Dec. 1 update on COVID-19 in MN: 'Light at the end of the tunnel' as pandemic rages

A woman speaks at a podium.
Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm speaks during a press conference where officials urged the public to take steps to combat the spread of COVID-19 on Nov. 16 in St. Paul.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Updated: 3:40 p.m.

Even as they brace for another wave of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths originating from Thanksgiving gatherings, state public health authorities are laying the groundwork to distribute vaccines as soon as they’re available.

Officials are weighing a three-phase rollout in Minnesota, probably starting with health care professionals and others likely to encounter the coronavirus. A second phase will focus on the most vulnerable, and finally widen out to the general public.

“In Phase 3, vaccine will be available in plentiful supply, and so we will look at how we will routinely distribute COVID-19 vaccine — and that will be a wonderful time,” Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, told reporters Tuesday as she sketched out the outlines of the plan.

Federal vaccine approvals could start as soon as next week, she said, adding that the state will need about a week more to prepare distribution of vaccines.

“We have been talking about the light at the end of the tunnel. It's there and it’s getting closer all the time. But we do have to stay the course a bit longer before we reach it,” she said.

‘Challenging weeks ahead’

Ehresmann’s remarks buoyed an otherwise difficult day in the COVID-19 fight. The newest Health Department data reported 22 more deaths.

New hospital admissions trended sharply higher, hitting a new seven-day average high in the pandemic, eclipsing Saturday’s record, after trending down the past couple of days. More than 1,800 people were in hospitals with COVID-19 as of Monday; nearly 400 needed intensive care.

New COVID-19 hospitalizations in Minnesota

It was only the fifth time in the pandemic that new admissions topped 300 in a day.

The agency tallied 3,570 newly confirmed or probable COVID-19 cases, the lowest since Nov. 3. However it came on the lowest testing volume in a month, which pushed the positive test rate higher, a frustrating sign after several days of improvement in that key metric.

Percent of COVID-19 tests to come back positive

It’s unclear at this point how much the past few days of data are being distorted by the long holiday weekend.

“These daily numbers can and do fluctuate” but “we do remain in a very critical stage of the pandemic,” Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters Tuesday. “We are still in for some very challenging weeks ahead in terms of hospital capacity.”

Of the 322,312 confirmed or probable cases identified to date, about 87 percent have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.

New COVID-19 cases per day in Minnesota

The deaths reported Tuesday raised Minnesota’s toll to 3,615. Among those who’ve died, about 67 percent had been living in long-term care or assisted living facilities; most had underlying health problems.

New COVID-19 related deaths reported in Minnesota each day

Officials continue to plead with Minnesotans to wear masks in public gathering spaces, socially distance, stay home if you don’t feel well and otherwise stay vigilant against the spread of COVID-19.

On Monday, Gov. Tim Walz said he’ll likely call on Minnesotans not to travel or gather for Christmas.

“I think the guidance around Thanksgiving is going to be very similar around Christmas,” he told reporters Monday, adding there was “little reason” to expect a change in the trajectory of the virus in the next four weeks.

Caseloads spread across age groups

New cases have been climbing over the past month among all age groups.

People in their 20s still make up the age bracket with the state’s largest number of confirmed cases — more than 63,000 since the pandemic began, including more than 34,000 among people ages 20 to 24.

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

The number of high school-age children confirmed with the disease has also grown, with nearly 25,000 total cases among children ages 15 to 19 since the pandemic began.

The numbers help explain why experts remain particularly concerned about teens and young adults as spreaders of the virus.

Although 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.

It’s especially concerning because people can have the coronavirus and spread COVID-19 when they don’t have symptoms.

Active, confirmed COVID-19 cases in Minnesota

Walz said recently the state has data showing infection rates rising around bar and restaurant activity after 9 p.m. among young adults, noting that people who have the virus but don’t have symptoms may be unwittingly spreading it.

It’s one of the reasons he’s ordered a ban on in-person service at bars and restaurants until Dec. 18.

Virus surges across rural Minnesota

Regionally, central and northern 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.

New COVID-19 cases by Minnesota region

The fastest growing outbreaks remain largely along the state’s western border with the Dakotas, where the virus is spreading unchecked. But new cases are rising everywhere in Minnesota.

Collectively, rural areas continue to report the most new COVID-19 cases per capita.

