Dec. 23 update on COVID-19 in MN: 75 deaths; new caseloads falling

A woman sits at a table and gets a shot.
Respiratory therapist Kim Cordie holds still as nurse Lynette Van London gives her a shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine Thursday at the St. Cloud Hospital in St. Cloud, Minn.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News file

Updated: 3:48 p.m.

Minnesota officials on Wednesday reported another 75 COVID-19 deaths, extending an already dreadful December and making it a near-certainty that the state will reach a brutal milestone — 5,000 total deaths — by week’s end, and probably by Thursday.

At the same time, other key COVID-19 metrics continue to offer definite signs of hope. New daily caseloads are retreating from their late November, early December peaks.

The Health Department posted 1,513 newly confirmed or probable COVID-19 cases, part of more than a week of relatively moderate new caseloads and the lowest in two months. An expected surge from Thanksgiving gatherings hasn’t surfaced.

The number of active, confirmed cases in Minnesota is about 18,000 the lowest since late October.

Active, confirmed COVID-19 cases in Minnesota

The agency said 1,073 people remained in the hospital with COVID-19 as of Tuesday, with 238 needing intensive care. The seven-day trend of new hospital admissions fell to its lowest level in seven weeks.

New COVID-19 hospitalizations in Minnesota

Deaths reported Wednesday raised Minnesota’s toll to 4,971. More than 2,500 COVID-19 deaths have been reported during November and December. That’s just over half of all the deaths in a pandemic that began here in March.

New COVID-19 related deaths reported in Minnesota each day

Wednesday’s caseload brought Minnesota’s confirmed COVID-19 pandemic total to 402,519. In about 94 percent of those cases, people have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.

New COVID-19 cases per day in Minnesota

Even as they applaud the improving picture on caseloads and hospitalizations, state public health leaders continue to warn conditions could change dramatically if people don’t stay vigilant as year-end holidays approach.

They’re imploring people to wear masks in indoor gathering spaces, socially distance and take other measures to help curb the spread of COVID-19.

“We’re still in a situation where there’s just a lot of virus circulating in the community,” Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Wednesday.

Malcolm praised Minnesotans for heeding the guidance on public gatherings and social distancing and said vaccinations will help even more. But she cautioned that it doesn’t mean Minnesota can let down its guard.

The state must still take precautions “to help the vaccine do its job,” Malcolm said. “This is important not just to protect yourself and your immediately family but protecting your neighbors or people in your community you don’t even know.”

The death toll remains heartbreaking, she added, noting that Minnesota will likely reach 5,000 deaths in Thursday’s report.

Caseloads spread across age groups

People in their 20s still make up the age bracket with the state’s largest number of confirmed cases — more than 77,000 since the pandemic began, including more than 41,000 among people ages 20 to 24.

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

The number of high school-age youth confirmed with the disease has also grown, with more than 31,000 total cases among those ages 15 to 19 since the pandemic began.

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.

New cases ebb across Minnesota

Central and western Minnesota drove much of the increase in new cases over the past two months, while Hennepin and Ramsey counties showed some of the slowest case growth in the state.

New COVID-19 cases by Minnesota region

After a spike in confirmed cases through much of November and early December, all regions of the state have seen new case numbers fall.

Hot spots continue to pop up in rural counties relative to their population.

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

Caseloads still heaviest among people of color

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

Even as new case counts ease from their peak a few weeks ago, the data shows people of color continue to be hit hardest.

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.

250K vaccine doses by year-end

Gov. Tim Walz on Tuesday said the wheels are turning now on initial plans to vaccinate Minnesotans against COVID-19 and the process is working largely as expected.

Minnesota began injecting health care workers last week with the Pfizer vaccine after the firm received emergency federal approval. The state's first supply contained 46,800 doses; another 33,150 are expected to follow.

About 94,800 doses of vaccine produced by another company, Moderna, are expected this week, with much of that arriving in the next 24 hours, Walz told reporters. A second Moderna supply with about 32,900 doses is anticipated next week along with 42,900 more from Pfizer.

Walz said about 250,000 total doses are expected by the end of the month. Beyond that, things are still in flux.

The Moderna doses, which don’t require the kind of deep cold storage required for the Pfizer vaccine, are being scheduled now for residents and workers of long-term care facilities across the state.

Officials say 11,578 people in Minnesota had been vaccinated as of midmorning Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director, said some Moderna shipments set for three local public health operations and one skilled nursing site have been delayed, and the winter storm is complicating delivery plans.

The state’s goal, she added, “is to make sure everyone who wants to be vaccinated has access to the vaccine … but we can only be successful when we have vaccine in the state.”

