Sept. 8 update on COVID-19 in MN: Winona State quarantines; more community spread

Lap trays are place apart from each other on a classroom floor.
Lap trays in a kindergarten class are placed at an arms-length distance from each other to mark spots for desks at Our Lady of Peace Catholic School in Minneapolis in August.
Myah Christenson | MPR News file

Updated: 7:21 p.m.

With newly confirmed COVID-19 cases rising steeply the past few weeks and college students and kids returning to school, state health officials remain particularly concerned about young adults as spreaders.

People in their 20s make up the age bracket with the state’s largest number of confirmed cases — more than 19,000 since the pandemic began, including nearly 11,000 among people ages 20-24.

They are driving the current outbreaks, although the number of high school-age children confirmed with the disease has also grown recently, topping 7,400 total cases for children 15 to 19 years old since the pandemic began.

The reality of those worries came into focus Tuesday as Winona State University announced an immediate 14-day campus quarantine that will limit all non-essential activities on campus for the next two weeks to slow the spread of COVID-19.

While the university isn’t aware of any “serious illness” tied to COVID-19 and campus, “we are seeing an increase in asymptomatic transmission, and we have a responsibility to our students, our employees, and to our community to respond accordingly,” Scott R. Olson, Winona State’s president, said in a statement.

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

While less likely to feel the worst effects of the disease, experts worry youth and young adults will spread it to grandparents and other vulnerable populations and that such outbreaks could cripple attempts to reopen campuses completely to in-person teaching.

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“We’re certainly aware of a lot of activity that is centered around our colleges and universities,” Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, said Tuesday, noting that there were more than 200 cases tied to Winona State students.

About one-third of new cases in Minnesota are now coming from community spread of unknown origin — higher than just before the Fourth of July, the last major holiday that brought Minnesotans together.

Most of the cases around colleges are tied to activities and gatherings outside of the classroom, Ehresmann said. “It’s a situation where it’s really going to be up to the students as to whether or not we’re going to continue to see transmission.”

Newest numbers inconclusive

Ehresmann’s remarks came hours after the Health Department reported a big one-day drop in Minnesota’s daily COVID-19 case count that’s likely the result of reporting delays to the agency over Labor Day. Because of that, it’s difficult to read anything into the newest numbers.

The number of new cases reported Tuesday (387) was half the average number of cases reported last week. Similarly low are the 7,120 new tests reported — less than half of recent trends.

Given the Labor Day holiday, it’s important to be cautious in trying to analyze the past few days of data, “but in general we’re seeing more community transmission,” Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, told reporters Tuesday.

New COVID-19 cases per day in Minnesota

Ehresmann cautioned people to say home if they don’t feel well and to self-isolate for 14 days if they’ve been in close contact with someone with COVID-19, even if they’re feeling better. "You cannot test your way out of quarantine,” she said.

Two closely watched metrics — the number of people currently in the hospital due to COVID-19 and the subset needing intensive care — fell significantly from Monday’s Labor Day report: 257 are hospitalized with 135 in ICUs.

It’s not clear, however, if that’s part of an ongoing dip over the past week or a statistical anomaly. The Health Department says some hospitals have recently stopped reporting new data on COVID-19 hospitalizations over weekends.

Of the 81,608 confirmed cases of the disease in the pandemic to date, about 91 percent of those infected have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.

Two more deaths reported Tuesday bring Minnesota’s toll to 1,862. Among those who’ve died, about 73 percent had been living in long-term care or assisted living facilities; nearly all had underlying health problems.

Minnesota currently has more than 6,000 active, confirmed cases, a record in the outbreak, although the number — confirmed and unconfirmed — was likely higher in May when testing was much lower.

Active, confirmed COVID-19 cases in Minnesota

Gov. Tim Walz and top public health officials last week pleaded with Minnesotans to wear masks in indoor public spaces, socially distance and take other actions to stem the spread of the disease over the holiday weekend and beyond.

A spike in cases followed the July Fourth holiday by about a month, as the seven-day average of new cases rose by more than 50 percent by the first week of August.

Walz warned Minnesota sits at a “tipping point” in the pandemic and risks outbreaks similar to what’s been seen in Arizona if things don’t change.

Current COVID-19 hospitalizations in Minnesota

Officials have warned that backyard parties, get-togethers to start the new school year and other casual meetups are fueling the current case counts.

Minnesotans’ behavior in stores, restaurants and other public places isn’t so much the problem now, but “informal gatherings have really proven to be a weak spot in our response to the pandemic,” Malcolm said last week. “The virus is all over the state. The outbreaks are happening all over the state … and we just want people to be vigilant.”

