Aug. 24 update on COVID-19 in MN: Cases steady as U of M delays on-campus classes

Signage notes new guidelines in a store at the Mall of America
Signage notes new guidelines in a store at the Mall of America on June 10, 2020 in Minneapolis.
Stephen Maturen | Getty Images

Updated: 2:20 p.m.

Minnesota’s COVID-19 case numbers continued their climb Monday, as the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents approved a proposal to delay in-person classes for students on some of its campuses.

According to the plan, nearly all undergraduate classes on three of the university’s campuses — in the Twin Cities, Rochester and Duluth — will now begin online for at least the first two weeks of school this fall. Move-in for students who live in on-campus housing at those three locations will also be delayed by two weeks.

The university’s Twin Cities campus is scheduled to begin classes on Tuesday, Sept. 8.

University President Joan Gabel said the delay will help the University reassess its plans, especially as other schools have seen an almost immediate spread of the virus on their campuses.

"We need this time in order to be able to assess locally and nationally how the behavior and transmission is occurring, emerging standards and guidelines, and get real evidence from our peers on how different protocols are or are not working to create safe environments," she said.

The Crookston and Morris campuses will begin the semester as planned. Gabel says both are in areas of lower transmission and are more spread out than the U's other campuses.

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"This action will provide additional time for the University to evaluate new and emerging guidance on testing,” said Board Chair Ken Powell, who was one of eight regents to vote in support of the proposal. “It also enables our continued evaluation of what other institutions are doing to mitigate the spread of COVID-19."

Three other regents voted against the measure. Classes and move-in on the University of Minnesota’s Crookston and Morris campuses are scheduled to go on as planned.

The adjustment comes as several colleges and universities around the country have canceled or paused their on-campus learning because of COVID-19 outbreaks among their students.

For weeks, people in their 20s have been the largest age group of Minnesotans with confirmed cases of COVID-19. As of Monday, the state had recorded more than 16,000 cases among people between the ages of 20 and 29.

On Friday, 17 St. Olaf College students were suspended for the fall semester for being at an off-campus party without wearing masks or social distancing. At least one person there was infected with COVID-19 and exposed others.

"This is the kind of reckless behavior that will put an end to our in-person semester, and it must stop," David Anderson, St. Olaf’s president, said Friday. “Others in attendance exposed innocent students, like roommates, who are now having to pay a costly price for others’ poor choices."

His message was directed at students, but it echoed the growing concerns of health leaders generally that Minnesotans are on the wrong path now if they hope to return to life before the virus.

Cases continue slow rise

Monday’s COVID-19 numbers from the Health Department continued to send a mix of hopeful and concerning signals. Daily death counts remained in the single digits, but new cases continued their steady climb.

Current hospitalizations, although way down from their late-May peak, remain stubbornly consistent at around 300 cases.

Coronavirus statistics in Minnesota as of Monday:

  • 70,298 total cases confirmed (717 new), 63,059 off isolation

  • 1,771 deaths (four new)

  • 310 currently hospitalized; 137 in intensive care

Minnesota public health leaders have been imploring people for months to stay vigilant against COVID-19 — to wear masks in indoor public gathering spaces, socially distance and stay home and self-isolate if not feeling well.

They’ve sharpened those messages of personal responsibility recently, concerned that Minnesotans are becoming numb to the disease’s risks.

New COVID-19 cases per day in Minnesota

“The way out of this mess is clear,” Dr. Ruth Lynfield, the state’s epidemiologist, said last week. “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.”

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 292 cases and one death as of Sunday.

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 (300 cases), where more than 20 employees at a Seneca Foods plant in Glencoe were identified recently in an outbreak.

Le Sueur and Waseca counties are also seeing big, recent case increases. Le Sueur showed 316 cases and two deaths as of Sunday. Ehresmann said that while there’s been some workplace transmission of the disease, the jumps in those counties is due to community spread.

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.

Share of new COVID-19 cases by age

People in their 20s remain the age group with the highest number of COVID-19 confirmed cases in the pandemic — more than 16,000. The median age of cases is 36.

State health authorities on Friday urged parents and others to make sure children in their care are up to date in their immunizations.

They reiterated their concern 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.

New COVID-19 related deaths reported in Minnesota each day

University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel on Friday said she’s proposing that three of the U’s campuses — in the Twin Cities, Rochester and Duluth — begin classes online for at least the first two weeks of school this fall.

Separately on Friday, state officials acknowledged their frustration at the St. Olaf situation.

“It’s really disappointing to see this kind of behavior just as classes are beginning to start,” said Ehresmann, a St. Olaf graduate.

“I hope that for these students this is an opportunity to learn about the importance of how you make a difference in the community,” she said, “not only what you do in your careers but by the choices that you make.”

‘Ripe environment for spread’

People fill a bar during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally
People fill a bar during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, Friday, Aug. 7, in Sturgis, S.D., amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Stephen Groves | AP Photo

State public health leaders worried for weeks that the massive Sturgis, S.D., motorcycle rally would be a petri dish for COVID-19, and that Minnesotans would carry the disease back home.

On Friday, they confirmed the first cases had arrived — 15 Minnesotans who’d traveled to Sturgis tested positive, and one was in the hospital — and they braced the state to prepare for more stemming from the Aug. 7-16 rally.

Additional cases are expected to surface in Minnesota in the coming days.

Current COVID-19 hospitalizations in Minnesota

The Sturgis rally drew some 460,000 people from across the country. Most people didn't take significant precautions against COVID-19 infections.

Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm had repeatedly expressed concerns that Sturgis would rev up the disease here. She said she was disappointed South Dakota had OK’d the rally given that it would attract people from around the country, including places where COVID-19 cases were climbing.

Minnesota ICU beds used for COVID-19 patients

Sturgis will be a “pretty ripe environment for further spread,” she said on Aug. 5, just before the rally kicked off.

On Friday, Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, urged anyone who traveled to Sturgis to self-isolate for 14 days, get tested if they don’t feel well and to stay home until they get the test results.


Developments from around the state

U of M president proposes online-only start to fall semester

University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel says she's proposing that undergrads at three U campuses — including the Twin Cities — begin classes online only for at least the first two weeks of school this fall.

The announcement on Friday comes in response to news that several colleges and universities around the country have had to cancel or pause their on-campus learning this week because COVID-19 is spreading among their students.

The proposal to mostly delay in-person undergraduate classes also includes Duluth and Rochester.

It would also delay move-in for students who live in on-campus housing.

The university's board of regents is expected to take up Gabel's proposal in a special meeting on Monday.

— MPR News staff

School guidance map shifts again

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.

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.

— David Montgomery | MPR News

Need help with rent, mortgage? Here’s how to get it

Starting Monday, Minnesotans can apply for a slice of the $100 million in rent and mortgage assistance from Minnesota Housing. 

The money is intended for Minnesotans who are financially struggling from COVID-19 and meet certain income requirements. Applicants can call 211 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.; staff speaking multiple languages will be on hand.

They can also text 211 and type “MNRENT,” or go online to 211unitedway.org. Once the process begins, applicants can track their status online. The $100 million dollars is from the federal CARES act and can help pay housing costs like rent, mortgage, lot fees in manufactured home parks, and utility payments. 

While the money is for both homeowners and renters, Minnesota Housing Commissioner Jennifer Ho said she hopes homeowners are exploring all their options.

“We really encourage people who have a mortgage to reach out to their financial institution, and find out if they are eligible to get forbearance because a lot of financial institutions are offering the ability not to pay right away," Ho said.

— Melissa Townsend | MPR News


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.