Developments around the state

Walz extends pay cut for himself and his chief of staff

Gov. Tim Walz said Wednesday he’s adding six months to a 10 percent pay cut that he and his chief of staff are taking during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In April, Walz imposed a pay cut for himself and agency commissioners to save the state money and show solidarity with people struggling due to restrictions he imposed. Those were set to expire next week.

A new executive order leaves the 10 percent pay cut in place for only two people: Walz and Chief of Staff Chris Schmitter. Walz earns $127,000 a year; Schmitter makes about $140,000. The cabinet-level pay will return to prior levels.

Walz said agency heads are working longer hours to manage the pandemic. Minnesota’s budget situation has also improved.

Walz also signed an executive order allowing out-of-state pharmacists help administer the COVID-19 vaccine because of staffing strains among Minnesota pharmacists.

— Brian Bakst | MPR News

COVID testing sites closed due to snowstorm across state

As a winter storm rages in Minnesota, the state Department of Health has announced the temporary closure of COVID-19 testing sites.

The sites at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, Minneapolis Convention Center and in St. Paul and Brooklyn Park are closing at 4 p.m. Wednesday. Already closed sites are in St. Cloud, Duluth, Moorhead and Winona.

State health officials also remind Minnesotans that all community testing sites will be closed Thursday and Christmas Day, as well as over the New Year's holiday.

— MPR News staff

Indoor pools can reopen Jan. 4

Gov. Tim Walz has adjusted his coronavirus restrictions to allow indoor pools to reopen early in the new year.

The Executive Council ratified the change Wednesday to align it with the resumption of other group fitness and youth sports reboots.

“The purpose of this executive order is to reopen pools for a narrow range of activities in compliance with industry guidance, including lap swim, lessons and organizing sports to begin on Jan. 4, 2021," Assistant Health Commissioner Daniel Huff explained.

Walz allowed health clubs to reopen last weekend with precautions. But pools had been left out.

Before adjourning the meeting, the governor indicated there would be no more changes to COVID-19 gathering and business restrictions before 2021.

— Brian Bakst | MPR News

Minnesota, Wisconsin to provide at-home COVID tests

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers announced Tuesday that his administration has partnered with a medical testing company to provide at-home COVID-19 tests for free if a requestor lacks health insurance coverage as the state set a new record high in deaths tied to the disease.

The Wisconsin governor said his administration has struck a deal with Vault Medical Services to provide free at-home COVID-19 saliva tests. Anyone can order a test through the state Department of Health Services website starting immediately.

After a testing kit arrives, users must collect a sample as a Vault testing supervisor looks on via a Zoom connection. Users will then mail the sample back to a Vault lab using a prepaid label that comes with the kit. Results will take between two and three days.

Evers' administration did not include the cost of the program in the announcement. Vault's website indicates people can order a test for themselves for $119 per kit. Wisconsin’s Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm said during a teleconference with reporters that a requester's health insurance provider will be billed. If the provider won't cover the test or a requester lacks health insurance the state will pay for it, she said.

Minnesota officials have reached a similar deal with Vault on at-home tests.

— The Associated Press

Some bars, eateries continue defying no-service rules

The Reopen Minnesota Coalition says some bars and restaurants continue to offer inside service despite Gov. Tim Walz executive order against it.

The Minnesota Attorney General's Office has taken several enforcement actions against establishments that chose to defy the governor's ban on inside eating and drinking. 

Reopen Minnesota organizer Darius Teichroew said the threat of legal penalties led to some businesses that planned to open illegally to change their mind. But other have held steadfast.

State officials say bars and restaurants violating the order could lose their liquor license and risk tens of thousands of dollars in fines.

— Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Top headlines

Minnesotans plan for expected federal relief payment: Most Minnesotans are expecting more COVID-19 relief money from the federal government, even as President Donald Trump floats the possibility of vetoing the stimulus package congressional Republicans and Democrats finally settled on. The president says direct payments should be more than three times larger than the $600 the House and Senate came up with.

One Minnesota district’s response to student struggles: In a school year that has forced shutdowns and virtual lessons, engagement is faltering and the number of failing grades is doubling. But Northfield Public Schools is experimenting with an extra effort to help  students and families to make sure learning is still happening.

'Step in the right direction' as Minnesota nursing home residents get first vaccine doses: The first residents and staff at a St. Cloud nursing home and a Prairie Island Indian Community assisted living facility have received their initial doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. It’s good news for long-term care facilities, which have been hardest hit by the virus. Sixty-five percent of the state's 4,896 deaths have been among long-term care residents.

Walz says state expects 250K COVID vaccine doses by year-end: Gov. Tim Walz earlier this week said the wheels are turning now on initial plans to vaccinate Minnesotans against COVID-19 and the process is working largely as expected. “The days ahead are brighter,” Walz told reporters Tuesday afternoon. “The vaccines are here. They’re being distributed as efficiently as we can. Demand outstrips supply at this point, but we’ll get there.”

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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