Updated: 3 p.m.
Minnesota’s COVID-19 October surge continues to escalate in the waning days of the month. The Health Department Wednesday reported some 1,900 newly confirmed cases and 19 more deaths.
The number of active, confirmed COVID-19 cases hit another record high. New cases are growing more quickly than tests for the first time in six months.
Hospitalizations continue to climb. Officials said 643 are in the hospital now, 37 more than Tuesday and 103 more than last week.
Separately on Wednesday, Gov. Tim Walz said plans are underway to test Minnesotans ages 18 to 35, a group he says is driving much of the asymptomatic virus spread.
The state will ask people in that age group to come to pop-up testing sites across the state, “pull over for 30 seconds and take this test and we get a result instantly, this one we get in 15 minutes. And we can start to break this,” he said during a stop in Moorhead, Minn.
"We want them to get tested so they can then know if they're infected so they can isolate,” added Dan Huff, an assistant state health commissioner. “That will help us stop that source of transmission in an area we just see as a major reservoir for the disease spreading out through the state."
‘A strengthening winter storm’
Overall, Wednesday’s Health Department data added more detail to an increasingly grim portrait of the pandemic in Minnesota amid a troubling week of record hospitalizations, steeply rising caseloads and double-digit daily deaths.
State officials had expected that late summer and early fall gatherings would bring a surge of cases in October. They also anticipated the wave would put more people in the hospital — and lead to more deaths.
That’s come to pass, and the surge appears poised to spill into November.
A key metric for gauging the spread of COVID-19 — the percentage of positive test results — came in at about 12 percent among the latest round of results. That's down from Tuesday’s 15 percent, but still significantly above the previous week. It's also in a range that Walz has characterized as uncontrolled spread.
“We’re in a strengthening winter storm” Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters Wednesday, comparing the spread to a snowstorm where people must work together to keep everyone safe. In the case of COVID-19, it means wearing masks in public gathering spaces, social distancing and staying home if you feel ill.
Unlike earlier in the pandemic, health authorities believe the current outbreaks are being driven more by people letting their guard down at family gatherings and celebrations, sporting events and informal meetups rather than at stores, restaurants and bars.
They are especially concerned because people can have the coronavirus and spread COVID-19 when they don’t have symptoms.
Of the 139,444 cases of the disease confirmed in the pandemic to date, about 89 percent have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.
The deaths reported Wednesday raised Minnesota’s toll to 2,387. Among those who’ve died, about 70 percent had been living in long-term care or assisted living facilities; most had underlying health problems.
Caseloads rising across age 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.
People in their 20s still make up the age bracket with the state’s largest number of confirmed cases — more than 30,500 since the pandemic began, including more than 17,000 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 schools and campuses completely to in-person teaching.
The number of high school-age children confirmed with the disease has also grown, with more than 12,200 total cases among children ages 15 to 19 since the pandemic began.
Cases surging along Minnesota’s western border
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.
Newly reported cases are highest in western Minnesota. The data doesn’t explain why. However, cases are surging currently in the Dakotas. North Dakota has the country’s worst per-capita spread rate.
North Dakota has had more new cases per capita than any other state over the past two weeks, according to the COVID Tracking Project. South Dakota, which ranks second in new cases per capita, broke its hospitalization record Tuesday for the third straight day.
Collectively, rural areas of Minnesota continue to report the most new COVID-19 cases.
Northern Minnesota, once the region least affected by the disease, has also seen its caseload grow dramatically in recent weeks. Northwestern Minnesota continues to see cases rise swiftly relative to it population.
The six top hot spot counties currently are all in the northwest.
“We are seeing more deaths in greater Minnesota because we are seeing more cases there,” Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, said last week. “We will see more and more deaths from greater Minnesota because of the high caseload.”
Wednesday’s data also revealed a startling number close to the Twin Cities: 339 new cases in Wright County over the past week, a 14 percent increase in total cases.
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 residents. Counts among Indigenous people have jumped in October relative to population. The number of new COVID-19 cases among Native Americans has grown by about 75 percent in recent weeks.
October data also 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.
Some events ‘no longer safe’
The newest numbers come two days after Gov. Tim Walz and public health experts painted an increasingly worrisome picture of a COVID-19 outbreak now driven more by people letting their guard down at family gatherings and celebrations, sporting events and informal meetups rather than at stores, restaurants and bars.
The governor’s top health officers again urged Minnesotans to rethink their plans for large family gatherings at Thanksgiving and other upcoming holidays, warning they pose a rising risk.
Given the current high levels of community spread in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest, get-togethers of “large extended families, multiple families from around the region, that absolutely would be a really, really bad idea this year,” Ehresmann said Monday.
There have been more than 70 related outbreaks from weddings since June, and that's lead to more than 674 direct cases among those attending, and one death, Malcolm said Wednesday.
The “vast majority” of COVID-19 spread is coming from these kinds of events, said Ehresmann. “Things that were relatively safe a month or two ago are no longer safe."
Ehresmann reiterated that point Wednesday as she cautioned Minnesotans against attending big Halloween parties and other events outside of a person’s immediate household. That kind of fun, she said, "is riskier now than it was a month ago.”
Developments around the state
Anoka-Hennepin board votes to continue sports, defying guidelines
Anoka-Hennepin schools voted Monday to keep high school sports and other activities going, even as they close the schools to in-person learning.
The district decided last week to move to distance learning for middle and high school students in response to rising COVID-19 cases. State guidance says schools have to at least meet guidelines for in-person instruction to offer sports and other out-of-class activities.
But citing athletic staff belief that COVID-19 can be managed among high school teams, and indications that nonschool teams will play anyway, school board members voted to defy state guidelines.
Board member Jeff Simon said he believed kids were going to participate anyway, and school was the best place for it.
“They're involved with and charged with and concerned about individual health and containing the spread of COVID-19, so continuing activities under the current structure following the Minnesota high school league recommendations for safe participation really allows the state a continued voice and management of the activity process going forward.”
District Superintendent David Law also told board members that there may be other districts that are defying the guidelines as well.
Asked about the school board’s move Tuesday morning, Gov. Tim Walz said he will take up the issue, adding that he will put a priority on public health.
“I understand the desire to make sure these activities stay available for kids. I have an eighth grader that I want to see playing these things. But we also have to manage it with the public health,” he said.
Walz said the state Health and Education Departments will communicate with Anoka-Hennepin schools, but didn’t elaborate on what the departments would be telling the state’s largest district.
“But I do need to stress that the health and safety of both students, those educators and the community always hold precedence,” Walz said.
— Tim Nelson | MPR News
More free testing scheduled in Minnesota communities
As Minnesota continues to see more than 1,000 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases a day, state health officials have scheduled another round of free testing sites this week.
Free testing will take place Wednesday and Thursday in Little Falls, Red Wing and Waconia, as well as Thursday and Friday in St. Paul.
Find more details — and schedule an appointment — on the Minnesota Department of Health website.
Officials said the free testing sites are targeted to areas with COVID-19 outbreaks, or barriers to accessing existing test sites.
Free saliva testing sites are now open in Duluth, Winona, Moorhead, Brooklyn Park and Mankato. 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.
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