Education shows a majority of families had a bad experience with distance learning and want schools to resume in-person classes in the fall. But the results are just a sampling — and hardly scientific.

In Bemidji, the hospital is prepared for COVID-19 — as county cases see an uptick: In Bemidji, Sanford Medical Center has worked for months to prepare for COVID-19. A recent spike in cases among young people now has the hospital waiting — and worrying.

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based off Minnesota Department of Health cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.

The coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.