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Latest on COVID-19 in MN: Bracing for more bad days, broken records

MPR Staff

It’s going to get worse.

That was the clear message from state public health officials Thursday as Minnesota’s COVID-19 data continued to break records, and not in a good way.

Hospitalizations, caseloads and deaths rose steeply in October and seem poised to spill into November.

With the state this week averaging more than 2,000 newly confirmed cases daily, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm braced Minnesotans to expect that to be the new norm. “The way things are going, I’m sorry to say, I don’t think that (daily case) record is going to hold for very long,” she told reporters Thursday.

The rampant spread is being driven now by the “thousands of seemingly small decisions” Minnesotans make daily to meet and gather with others without wearing masks, socially distancing or taking other steps to stem the spread, she said.

Here are Minnesota’s current COVID-19 statistics:

  • 2,419 deaths
  • 142,311 positive cases, 124,379 off isolation
  • 2,770,450 tests, 1,819,873 people tested (about 32 percent of all residents)
  • 8.7 percent seven-day positive test rate (5 percent or greater is concerning)

There are now more than 15,000 known active cases of COVID-19 in the state for the first time. That number has grown dramatically in the last week.

Spread threatens to swamp ‘flood walls’

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.

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.

The current wave is especially worrisome because the state’s seeing cases rise again in long-term care facilities, where some of the state’s most vulnerable people live.

Despite efforts to protect those facilities, Minnesota saw 186 new cases in long-term care on Tuesday alone, said Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director.

Many of these cases are due to community spread — health care workers getting infected outside the facilities and then bringing it in. “Even with the flood walls we built up, if the waters rise high enough, we’ll still have big problems,” Ehresmann said Thursday.

Caseloads rising across age groups

New cases are up dramatically over the past month in all age groups.

People in their 20s still make up the age bracket with the state’s largest number of confirmed cases — approaching 31,000 since the pandemic began, including more than 17,000 among people ages 20-24.

The number of high school-age children confirmed with the disease has also grown, with more than 12,300 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.

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

That led Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday to urge testing Minnesotans ages 18 to 35, a group he says is driving much of the asymptomatic virus spread.

“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.”

Cases surging along Minnesota’s western border

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.

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.

“We are seeing more deaths in greater Minnesota because we are seeing more cases there,” Ehresmann 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 undocumented immigrants who fear their personal information may be used to deport them.

Some events ‘no longer safe’

The newest numbers come two days after 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.”

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