Updated: 3 p.m.
Minnesota’s yo-yoing COVID-19 case numbers in recent weeks have meant some drastic swings in school districts’ safe learning recommendations, but state health officials say they’re taking the data irregularities into account when working with schools to set learning plans.
A formula produced by the Health Department generates guidance for districts to help decide whether to have in-person learning, distance learning, or a mix, based on the rate of COVID-19 cases in that district’s county over a two-week period.
The most recent recommendations, released Thursday, cover cases from Aug. 23 to Sept. 5 — a period that happened to see a late-August spike in new COVID-19 cases.
The result? A full 25 counties saw their COVID-19 case counts slip past one of the health department’s thresholds, changing their recommendation toward more distance learning for more students.
In the most recent update, six counties are recommended to have all students do full-time distance learning: Blue Earth, Lyon, Stevens, Waseca, Winona and Yellow Medicine counties. All but Waseca County were previously recommended to allow at least some in-person learning.
Not every county got worse. Eleven counties saw their case rates improve compared to last week’s results, and saw their recommendation shift to more in-person learning.
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Overall, 24 largely rural counties have a recommendation of in-person for all students.
These recommendations are only considered the starting point for school districts, which make their own learning plans in cooperation with the Health Department.
Because Minnesota’s calculation uses weeks-old data and calculates cases by the day a person got tested rather than the day the tests were reported, this update is not affected by recent reporting delays caused by the Labor Day weekend.
Big jump in daily case counts, testing
The new school guidance map came out the same day officials unveiled their coming monthlong push to boost testing in selected regions around the state to curb community spread of the coronavirus.
The Health Department is “deeply concerned” about the jump in community spread across Minnesota — cases where people don’t know how they contracted the disease, said Dan Huff, an assistant state health commissioner, as he explained the need to boost testing efforts.
Minnesota is seeing cases leap in neighboring states, he added, and “we do not want that to happen here.”
Officials are also pushing ahead on education and enforcement efforts to ensure restaurant owners and patrons comply with the state’s masking and social distancing orders. Huff said that investigators want compliance in the “most unobtrusive way possible” but that owners and customers had a responsibility to follow the rules.
“This is a serious disease. We know that,” he said. “There’s no vaccine. There’s no cure, and it’s contagious. Everyone needs to do their part.”
Thursday’s COVID-19 daily data report showed 931 new confirmed infections in Minnesota, one of the high single-day reports in the pandemic. But that came along with big testing numbers, suggesting this case spike may be largely due to more testing rather than greater community spread.
Two other closely watched metrics — the number of people currently hospitalized (242) and patients needing intensive care (132) inched downward from Wednesday, part of a downward trend in those cases since the start of September and far lower than their late-May peaks.
Of the 86,722 confirmed cases of the disease in the pandemic as of Thursday, about 92 percent of those infected have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.
Nine more deaths brought Minnesota’s toll to 1,942. 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.
‘This is not a cold’
Among their worries this week, health officials have also expressed unease about the possible resumption of football and other fall sports in the pandemic.
Minnesota has seen more than 1,400 cases of COVID-19 tied to sports activities in the pandemic, including nearly 900 in adults. Collectively, that caseload has led to recommended quarantines for more than 3,300 people.
“This is not a cold,” Dr. Ruth Lynfield, the state’s epidemiologist, warned of COVID-19. “There are some people who do fine with this, but there are others, including young people, who do not do fine.”
She noted studies showing heart and other health problems linked to COVID-19 that appear to linger beyond the infection.
“We really don’t have a sense of all the things this virus can do,” she said.
The Big Ten intends to open its season Oct. 23-24. The Minnesota State High School League expects to meet on Monday to review its earlier decision to not play football and volleyball this fall in the face of COVID-19.
While youth and college sports are important, COVID-19 poses a risk to student athletes as well as to the universe of coaches, friends and families that surround players, top state health officials said.
The Health Department was “watching with concern” the rapid growth in new COVID-19 confirmed cases in the states surrounding Minnesota and bracing for potential higher daily case counts from over the Labor Day weekend, when people ventured out for informal get-togethers with family and friends, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said earlier this week.
The state saw a jump in cases following the July Fourth holiday. Officials also worry about a one-two punch this fall and winter from COVID-19 and the typical flu season.
On Thursday, Malcolm and Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, said it will take about two more weeks to determine if Labor Day gatherings led to a surge in cases.
