Aug. 14 update on COVID-19 in MN: Keep it off campus; mind your sanitizer

A bottle of hand sanitizer sits in a classroom.
A bottle of hand sanitizer sits on a cart as Des Moines Public Schools custodian Tracy Harris cleans a chair in a classroom at Brubaker Elementary School on Wednesday, July 8, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Charlie Neibergall | AP Photo file

Updated 3:35 p.m.

State public health officials are urging college students to “lay low” before returning to campus this fall, warning against big parties, road trips and other gatherings that could ultimately bring COVID-19 to school.

With cases continuing to rise in the state and hospitalizations at persistent, concerning levels, officials worry college-age Minnesotans will not take the precautions needed to help stop the spread.

Clusters of cases surfaced in late June around college bars, including in Mankato, Minneapolis and St. Cloud. Concerns over similar potential outbreaks are percolating again as the fall semester nears.

“This is a bad time to throw a party, go on a group road trip or otherwise lighten up on COVID-19 precautions,” Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, told reporters Friday as she called on students to “lay low before you go.”

“The pandemic is still a big problem and will likely become a bigger problem this fall,” she said. “The world has changed and wont be going back to normal at least for the next few months.”

New COVID-19 cases per day in Minnesota

Ehresmann acknowledged it would be a challenge to get young people to take the advice but said the choices they make now could determine whether their schools stay open to in-person instruction or shut down.

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Students who don’t socially distance, wear masks in indoor gathering spaces and take other precautions to stem the disease’s spread could be jeopardizing campus life, she added.

“They really need to think about the choices they make,” she said. “Students will decide whether or not they have to close down and send everybody home again.”

Officials on Friday also put out a warning for people to not ingest hand sanitizing liquids and not to use sanitizers that contain methanol or 1-propanol, saying they can be toxic and life threatening if ingested.

Dr. Ruth Lynfield, the state’s epidemiologist, said the state’s poison control center has received 50 calls involving sanitizers that were not safe to use — 14 of the calls involved youth age 19 or younger.

The federal Food and Drug Administration has a website now devoted to spotting unsafe sanitizers.

Cases grow among 20-somethings, up north

Minnesotans in their 20s remain the age group with the highest number of COVID-19 confirmed cases in the pandemic — nearly 15,000.

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

The past few days of data show Minnesotans younger than age 20 have been running close to 20-somethings for most new cases. The median age of Minnesotans who are confirmed infected is 36. That’s been trending down in recent weeks.

While younger, healthier people aren’t likely to suffer the worst effects of COVID-19, health experts have long worried that they will inadvertently spread the virus to grandparents and other more vulnerable populations.

Earlier this week, officials noted a jump in new cases tied to long-term care facilities was being driven largely by community spread and brought in unknowingly by facility staff as restrictions on daily life loosen and people return to indoor gathering spaces and attend family events.

Regionally, the Twin Cities and its suburbs have been driving the counts of newly reported cases, although northern Minnesota cases have been on the rise for weeks and there’s an upswing now in southern Minnesota.

New COVID-19 cases by Minnesota region

Several of the state’s fastest-growing outbreaks relative to population are in northern Minnesota. Beltrami County, home to Bemidji, has seen a steady climb the past few weeks. The county reported 267 cases as of Friday.

MN counties with the fastest per-capita growth in COVID-19 cases

Meatpacking operations had been hot spots for big outbreaks in southwest, west-central and central Minnesota earlier in the pandemic.

New cases have slowed considerably in recent weeks, although the problem has resurfaced recently in McLeod County (240 cases), where more than 20 employees at a Seneca Foods plant in Glencoe have been identified in an outbreak.

Getting tested? Stay home until you know results

Minnesota’s COVID-19 numbers settled back into a familiar pattern Friday with new cases climbing, daily deaths in single digits and hospitalizations flat but stubbornly persistent.

The Health Department reported 738 new cases and eight more deaths. Current hospitalizations (313) rose slightly from Thursday’s report while the number of those hospitalized and needing intensive care (152) inched down.

While hospitalizations and ICU needs remain far lower than their late-May peak, they showed an upward swing in July and have flattened at just over 300 daily cases during August. Friday marked the 15th consecutive day with 300 or more current hospitalizations, a pattern not seen since mid- to late June.

Of the 63,723 confirmed cases since the pandemic began, about 88 percent of those diagnosed have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.

Among the 1,693 people confirmed to have died from COVID-19 since the pandemic began about 75 percent had been living in long-term care or assisted living facilities; nearly all had underlying health problems.

Current COVID-19 hospitalizations in Minnesota

Ehresmann on Friday also reiterated that anyone who gets tested for COVID-19 should self-isolate until receiving the results.

Epidemiologists are hearing stories of people getting tests then going out before getting the results, a decision that could cause problems if the test comes back positive.

“If you’re getting a test, that means there’s a reasonable likelihood that you may have COVID,” she said. “So, it’s really important you stay home.”

‘We are all connected’

Increasingly concerned over reports of despondent residents in long-term care, state officials this week also rolled out new guidance designed to open the door wider to visitors.

