Sept. 9 update on COVID-19 in MN: 'Bad actors'; state steps up bar, eatery checks

A young woman sits while being tested for COVID-19.
Emma Vogel has a sample taken for a COVID-19 test on Sept. 2 at a mass testing clinic at Minnesota State University, Mankato's Myers Field House in Mankato, Minn.
Pat Christman | Mankato Free Press file

Updated: 3:43 p.m.

State inspectors conducting sweeps of bars and restaurants the past two weekends in towns across southern Minnesota found dozens of establishments not complying with the state's orders to curb the spread of COVID-19, officials said Wednesday.

Investigators dropped into bars and eateries in Mankato, St. Peter, Waseca, Faribault and New Ulm as well as spots in Carver and Scott counties. Of 167 sites visited, 79 were out of compliance in some way; 31 were referred for followup inspections.

"We know most establishments are taking the safety measures seriously. We also know that a handful of bad actors can create a ripple effect and impact the entire industry," Dan Huff, an assistant Minnesota health commissioner, told reporters.

New COVID-19 cases per day in Minnesota

Violations ranged from customers and workers not wearing masks indoors when required to little social distancing and a general lack of staff preparedness and training, Huff said, noting that many of those found to be out of compliance had only a single minor infraction.

Compliance, not punishment, remains the goal as the state works to stem the spread of recent outbreaks, Huff and other officials said. But they made it clear that institutions shirking the rules are opening their communities to greater problems.

Authorities said they've identified 68 clusters of COVID-19 cases in 66 bars and restaurants that are tied to more than 1,200 infections.

One outbreak in a bar can lead to a community outbreak, said Nicole Blissenbach, assistant commissioner in the state Department of Labor and Industry. Customers who don't comply by refusing to wear masks or moving tables and chairs together, are not only putting the health and safety of others at risk, they are jeopardizing those businesses, she added.

Labor Day reporting clouds latest data

News of the compliance sweeps came hours after the Health Department released data showing a second consecutive day of dramatically lower COVID-19 case counts. No one was prepared to call it an encouraging trend, though.

It’s still likely tied to reporting delays to the agency over Labor Day weekend. Because of that, it’s difficult to read anything into the newest numbers.

The count of new cases reported Wednesday came in at 282, down from Tuesday’s 387, which was half the average number of cases reported last week. Testing, however, was down significantly.

Two closely watched metrics — the number of people currently in the hospital due to COVID-19 and the subset needing intensive care — inched up from Tuesday: 263 are hospitalized with 137 in ICUs.

The September hospitalization trend so far is down from August, when there were about 300 people in the hospital daily, on average, during the month.

Current COVID-19 hospitalizations in Minnesota

It’s not clear, though, if there’s evidence of an ongoing decline in hospital needs or a statistical anomaly. The Health Department says some hospitals have recently stopped reporting new data on COVID-19 hospitalizations over weekends.

Of the 81,868 confirmed cases of the disease in the pandemic to date, about 92 percent of those identified have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.

Seven more deaths reported Tuesday bring Minnesota’s toll to 1,869. 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’s seven-day trend shows some 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

College campus worries rise

The newest numbers come as concern rises about young adults as spreaders of the virus.

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 more than 11,000 among people ages 20-24.

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

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 nonessential activities on campus for the next two weeks to slow the spread of COVID-19.

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 could also hamper attempts to reopen campuses completely to in-person teaching.

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

Ehresmann on Wednesday said there were more than 200 cases tied to Winona State. Officials are also concerned about case clusters around Minnesota State University Moorhead and Concordia College in Moorhead.

The state is working with colleges now on strategies. While a natural response might be to shut down campuses and send students home, that risks dispersing infections even wider, Ehresmann said.

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.

Regionally, the Twin Cities and suburbs had been driving the counts of newly reported cases. Recent data, though, show cases climbing in northern and central Minnesota.

New COVID-19 cases by Minnesota region

In west-central Minnesota, Stevens County has seen its cases double in the last ten days from 38 to 78, although Wednesday’s count was unchanged from Tuesday.

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

They recently noted community spread tied to a southwest Minnesota wedding and reception in Ghent, in Lyon County on Aug. 22 attended by 275 people. Ehresmann on Wednesday said there are more than 70 cases scattered over at least nine counties now directly tied to that wedding.

Officials on Tuesday reported 51 cases now tied to the massive Aug. 7-16 motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D., 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.

New COVID-19 related deaths reported in Minnesota each day

Developments around the state

Walz calls Friday special session; plans to extend powers

Gov. Tim Walz has called lawmakers back to the Capitol for a special session Friday, citing the need to preserve the emergency powers that he's been using to manage the coronavirus pandemic.

The Democratic governor said in his announcement Wednesday he intends to extend the state's COVID-19 peacetime state of emergency by 30 more days to ensure that the state can continue to quickly and effectively respond.

An agenda for the special session was not immediately announced. The governor had raised the possibility in recent weeks that he might not need to keep calling special sessions each time he extends his emergency powers. But in his proclamation Wednesday, he affirmed his earlier view that state law requires him to do so.

The Republican-controlled Senate has used previous special sessions to vote to end the peacetime emergency, saying that while the pandemic continues, the immediate emergency is over and that it's time for the governor to work more closely with lawmakers on how to respond. The Democratic-controlled House has blocked those attempts.

Senate Republicans also used last month's special session to oust the governor's commissioner of labor and industry. And they've signaled that other cabinet members' jobs could be in jeopardy as the dispute over emergency powers continues.

— The Associated Press

MN House committee focuses on COVID-19 racial disparities

Top lawmakers in the Minnesota House are looking at the impact of COVID-19 on communities of color.

Members of the House Select Committee on Minnesota’s Pandemic Response and Rebuilding meet Wednesday to discuss the issue. DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman, the chair of the committee, said there are significant racial health disparities in the state.

“I have a feeling that our policy work will continue to be heavily COVID-focused. And whether it is continuing to exist with the virus or building back better, we need to learn as much as we can about what’s going on and what the prognosis is for the future,” Hortman said.

The select committee began its work in May and meets monthly. Past meetings have focused on the pandemic’s impact on health care workers and on the economy.

— Tim Pugmire | MPR News

MN education commissioner: Keep ill kids home

With the school year starting for many students Tuesday, state K-12 education officials also implored 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 Tuesday 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.

— MPR News Staff

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.

AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine study paused after one illness: Late-stage studies of AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine candidate are on temporary hold while the company investigates if a report of a patient with a serious side effect is linked to the shot. HealthPartners announced Wednesday that they planned to enroll at least 1,500 volunteers in the study, and will reschedule patients who want to participate when the study resumes.

The U.S. isn’t meeting COVID-19 testing targets. What would it take to change that?: Six months into the pandemic, the United States still hasn’t met COVID-19 testing goals. On Wednesday’s MPR News with Kerri Miller, two doctors describe why testing is essential and what needs to happen in order to increase testing rates across the nation. 

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.

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