Aug. 20 update on COVID-19 in MN: School guidance map shifts again

School buses parked at a depot.
A worker passes public school buses parked at a depot in Manchester, N.H. The evolving COVID-19 pandemic in Minnesota continues to change school reopening recommendations around the state.
Charles Krupa | AP Photo

Updated: 2 p.m.

The evolving COVID-19 pandemic in Minnesota continues to change school reopening recommendations around the state.

In the latest batch of calculations released Thursday, 11 counties saw their recommendations change for the worse if school started today, away from in-person learning for all students, while six counties saw improvements.

Recommendations for school reopening based on COVID-19 case counts
David H. Montgomery | MPR News

St. Louis County, for example, had a two-week total of 7.6 new cases per 10,000 residents in last week’s update. In this week’s update, which covers from July 26 to Aug. 8, St. Louis County averaged 11.5 cases per 10,000 residents.

That changed the recommendation for schools there from in-person learning for all students to in-person learning for elementary students and a mix of in-person and distance learning for upper grades.

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Officials say the school reopening recommendations from per-capita case figures are intended to be a starting point for decision-making, with the final calls made by school districts in consultation with the Department of Health.

There’s no geographic pattern to where counties are seeing their recommendations go up or down.

For example, among the nine counties in southwest corner of Minnesota, three saw their recommendation change for the worse in this week’s update, four saw improvements, and two stayed the same.

Overall, 51 counties with about 23 percent of the state’s population currently have a recommendation of in-person learning for all students. Another 26 counties with 32 percent of the state’s population are in the category of in-person learning for elementary students and hybrid learning for secondary students.

Nine counties have case levels high enough to suggest hybrid learning for all students in the Health Department’s rubric — but they include Hennepin, Ramsey, Dakota and Scott counties, and altogether cover 45 percent of the state’s population.

Just one county, Red Lake, is recommended to have elementary students do hybrid learning while secondary students do remote learning full time.

No counties currently have so many cases that they’d be recommended to have all students remote, if school started today.

Cases climb, hospitalizations flatten

Minnesota’s lived in a recent COVID-19 cycle of mostly moderate daily death counts and a stubbornly persistent level of hospitalizations. That trend continued in Thursday’s data.

The Health Department reported 698 newly confirmed cases of the disease, resuming a steeper upward climb after days of more moderate increases. Seven more people died.

Current hospitalizations (309) and those needing intensive care (148) fell from Wednesday. Hospitalizations remain far below a late-May peak, but the count has flattened at a relatively high level — more than 300 daily cases on average during August.

Current COVID-19 hospitalizations in Minnesota

Of the 67,308 confirmed cases since the pandemic began, about 90 percent of those diagnosed have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.

Thursday’s report brings the death toll to 1,745 Minnesotans. Among those who’ve died, about 74 percent had been living in long-term care or assisted living facilities; nearly all had underlying health problems.

New COVID-19 related deaths reported in Minnesota each day

Officials on Thursday also began presenting some demographic data in a more granular way.

The Health Department, for instance, broke down infections among the state's youth: 1,317 cases among those age 4 or younger; 1,240 cases among those ages 5 to 9; 1,822 cases from ages 10 to 14; and 5,649 cases confirmed in teens ages 15 to 19.

‘Do the right thing’

The newest numbers come a day after state public health leaders sharpened their message of personal responsibility as they continue to hear reports of Minnesotans doing the wrong things in the pandemic.

As they implore people to do the right thing, they are increasingly expressing frustration over fresh reports of people doing the wrong thing.

New COVID-19 cases per day in Minnesota

Officials have heard anecdotal but “troubling reports” of parents who want their kids back in K-12 school buildings this fall so badly that they are choosing not to get their children tested for COVID-19, despite symptoms, for fear it will hurt their local school’s chances of teaching in-person, Dr. Ruth Lynfield, the state’s epidemiologist, said Wednesday.

“These behaviors are exactly the wrong thing to do if we want to get the COVID pandemic in Minnesota under control to the point where more in-person learning is possible,” she told reporters on a day the Health Department reported 17 more deaths — Minnesota’s highest daily count in two months.

As she and her colleagues have done for months, Lynfield implored Minnesotans to wear masks in public indoor spaces, socially distance and stay away from large gatherings to stem the disease’s spread, even as she acknowledged the overall fatigue facing Minnesotans who want to return to life before the disease.

“The way out of this mess is clear,” Lynfield said. “Health care professionals and health care providers have their roles to play — and so does every single Minnesotan. We need people to do the right thing.”

Southern Minnesota cases rising again

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

New COVID-19 cases by Minnesota region

Northern Minnesota cases have been mostly on the rise since early July, although new counts have retreated in recent days. Beltrami County, home to Bemidji, has seen a steady climb the past few weeks. The county reported 286 cases and one death as of Thursday.

