Updated: 3:50 p.m.
Gov. Tim Walz and state health officials on Tuesday unveiled plans to massively expand COVID-19 testing opportunities across Minnesota as caseloads and hospitalizations continue to climb.
The ramp-up includes new saliva testing sites opening in Moorhead and Winona this week and Brooklyn Park next week. The state’s already running a site in Duluth and is building out a lab in the St. Paul suburbs to process the waves of tests expected to follow.
Collectively, Minnesota will be able to process 60,000 tests per day, officials said, about twice what it’s managed on its best days to date.
The state also plans to roll out a pilot program in coming weeks in targeted areas across the state where residents will be able to register online to get a kit delivered to their homes that will let them self-administer a COVID-19 test and send it to a state lab for results.
Dan Huff, an assistant state health commissioner, didn’t have a cost estimate for the in-home test. He said a resident’s health insurer would be billed, but that “if you are uninsured or underinsured, you will not receive a bill.”
Active cases at record high
News of the latest testing push came hours after the Minnesota Department of Health reported data showing the state’s COVID-19 numbers remain headed in the wrong direction.
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Tuesday’s data extended a weeklong trend of newly confirmed cases averaging more than 1,000 a day. The seven-day average of active, confirmed cases in the state remains at a record high.
Hospitalizations are also trending higher. The positive test rate trend remains above 5 percent, the threshold where officials become concerned.
State health authorities for weeks have been warning the pandemic is far from over.
“The biggest thing we can do to ensure our kids have an opportunity to be in school, that our businesses and restaurants remain open, is to simply follow the science around masking, around social distancing, getting tested,” Walz told reporters Tuesday. “To not do these things will guarantee that others get it.”
Officials had anticipated seeing an October surge in cases expected from Labor Day weekend gatherings, sporting events and college student meetups at the start of fall semester. They also expected the wave would put more people in the hospital. That appears to be happening.
While the spike early in the pandemic was driven largely by illnesses tied to long-term care facilities and workplace sites such as meatpacking plants, officials say the current spread is diffused, making it even harder to trace and isolate cases.
“We’re seeing this widespread transmission in the community. That’s what’s really concerning,” Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, said Monday.
Seven more deaths reported Tuesday raised Minnesota’s toll to 2,151. Among those who’ve died, about 71 percent had been living in long-term care or assisted living facilities; most had underlying health problems.
Another 1,276 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases brought the total in the pandemic to 114,574 cases to date; about 90 percent have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.
Rise in cases among age 30-plus Minnesotans
New cases are up dramatically over the past month in all age groups 30 and older. That includes a concerning rise in the number of new cases among Minnesotans ages 60 and older. It’s not clear why.
People in their 20s still make up the age bracket with the state’s largest number of confirmed cases — more than 26,000 since the pandemic began, including some 15,000 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 and end up hospitalized, experts worry youth and young adults will spread it to grandparents and other vulnerable populations and that spread could hamper attempts to reopen campuses completely to in-person teaching.
The number of high school-age children confirmed with the disease has also grown, with more than 10,700 total cases among children ages 15 to 19 since the pandemic began.
Cases surging outside the Twin Cities metro area
Regionally, northern, southern and central Minnesota have driven much of the recent increase in new cases while Hennepin and Ramsey counties show some of the slowest case growth in the state.
Collectively, rural areas of Minnesota continue to report the most new COVID-19 cases. Northern Minnesota, once by far the region least affected by the disease, has seen its caseload grow dramatically in recent weeks relative to its population.
Central Minnesota cases are skyrocketing. It’s not clear why.
Early on, many Minnesotans thought COVID-19 would be only a Twin Cities metro area problem, but now the biggest problems are happening outside the satonurban parts of the state.
“The hottest of our hot spots are outside the metro area,” Ehresmann said Friday. That includes Martin and Pipestone counties in southern Minnesota, where positive test rates are hitting 10 percent, about twice the statewide average.
Ehresmann implored Minnesotans again to wear masks in indoor public gathering spaces, socially distance and stay home if they don’t feel well. “People in greater Minnesota,” she added, “they have it within their control to make things better.”
Curbs eased for long-term care facility visits
Minnesota health officials on Monday put out new guidance to ease visiting rules for nursing homes and other long-term care facilities in the state.
Visitors must now be allowed if the long-term care facility has not had a COVID-19 exposure in the last 14 days. Another requirement for opening nursing homes is if there's low to medium virus transmission in the county.
There are exceptions if there is a reasonable or clinical safety cause not to open, such as staffing issues.
The new rules go into effect Saturday. They are being introduced to align with new federal recommendations. Visitors still must schedule their time with the facilities, be screened for symptoms and wear masks.
Long-term care settings have long been a deep concern for the state’s public health authorities. Among the 2,144 who’ve died from COVID-19 related complications in Minnesota, about 71 percent had been living in long-term care or assisted living facilities; nearly all had underlying health problems.
Officials had placed severe visiting restrictions early on in the pandemic, hoping to stem the spread of the disease. They’ve also acknowledged the psychological toll that takes on residents and their families.