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

Cases are rising most quickly now in west-central Minnesota, including Stevens County, which has seen its cases double in the last nine days from 38 to 78.

While southern Minnesota and the Twin Cities suburbs have driven new case confirmations in recent weeks, central and northern Minnesota have been on the rise.

New COVID-19 cases by Minnesota region

51 cases now tied to Sturgis

State health officials worried for weeks about Minnesotans carrying COVID-19 back from the massive Aug. 7-16 motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D. The cases came rolling in shortly after the rally ended.

Minnesota officials on Tuesday reported 51 cases now tied to the Sturgis rally, up one from the department’s pre-Labor Day report. Among those cases, there have been three hospitalizations and one death, a person in their 60s with underlying health problems.

Health investigators are now seeing secondary spread in Minnesota linked to those cases tied directly to Sturgis.

MN education commissioner: Keep ill kids home

With the school year starting for many students Tuesday, state K-12 education officials also pleaded with families and teachers to stay home when they are sick.

Many students are back in the classroom while others are distance learning at home.

"I have been that parent, trying to decide whether my child is too sick to send to school so that I can get to work,” Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said as she urged parents to continue to limit contact with others and wear masks to help limit COVID-19 in schools.

“I have been that teacher worried about the burden on my colleagues that there isn't a substitute,” she added. “I am urging you to please stay home when you are sick, keep your child home when you are sick this year."

Officials say out of the districts and charter schools that have reported their learning models, nearly two-thirds are opening the school year with a hybrid approach, and a quarter are doing full-time in person. The rest are starting with distance learning.

Developments around the state

Demand for food banks expected to soar with onset of winter

Food shelves are expecting to see unprecedented demand this winter, due to the economic impact of COVID-19.

Allison O'Toole, CEO of Second Harvest Heartland, said the current demand for food aid is unlike anything the country has seen since the Great Depression and while the region is in the middle of an unprecedented surge in hunger amid the pandemic, it has yet to reach its peak.

"That means moms and dads are skipping meals so their kids can have more. That means families are watering down milk. That means people are turning ketchup packets into meals,” O’Toole said.

O'Toole added that her organization is delivering 300,000 pounds of food daily to food shelves in Minnesota and western Wisconsin — that's double the amount it was delivering at this time last year. O'Toole said she expects the demand to continue to increase with the onset of winter.

Despite reports of unprecedented need for food aid in Minnesota, some rural food shelves say they are seeing a decline in clientele in their area.

Alana Ziehl, executive director of the Kandiyohi County Food Shelf, attributes the decline in part to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. She said the federal aid program has increased its allotments to qualifying households during the pandemic. SNAP benefits are being extended on a month-by-month basis.

“So they aren't needing us as much right now. But when and if that does go away, that's when we're going to be seeing the huge increase of need," she said.

Ziehl added that rural food shelves need cash assistance in order to purchase supplies from food banks so they can meet the demand.

“Even pre-COVID, there's a lot of people that are living paycheck to paycheck, you know, one in a house, a single mom with three kids not getting child support, anything like that,” Ziehl said. “They're coming to us for help; any little bit of help they can get to help them pay a fuel bill or gas in their car to get to their their job, that kind of thing."

One in 8 Minnesotans is expected to face hunger in the coming months with more than a third of them being children, according to a study commissioned by Second Harvest Heartland.

— Marianne Combs | MPR News

Walz to request extension of emergency powers

The emergency footing Minnesota has been on since March is likely to be extended at least one more month.

Gov. Tim Walz first declared a peacetime emergency in March when the coronavirus was detected in Minnesota. He’s renewed it five times since. Walz has until Friday to re-up the order, which he has given every indication he will do.

The duration of the emergency is unprecedented in modern times. It's drawn scorn from Republicans who argue it has cut the Legislature out of decision-making. They say the COVID-19 situation has stabilized enough for the executive powers to lapse.

Walz said the pandemic is still flaring and his administration needs flexibility to procure supplies, direct agency resources and expedite aid.

The law compels the governor to call the Legislature into special session upon each extension. Both the House and Senate would have to vote in favor of any move to rescind the powers, an unlikely outcome given divided party control.

— Brian Bakst | MPR News

Top headlines

Pandemic brings a first day of school like no other: Thousands of other teachers and students across Minnesota will find similar changes and new norms when they return to school buildings Tuesday. Hastings offers a good look at the challenges and opportunities ahead.

COVID-19 in Minnesota

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