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

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

New cases have slowed considerably in recent weeks, although the problem has resurfaced recently in McLeod County (282 cases), where more than 20 employees at a Seneca Foods plant in Glencoe were identified recently in an outbreak.

College concerns grow as fall semester nears

Worries continue about the growth of COVID-19 among younger Minnesotans, including that those infected will inadvertently spread the virus to grandparents and other more vulnerable people.

People in their 20s remain the age group with the highest number of COVID-19 confirmed cases in the pandemic — more than 15,500. The median age of cases is 36.

State public health leaders are increasingly worried about college students joining end-of-summer parties and other gatherings that could feed the spread of COVID-19 and bring it onto campuses this fall.

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.

The Health Department this week posted additional guidance to colleges on ways to reduce COVID-19 risk.

Officials are asking students to self-isolate for two weeks before returning to campus, noting that the University of North Carolina, Notre Dame and Michigan State have been forced to retreat from their plans to teach in-person this fall amid campus outbreaks.

While colleges are working hard now to make their schools as safe as possible against the disease, Lynfield on Wednesday pressed students and young adults to take personal responsibility for their actions in the COVID-19 era.

“We’re not going to be able to test our way out of this pandemic,” she said. “Having a negative test doesn’t mean you now have a green light to go and socialize and not to keep the distance. We’re very concerned about the kind of messages — ‘Well, you can just keep testing and people can use their BC, before COVID, behavior.’ We have to work together.”

Developments from around the state

St. Paul mayor’s budget plan includes hiring freezes, cuts to police to offset pandemic-driven budget shortfall

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter announced his budget proposal for next year amid economic uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Carter said pandemic response so far has cost the city $16 million.

The capital city got $23 million in federal CARES Act assistance related to COVID-19, almost half of which Carter plans to spend to help the growing homeless population.

"It's more visible today than ever because to maintain social distancing requirements our facilities, our homeless shelters have had to reduce their capacity by 50 percent,” he said.

The mayor said among departments facing budget cuts and a hiring freeze is the St. Paul Police Department — “because police and fire make up 51 percent of our general fund budget, there is no way to solve a budget crisis like this without some contribution from our police and fire departments," he said.

At the same time, shots fired in the city are up drastically compared to last summer.

The city has also spent $4 million responding to the civil unrest after the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Carter's proposed budget avoids city layoffs in favor of hiring and salary freezes and doesn't raise the property tax levy in the city next year because so many residents are already financially struggling during the pandemic.

City Council members have until December to tweak and pass the 2021 budget.

— Nina Moini | MPR News

Sartell HealthPartners clinic closure will cost about 100 jobs

A central Minnesota medical clinic is set to lay off about 100 workers as it prepares to close its doors.

The St. Cloud Times reported Wednesday that the Sartell, Minn., HealthPartners clinic will close permanently this month. The HealthPartners’ dental clinic in the building will remain open, however.

Company officials say the clinic closure will result in about 100 layoffs. They say those workers are being encouraged to apply for other positions within the company.

HealthPartners announced in July that it would close seven clinics and two specialty centers in Minnesota, including the facility in Sartell. HealthPartners spokesperson Vince Rivard said then that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the organization to rethink how they can meet patient needs in new ways such as video visits and fewer physical sites will help reduce costs.

— The Associated Press

Remote classes, single dorm rooms: Macalester lays out fall plan

Macalester College is preparing to welcome first-year students to campus next week. The president of Macalester College says the school has instituted a number of precautions to prevent COVID-19 infections and transmissions among students who begin arriving next week.

President Suzanne Rivera told MPR News Wednesday that the first two weeks of instruction will be held remotely. And students will have the option to continue that type of learning as the semester continues, she said.

"This is making education more democratic. It's more inclusive. It's more responsive to people who have different learning styles,” said Rivera. “So, I actually hope that we retain a lot of these behaviors and these new tools that we've put in our toolboxes because it will make education better."

She said other precautions include single-occupancy dorm rooms and the use of video conference technology for both curricular and extracurricular activities. The school won't be able to accommodate all students at once, the president said.

Rivera said Macalester is renting hotel rooms in order to accommodate the introduction of more students to campus in October.

— Brandt Williams | MPR News

Top headlines

U of M students brace for change when classes resume: As University of Minnesota students prepare for classes to begin in a couple of weeks, they know they are able to plan for only so much. Already some higher education institutions have had to abruptly stop in-person classes because of COVID-19 outbreaks.

Minnesota unemployment rate falls to 7.7 percent: In June, the state’s unemployment rate was 8.6 percent. Though Minnesota's jobless rate has been falling since hitting a record high in May, it remains more than double what it was before the COVID-19 pandemic began. 

CDC report shows pandemic fuels threefold increase in rates of depression, anxiety: A report out this week from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says nearly 41 percent of adults reported adverse mental health conditions in June, with those reporting depression and anxiety up threefold from the same time last year. Dr. Jon Hallberg says anyone who needs help shouldn’t let the pandemic keep them from seeking it.

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.