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

Latino cases climb

In Minnesota and across the country, COVID-19 has hit communities of color disproportionately hard in both cases and deaths. That’s been especially true for Minnesotans of Hispanic descent for much of the pandemic.

New COVID-19 cases per capita by race

Distrust of the government, together with deeply rooted health and economic disparities, have hampered efforts to boost testing among communities of color, officials say, especially among unauthorized immigrants who fear their personal information may be used to deport them.

Similar trends have been seen among Minnesota’s Indigenous residents. Counts among Indigenous people jumped in October relative to population.

Cases among all races and ethnicities continue to rise, although currently the growth is slowest among Black Minnesotans, who reported the most new COVID-19 cases per capita for much of the spring and summer.

‘The honest, horrible truth’

State health systems are straining to staff hospital beds as COVID-19 cases grow and doctors, nurses and other care workers struggle to cope with illness among their own families and colleagues.

State officials for weeks have been raising concerns that health care workers are being sidelined by COVID-19, either by illness or exposure in their communities, or else having to care for loved ones.

Malcolm on Tuesday said 56 health care operations in the state have “staffing support needs … It is very definitely an ongoing challenge.”

The public needs to know the state’s health system is under serious stress, Dr. Cindy Firkins Smith, president of Carris Health in western Minnesota, told MPR News early Monday.

Cindy Firkins Smith, president and co-CEO of Carris Health, speaks with Cathy Wurzer
by MPR News Staff

“We have to tell it like it is. We have to give people the honest, horrible truth of what we're facing,” she said. “We have to tell them, ‘If you don't do it — if you, the public, don't do what you can do — we can't save you because there are only so many people to take care of people out there.’”

Developments around the state

Gophers-Northwestern game canceled over COVID

The University of Minnesota has canceled its Saturday Big 10 football game with Northwestern University due to COVID-19.

The game will not be rescheduled and will be ruled a no contest, per Big Ten policy this season, the U said in a statement Monday, adding it still hopes to play a game at the University of Nebraska on Dec. 12. The U canceled its game at Wisconsin last week.

Since Nov. 19, the Gophers football program has recorded 47 positive cases, which includes 21 student-athletes and 26 staff members, the university athletics department said.

— MPR News Staff

COVID-positive inmate in Rush City prison dies

An inmate at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Rush City has died after being diagnosed with COVID-19.

The Department of Corrections reported Sunday that the 57-year-old man died late Saturday at a St. Paul hospital. It's the fifth COVID-related death of a Minnesota state prison inmate during the pandemic — and the first from the Rush City facility.

The man’s name has not been released.

Officials said Sunday that the Rush City prison has 49 inmates and 21 staff members with active COVID-19 cases. More than 150 other inmates at the facility have tested positive and recovered, according to data on the department's website. The facility houses about 900 inmates.

Two inmates from other prison facilities are in critical condition and being treated on ventilators at hospitals due to COVID-19, the department said Sunday. Several Department of Corrections employees also are hospitalized.

The department said it has "conducted comprehensive testing of all incarcerated people and staff in our facilities," and taken other steps to prevent and slow the spread of the coronavirus.

— MPR News Staff

U to research COVID-19 outbreaks and immigrants

A new research center at the University of Minnesota will focus on control of the COVID-19 outbreaks in immigrant communities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has given the U of M a $5 million grant to set up the National Resource Center for Refugees, Immigrants and Migrants. It will work with local health departments to train providers on culturally appropriate care.

Shailey Prasad, a professor of medicine who is co-leading the center, said evidence shows that the virus has disproportionately affected communities of color. Many, he said, "are essential workers like farm workers or food processing plant employees and have challenges to maintain social distancing, for example, or maybe challenges in accessing health care.”

The center plans to identify barriers and help with mitigation.

— Riham Feshir | MPR News

Top headlines

Budget forecast to set tone for COVID-19 relief talks: The state’s budget agency warned in May that COVID-19 would punch a massive hole in Minnesota’s treasury. While the situation has improved since then, state government is still under strain and under pressure to assist people and businesses stung by virus-related restrictions.

Most MN students buckle up for another stretch of distance learning: With COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations on the rise, nearly 60 percent of Minnesota K-12 students are currently in distance learning — more than double the rate from early October. The switch is again heaping pressures on students, families and educators.

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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