Updated 3:33 p.m.
With COVID-19 case counts skyrocketing and deaths climbing, state public health leaders struck a decidedly somber tone Friday, pleading with Minnesotans to shoulder more personal responsibility to stem the spread of the disease.
Clearly frustrated by repeating the same advice for months, officials again implored people to wear masks in indoor public spaces, socially distance and take other measures to stem the spread even when gathering with family and friends.
There is a “steady, inexorable spread in communities across the state” from people who have the virus but don’t have symptoms, Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters. “It’s just critical that people take this seriously … these are preventable illnesses.”
Her comments came at the end of a week of grim data. The Health Department on Friday reported 13 more deaths tied to COVID-19 atop the 48 over the past two days, putting the toll at 61, the highest three-day total since early June. Daily confirmed cases leaped to a new single-day record — nearly 2,300, although results came on record testing.
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“I’m very saddened and I’m deeply worried about today’s numbers, but I’m not surprised,”Malcolm said, noting that Minnesota’s surge is starting to look more like the rampant spread tearing through Wisconsin and the Dakotas.
Officials Friday ticked off a range of concerns about the current state of the pandemic, including uncontrolled spread in communities across Minnesota and the rising numbers of health care workers contracting the disease outside of their workplaces, workers that then become sidelined and temporarily unable to provide care for others.
“We are seeing COVID at high numbers across the state in multiple locations,” said Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, describing it as the “ripple effect” from cases in late summer and early fall that continued to spread and escalate into the fall.
Active, confirmed cases this week topped 10,000 and then rose again Friday to another record in the pandemic, part of stretch that’s seen more than 1,000 cases a day in 12 of the last 16 days.
The newly reported deaths Friday raised Minnesota’s toll to 2,212. Among those who’ve died, about 70 percent had been living in long-term care or assisted living facilities; most had underlying health problems.
Of the 119,396 cases of the disease confirmed in the pandemic to date, about 88 percent have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.
‘Highs are getting higher’
Officials had anticipated seeing an October surge in cases expected from Labor Day weekend gatherings, sporting events, college student meetups and other informal affairs 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.
Daily new case confirmation numbers have ebbed and flowed over the past seven months. However, “the lows are getting higher and the highs are getting higher,” Ehresmann told reporters earlier in the week, describing it as an “escalating roller coaster.”
The positive test rate trend remains above 5 percent, the threshold where officials become concerned.
State officials earlier this week unveiled plans to massively expand COVID-19 testing opportunities across Minnesota as active caseloads remain at record highs and hospitalizations continue to climb.
Collectively, Minnesota will soon be able to process 60,000 tests per day, officials said, about twice what it’s managed on its best days until Friday, when the Health Department reported 44,500 tests completed.
“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,” Gov. Tim Walz told reporters Tuesday. “To not do these things will guarantee that others get it.”
Case counts rising across ages groups
New cases are up dramatically over the past month in all age groups. That includes a concerning rise in the number of new cases among Minnesotans ages 60 and older. It’s not clear what’s behind those increases.
People in their 20s still make up the age bracket with the state’s largest number of confirmed cases — more than 26,600 since the pandemic began, including more than 15,200 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 nearly 11,000 total cases among children ages 15 to 19 since the pandemic began.
Cases surging outside the Twin Cities metro area
Regionally, central, northern and southern 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.
Central Minnesota cases are leaping relative to its population. It’s not clear why. Northern Minnesota, once by far the region least affected by the disease, has also seen its caseload grow dramatically in recent weeks.
Collectively, rural areas of Minnesota continue to report the most new COVID-19 cases.
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 suburban and urban parts of the state.
“The hottest of our hot spots are outside the metro area,” Ehresmann said last week.
Latino, Indigenous cases jump
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. Counts among Indigenous people have jumped in the last week.
Friday’s numbers also show newly confirmed cases continuing to accelerate 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
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 2,180 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.
— Peter Cox | MPR News
Officials tweak data reporting
The Health Department on Wednesday also unveiled new changes to the way it reports data on cases and deaths. Health authorities have begun reporting the results of antigen tests, a more rapid form of COVID-19 test, along with the results from the more traditional COVID-19 test known by its initials PCR.
The agency said it made the move so its reporting would align with federal guidance. Antigen testing had been relatively small prior to this, so the change to previous case counts won’t be dramatic.
The state, though, is now adding to the COVID-19 death toll people who died after having had COVID-19 confirmed by an antigen (rapid) test but not a PCR test. That added six people to the state’s death toll Wednesday on top of 23 newly reported deaths.
Even without the statistical tweak, it was still the highest number of daily deaths reported since mid-June. The jump follows similar spikes Wisconsin, which reported 34 deaths in its Tuesday report. North Dakota set a new record for daily deaths last week at 24.
— MPR News Staff
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 will be available Friday afternoon 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 opened a second COVID-19 saliva testing site this week, in Winona. The state opened its first saliva testing site in Duluth late last month.
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
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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.