Latino cases jump; racial disparities persist
In Minnesota and across the country, COVID-19 has hit communities of color disproportionately hard in both cases and deaths.
Minnesotans of Hispanic descent are testing positive for COVID-19 at about five times the rate of white Minnesotans. They, along with Black Minnesotans, are also being hospitalized and moved to intensive care units at higher rates than the overall population.
Similar trends hold true for Minnesota’s Indigenous and Asian residents.
The newest numbers, though, show newly confirmed cases accelerating among Latino people in Minnesota.
Distrust of the government, together with deeply rooted health and economic disparities, have hampered efforts to boost testing among communities of color, particularly for unauthorized immigrants who fear their personal information may be used to deport them.
Developments around the state
Another Walz recall attempt fails
A third effort aimed at removing Gov. Tim Walz from office has been tossed out. The Minnesota Supreme Court dismissed the latest recall petition in an order signed Monday by Chief Justice Lorie Gildea.
The voters who brought the recall petition argued that Walz overstepped his power with a statewide mask use mandate designed to limit the spread of coronavirus. They said it conflicted with a state law barring people from concealing their identity in public unless it is tied to protection from weather, religious beliefs or medical treatment.
Gildea’s order doesn’t reach a conclusion about whether the mandate is legal or not. But the chief justice said either way “the proposed petition does not allege facts that, if proven, would constitute malfeasance” required under the recall law.The prior recall attempts were turned back in May and July.
— Brian Bakst | MPR News
U of M eases COVID-19 restrictions at Twin Cities campus
The University of Minnesota, Twin Cities has moved into it's third stage of its plan for safely bringing students back to campus.
The school's four-stage “Maroon and Gold Sunrise Plan” limited the movement and interactions of students living in campus housing during their first weeks on campus.
During the first stage, students were in their residents halls almost exclusively. And during the first and second stage, there was a 9 p.m. curfew.
The campus is now moving into stage three, meaning students have full access to campus and the surrounding community. But they have a midnight curfew to be back to the dorms.
The third stage will last about two weeks. The fourth and final stage, is "COVID-19" normal, meaning there are no back home time constraints, though students must avoid large gatherings, maintain physical distancing and wear masks, as they've had to do at all other stages.
— Peter Cox | MPR News
90 inmates at Stillwater state prison contract COVID
The state prison in Stillwater is on lockdown after 90 inmates tested positive for COVID-19.
Routine mass testing this week found 90 new COVID-19 infections at the prison, bringing its total number of cases to 115, the Department of Corrections says.
The department says the inmates with confirmed cases either have no symptoms or are mildly symptomatic. However, a 70-year-old man is receiving medical attention outside the prison.
The department says in a statement that all but two of the men who tested positive reside in the Cell Hall D and Atlantis living units.
— Matt Sepic | MPR News
Virus cancels Indigenous voter event in Bemidji
In Bemidji, an Indigenous voter registration event scheduled for Monday afternoon at the Paul and Babe statues was canceled. Organizers of Rock the Vote, Native Style were in contact with a facilities manager whose husband recently tested positive for COVID-19.
The climate justice group MN350, the local organizers for the event, work out of the Rail River Folk School in Bemidji. They had regular contact with the building manager, whose husband has tested positive. The organizers are in quarantine and getting tested.
"There are going to be a lot of Indigenous people gathered in one place," said statewide event coordinator Nicole Ektnitphong. "We didn't want to spread this disease to all of them. We're trying to be responsible, good people here."
— John Enger | MPR News
More free testing sites open this week
The Minnesota Department of Health and local officials are offering another round of free COVID-19 testing sites around the state this week.
Testing sites will be open Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in Aitkin, Alexandria, Anoka, Faribault, Luverne and St. Cloud.
Testing also will be available Thursday and Friday afternoons at New Hope Baptist Church in St. Paul.
For more details on times and testing locations — and to sign up for an appointment — go to the MDH website.
State health officials also announced that they're opening a second COVID-19 saliva testing site later this week, in Winona.
The state opened its first saliva testing site in Duluth late last month. The second site will open Wednesday at the Winona Mall.
Health Department officials say they are trying to be proactive as COVID-19 cases continue to surge around the state. They say that they're especially concerned about a growing spread of the coronavirus throughout greater Minnesota.
Saliva testing will be available to anyone who wants it or thinks they need it. So far more than 7,000 people have completed saliva testing at the first site in Duluth. State officials plan to open as many as eight more sites across the state in the coming weeks.
The Winona testing site will be open five days a week, from Wednesday through Sunday. Find more information here.
— MPR News Staff
Minnesota to allow more visits to nursing homes, long-term care facilities: More people soon will be able to visit loved ones in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. The Minnesota Department of Health says the changes are set to go into effect on Saturday.
Two Minnesota United players test positive for COVID-19: Minnesota United's scheduled Sunday match at FC Dallas was postponed after two Minnesota players tested positive for COVID-19.
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.