Updated: 4:06 p.m.
Minnesota is seeing “encouraging trends” in the pandemic with fewer hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients, says Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm, but she warns that the next weeks will be “critical” to see if relaxing restrictions will have an impact on the virus spread.
Minnesota health officials on Thursday reported 2,004 new cases and 44 deaths, which Gov. Tim Walz called “mixed news.”
“We must continue to take precautions to combat the spread of virus around our state,” Malcolm reiterated. “We know that masking, social distancing, staying outside while gathering are just critical, as well as getting tested if you feel ill.”
The state is now averaging about 42 deaths per day, down from 56 two weeks ago.
Prior to the holidays, more than 1,000 patients being treated in hospital beds for COVID-19 treatment. Currently, about 787 patients in Minnesota hospitals are being treated for COVID-19 with 135 treated in intensive care.
After bottoming out last week, new case counts are rebounding, even after accounting for backlogs and reporting issues.
The test positivity rate also is ticking up. Malcolm told reporters Thursday that it’s something officials are keeping a close eye on in the wake of the end-of-year holidays.
“We do continue to watch for any bump in cases associated with holiday gatherings. We think we might be seeing a little bit of that. So far we’ve averaged 2,300 new cases each day over the past seven days,” Malcolm said. “And that’s up from about 1,800 a day during the week between Christmas and New Year’s.”
The new cases are on top of more than 41,422 COVID-19 tests. That’s a high watermark for testing in the last week, as testing volume slowed over the holidays.
Meanwhile, 91,174 people have been vaccinated against COVID-19. Nearly 400,000 doses of the vaccine have been delivered to Minnesota since mid-December.
Vaccinations continue for health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities around Minnesota, but health officials warn it will take through the end of January to vaccinate those designated in phase 1A of the vaccine rollout.
More than half of Minnesota nursing homes are receiving vaccines from drug store chains that have contracted with the federal government, but a lack of staff has led to bottlenecks in getting the shots to this high priority group.
State infectious disease division director Kris Ehresmann said Thursday that around 9,000 nursing home workers and residents have been vaccinated — that’s just a fraction of the total.
“We’re definitely watching to see how well and how efficiently the program is going,” Ehresmann said. “And if there are problems, just like other times when there’ve been hiccups, we will look to see what we can do to assist.”
Officials say CVS and Walgreens have told the Health Department it will take three to four weeks to get through all the nursing homes. Smaller pharmacies say they’re able to move more quickly.
Malcolm added that Minnesota is screening for the U.K. variant of the coronavirus — which researchers say is a more transmissible form — but Malcolm said while the state health lab can screen for the variant, not all labs have the ability to do so.
The new numbers came a day after Walz announced he will allow bars and restaurants to offer indoor dining again next week with limits, and movie theaters, museums and other entertainment venues can reopen after being closed since mid-November. The new restrictions will begin starting Monday, Jan. 11.
Walz framed the moves as cautious adjustments but made clear he won’t allow new virus spread to snowball. He also urged Minnesotans to continue social distancing and wearing masks to slow the spread of the virus.
While the state is still experiencing a high rate of infection, Walz said it is less serious than around Thanksgiving.
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 80,000 since the pandemic began, including more than 42,000 among people ages 20 to 24.
The number of high school-age youth confirmed with the disease has also grown, with more than 32,000 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 older relatives and members of other vulnerable populations.
It’s of particular concern because people can have the coronavirus and spread COVID-19 when they don’t have symptoms.
New cases spread across Minnesota, not just one region
The minor bump in new cases is happening all around the state, not just in one particular region.
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.
Hot spots continue to pop up in rural counties relative to their population.
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.
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.
Developments around the state
Minn. bar, restaurant owners challenge Gov. Walz’s COVID rules in court
Even with looser restrictions going into effect next week, bars and restaurant owners in Minnesota filed a new pair of lawsuits this week challenging Gov. Tim Walz’s executive orders.
Attorney Matt Duffy represents two bars, a bowling alley and industry suppliers. He said that the state has not provided data on outbreaks at dining establishments to justify the rules and that the mandates violate the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause because they treat retailers differently than bars and restaurants.
“We’re willing to work with the governor’s office. We just felt like we’ve been shut out so far. And I think the lawsuit was kind of the last ditch effort to get the attention of the governor,” Duffy said.
A separate group of 27 bars and restaurants also filed a similar lawsuit. Earlier legal attempts to reverse Walz’s executive orders have not succeeded.
A parents’ group that challenged a temporary ban on youth athletics dropped its federal suit this week after practices resumed as planned.
— Matt Sepic | MPR News
Minnesota’s restaurants prepare for reopening, again: “When things reopened the first time, we certainly saw some glimpses of restaurants and other food establishments starting to get some traction again, so we’re hopeful we’ll see the same thing,” said Max Bialick, purchasing manager for American Fish and Seafood.
Indoor dining to resume next week; theaters and museums can also reopen: Starting Monday, restaurants and bars will be allowed to open at 50 percent capacity. Bowling alleys, movie theaters and museums can reopen at 25 percent capacity.
For one woman in recovery, staying sober during a pandemic has been a lesson in resilience: For most of her adult life, sobriety has been hard for Heather Russell to maintain. When the pandemic hit, she worried she’d go back to drinking, after nearly a year of sobriety. Instead, Russell says 2020 was a lesson in tapping resilience she didn’t know she had.
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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