Aug. 27 update on COVID-19 in MN: Highest daily case count reflects lab's reporting backlog

Lab backlog belies continued steady increase in cases

People wear masks as they use an escalator
People wear masks as they use an escalator in the Mall of America on June 10 in Bloomington, Minn.
Stephen Maturen | Getty Images

Updated: 12:13 p.m.

The coronavirus’ steady, unrelenting toll on Minnesota continued Thursday, with an unexpected spike in positive cases and new test numbers, due in part to a large backlog from a testing provider.

The state reported Thursday 1,158 new cases — the highest daily number of new positive cases since Minnesota began tracking cases of the disease in March — and 21,144 new tests.

But those numbers come with a caveat: The Minnesota Department of Health said Thursday’s daily numbers report was larger than expected because of a two-week backlog of tests and results from a single Minnesota lab.

MDH reported that Valley Medical, which operates three testing locations and a lab in the Twin Cities suburb of Burnsville, has "an inconsistent record of reporting results," and a backlog of nearly 19,000 tests.

As a result, the Health Department said, COVID-19 reporting numbers over the next few days will include tests and results from the past two weeks. Typically, MDH’s daily numbers reflect tests and results from the past 48 hours.

New COVID-19 cases per day in Minnesota

But even without that discrepancy, Minnesota continues its steady rise in COVID-19 cases. Independent of the Valley Medical backlog, the state confirmed 893 new cases of COVID-19 — among the highest daily counts the state has seen since the beginning of the pandemic.

Of the 1,158 new cases reported Thursday, 265 were from the Valley Medical backlog, going back two weeks.

That’s on top of 16,486 new tests done in the last 24 hours; 4,658 of Thursday’s reported tests came from Valley Medical. The state reported that it still has 14,000 additional tests from that backlog to process. Those tests and results will be included in case reporting into next week.

Coronavirus statistics in Minnesota as of Thursday:

  • 72,390 total cases confirmed (1,154 new), 64,876 off isolation

  • 1,806 deaths (13 new)

  • 305 currently hospitalized; 139 in intensive care

These numbers come as students and teachers around the state are preparing to return to school — and as districts are determining whether that will happen in person, online or by a combination of those approaches. A district’s approach is, in part, guided by the COVID-19 data in its surrounding region.

Minnesota infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann said everyone should help limit community transmission of the virus to make on-site learning more possible for students.

"Our priority right now is ensuring that kids can safely attend school, and as many in person as safely possible, and so we want to make sure that what's happening in the community is at a place to allow for as much in-person education as can safely happen," Ehresmann said.

Due to increasing case numbers, several districts have shifted away from initial plans for in-person learning — and others are considering it.

Current COVID-19 hospitalizations in Minnesota

Developments from around the state

New cases tied to Sturgis motorcycle rally

State health officials have identified five more Minnesotans who tested positive for COVID-19 after attending the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota.

That brings the total number of cases in Minnesota that have been connected to the event to 44. The rally drew some 460,000 people from across the country to the Black Hills of South Dakota between Aug. 7 and Aug. 16. According to reports, most attendees didn't take significant precautions against COVID-19 infections.

State infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann said that one of the infected Minnesotans was working at a temporary bar during the event.

Two Minnesota patients who were associated with the event have been hospitalized — one in intensive care.

State health officials continue to urge anyone who attended the rally to self-isolate for 14 days, get tested if they don’t feel well and stay home until they get the test results.

— Catharine Richert

Colleges get more leeway on courses

Colleges and universities in Minnesota are getting more latitude when it comes to arranging courses during the pandemic.

An executive order from Gov. Tim Walz lifts a restriction that in-person classes or other activities be limited to 25 people. Higher education institutions will be able to adjust their class sizes based on their ability to conduct them safely.

Minnesota Office of Higher Education Commissioner Dennis Olson says the new order was developed in consultation with state health officials. Formal guidance will be provided to schools.

“Which gives us the opportunity to pivot more quickly to adjust downward if conditions present themselves or give us the ability to increase in-person classes if conditions present themselves more quickly, if conditions present themselves favorably,” Olson said.

Many institutions are starting their academic year with mostly virtual learning until the COVID-19 situation grows more stable.

— Brian Bakst | MPR News

Health Department to prepare saliva test ramp-up

Faced with demand for more COVID-19 tests this fall, the state is using $14 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to build capacity by doing up to 30,000 saliva tests daily.

The strategy relies on a saliva-based test developed by Vault Health and Rutgers University that can be done at home.

Minnesota is already doing 22,000 tests daily. But Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said more than doubling that capacity with saliva tests will help meet demand for tests as schools reopen.

"For schools, it's going to be critically important that we be able to distinguish the typically respiratory illnesses that kids and teachers encounter from COVID," Malcolm said.

The saliva test also stands to cut down on the use of scarce personal protective equipment.

Plans include a lab in Minnesota to process these tests, potentially cutting down on the time it takes to get a result.

— Catharine Richert | MPR News

College concerns continue

Worries continue over the growth of COVID-19 among younger Minnesotans, including that those infected will inadvertently spread the virus to more vulnerable or older relatives.

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.

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 Sept. 8.

The Crookston and Morris campuses will begin the semester as planned.

— Peter Cox | MPR News

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

Minnesotans can now 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


Top headlines

Reporting backlog from Twin Cities lab leads to unprecedented Minn. COVID-19 case counts: The Minnesota Health Department says the Valley Medical and Wellness lab has a track record of not reporting new coronavirus cases to the state, which has meant hundreds of new cases haven’t been investigated quickly.

As one family navigates COVID-19, they ask whether it’s safe to disagree during a pandemic: For months, members of the sprawling Hochstetler family disagreed on how seriously to take the coronavirus pandemic. But when four family members — and two close friends — got sick, they had to grapple with a challenging question: Whether it’s safe to agree to disagree in a pandemic.


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.

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