“Loneliness, depression, isolation and heartbreak are all safety issues,” Aisha Elmquist, the state’s deputy ombudsman for long-term care, told reporters Monday as she and other public health leaders answered questions around the latest COVID-19 data.

“Everyone needs others,” she added, “including those who live in long-term care settings.”

New COVID-19 related deaths reported in Minnesota each day

Most of the people who’ve died from COVID-19 in Minnesota had been living in long-term care. That toll is one of the reasons long-term care has faced steep visitor restrictions.

In early May, the Walz administration unveiled a “battle plan” to safeguard Minnesotans living in long-term care facilities, including expanded testing, more personal protective gear for health workers and a promise to maintain “adequate” staffing when workers fall ill.

It helped drive daily death counts down to mostly single digits. Now, though, officials worry those gains may slip away as COVID-19 ripples across the state.

The big-picture situation in long-term care is “quite positive,” Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Monday, noting that 90 percent of assisted living facilities in Minnesota and 71 percent of skilled nursing homes have had no cases of COVID-19 in the past 28 days.

Lynfield, though, cautioned earlier this week that the work to limit spread among vulnerable populations was at risk as people return to public spaces.

“This is fragile and we are very concerned that the progress we have made can be at risk, and can even be lost, if we let up on our precautions,” she said. “We need everyone in Minnesota to be doing their part to limit transmission. We are all connected to each other.”

Developments from around the state

Mayo Clinic: Plasma efforts show promise

Researchers with a national program led by Mayo Clinic say they've made two key findings in using plasma to treat people with COVID-19.

The so-called convalescent plasma comes from people who have recovered from the disease. The program included more than 35,000 hospitalized patients.

Researchers say starting plasma transfusions sooner — within three days of a COVID-19 diagnosis — was associated with a lower mortality rate. That rate also dropped for patients who received plasma with higher antibody levels.

Mayo officials noted that it was not a clinical trial and has not yet been peer reviewed, but they say the findings may help inform future trials for COVID-19 treatments.

— MPR News Staff

School guidance map shifts with new data

Fresh data released by the Minnesota Department of Health is again shifting the guidance for some of the state’s school districts as they decide whether to teach kids in-person, online or in some combination based on their local COVID-19 conditions.

The new numbers, for instance, indicate elementary school students in Ramsey and Dakota counties would no longer be recommended to attend school in person — if school started this week — due to rising COVID-19 cases.

Data released Thursday by the Health Department indicate 11 counties, including Ramsey and Dakota, should shift away from in-person learning because of rising cases.

Recommendations for school reopening based on COVID-19 case counts
Recommendations for school reopening based on COVID-19 case counts

Schools in another 14 counties, largely in the southern part of the state, would be recommended to shift toward in-person learning. The state’s other 62 counties saw no change in their recommendations, which are based on COVID-19 cases per capita over a 14-day period.

Officials have emphasized the map is meant to be a starting point for school districts as they weigh their mix of in-person and online instruction in the COVID-19 era. The numbers, and the accompanying recommendations, are updated every week now.

Counties with very few cases per capita are recommended to have in-person learning for all students — 48 counties as of Thursday.

With more cases, schools are urged to have secondary students do a mix of in-person and distance learning while still doing in-person school for elementary grades. Another 29 counties fall into that category.

Eight counties are currently recommended for hybrid learning for all students. They include Hennepin, Ramsey, Dakota, Scott, Sherburne and Blue Earth.

Two counties have so many cases that the state currently recommends upper-grade students there study remotely full-time: Rock County in southwestern Minnesota, and Red Lake County in northwestern Minnesota.

Officials have stressed that the county-level data is a roadmap, not an order. Districts within those counties are making decisions that may not fit exactly with the data.

St. Paul Public Schools, the state’s second largest school district and the largest district in Ramsey County, has already announced it will start the school year with all students distance learning and will revisit the decision in late September.

— David H. Montgomery | MPR News

COVID-19 peacetime emergency extended for another 30 days

The peacetime emergency that Gov. Tim Walz has used to manage Minnesota’s coronavirus response will last at least another 30 days.

In a unanimous vote Wednesday, the state Executive Council extended his authority. It gives the Walz administration power to spend money and issue directives without running them past the Legislature first.

“While obviously a great deal has changed since March, some things remain the same, which is we are very much in the middle of the active pandemic and require rapid actions to do our best to keep this epidemic under control,” Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said.

Republican legislators argue the Walz powers have been in place for too long and should be reined in. Walz first declared the health emergency in March.

— Brian Bakst | MPR News

Top headlines

Professors say they worry about students and their families: Universities and colleges have different plans for returning to teaching this fall, and there are specific needs for many classroom settings. As faculty and instructors prepare to teach, they worry about their students and their families.

What does a COVID-19 ‘positivity rate’ really mean? One of the most important metrics for tracking the spread of COVID-19 in Minnesota is the “positivity rate” — or how prevalent positive cases of the disease are, when compared to the number of tests being done. Our data reporter takes a deep dive in explaining what’s behind the number.

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.