Health Department investigators this week also going door-to-door in randomly selected neighborhoods in the Twin Cities and southeastern Minnesota as part of a statewide study to find out where COVID-19 is more prevalent.
They’ll ask questions about where people spend time, whether anyone in the house has been diagnosed with COVID-19, and what information they'd like about the virus. They'll also offer free nasal swabs and serology tests.
College campus worries rise
People in their 20s make up the age bracket with the state’s largest number of confirmed cases — topping 20,000 since the pandemic began, including more than 11,500 infections among people ages 20-24.
The numbers help explain why experts remain particularly concerned about young adults as spreaders of the virus.
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.
They’ve been driving the recent outbreaks, although the number of high school-age children confirmed with the disease has also grown, approaching nearly 8,000 total cases for children 15 to 19 years old since the pandemic began.
On Sunday, just across the border from Minnesota, the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse responded to rising cases by moving all in-person classes online, closing dining halls and most campus buildings, and mandating face coverings at all times on campus, indoors or outdoors.
Winona State University is in the middle of a 14-day campus quarantine that will limit all nonessential activities on campus to slow the spread of COVID-19. Winona State on Wednesday reported a current total of 125 active positive cases and 294 since late August.
Winona State, Concordia College in Moorhead and Minnesota State University Mankato have each seen more than 100 cases tied to the schools and students in the last two weeks, Ehresmann said this week.
Regionally, southern and central Minnesota and the Twin Cities suburbs have driven much of the increase in new cases while Hennepin and Ramsey counties show some of the slowest case growth in the state.
Hot spots have included southwestern Minnesota, where 75 cases have been traced to a late-August wedding in Lyon County that officials describe now as the state’s largest single social spreader event.
On Monday, Minnesota officials also confirmed an outbreak of 122 cases at the federal women’s prison in Waseca, which they said began when federal authorities transferred people into the facility from outside the state who had COVID-19.
Developments around the state
Mayo Clinic introduces new coronavirus tracking tool
Mayo Clinic has launched a new COVID-19 case tracker. The online tool will breakdown coronavirus cases by county across 50 states and Washington, D.C.
The tool is aimed at helping people see emerging hot spots — information that can inform decisions about travel, and the safety of friends and family.
The tool includes total cases in each county and state, but also new cases, positive test rates, fatality rates and overall trends.
The data behind the new site is based on Mayo Clinic's own internal COVID-19 modeling tool, which it has used to predict how and where the virus will spread.
— Catharine Richert | MPR News
Two GOP state lawmakers call on Walz to ease up on businesses
Two Republican state lawmakers are criticizing DFL Gov. Tim Walz over his administration’s enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions.
Reps. Dave Baker, of Willmar, and Tony Jurgens, of Cottage Grove, say state inspectors are imposing stiff fines on restaurants and other hospitality businesses. They highlighted a Hastings restaurant Tuesday that is currently contesting $7,600 in fines, which were largely due to an employee removing a face mask while talking to customers.
The Busted Nut’s owner, Tatia Nelson said it was an isolated incident, and she believes the fine is excessive.
“I’m just trying to do my best as a business, and I’m trying to do everything right,” she said.
Jurgens said the stepped-up enforcement appears to be a change in the administration’s approach.
“When many of these executive orders were issued, the governor indicated that the purpose was to educate, not punish,” Jurgens said. “I believe I even remember somebody saying to hand out masks, not fines. But unfortunately, that’s not the reality.”
Baker, a former restaurant owner, called on the governor to ease up on enforcement. He also urged Walz to allow more indoor seating in restaurants before colder weather hits.
— Tim Pugmire | MPR News
Statewide testing push seeks to stem COVID-19 transmission: State health officials are launching a monthlong statewide testing effort aimed to stem transmission of the virus. The pop-up testing clinics will start the week of Sept. 21 and testing is free and available to anyone, including those who don’t have insurance.
Doctor’s COVID-19 videos offer calm in the pandemic storm: A rural Minnesota doctor gained an online following with his self-made videos sharing facts and advice about the coronavirus. Then, he shared news of his own diagnosis.
U of M students move in, and test the latest COVID-19 measures: In addition to pushing back move-in day, the university instituted a strict, four-step process for students who live in dorms on the Twin Cities, Duluth and Rochester campuses. First, they’ll spend at least 10 days living and learning almost exclusively inside the residence halls and are told not to visit other dorms, businesses or off-campus residences. For nearly a month, they’ll have a 9 p.m. curfew.
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.