Updated 4 p.m.
State health leaders on Wednesday again hammered home their warnings that the COVID-19 pandemic is not nearly over despite a low daily death count and a relatively stable number of hospitalizations.
Newly confirmed cases continue to rise steeply each day. With students returning to college and kids heading back to school, officials are increasingly concerned Minnesotans have numbed to the need to stay vigilant, opening the door to more spread.
While Minnesota leaders are happy new daily deaths remain in single digits and hospitalizations are somewhat stable, “we are very worried about the high level of cases,” Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm told reporters.
“We are seeing very concerning, severe health consequences” among people who’ve been infected with COVID-19, even in cases that were relatively mild, Malcolm said, noting that’s one reason the state is trying to stem the disease.
Minnesotan is first confirmed death linked to Sturgis
State health officials worried for weeks about Minnesotans carrying COVID-19 back from the massive Aug. 7-16 motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D. The cases came rolling in shortly after the rally ended.
Minnesota officials on Wednesday reported 50 cases now tied to the Sturgis rally. They also reported that a Minnesotan who’d gone to the rally had died of COVID-19 — the first such known death in the country tied to Sturgis.
The person was in their 60s with underlying health problems, said Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director.
Health investigators are now seeing secondary spread in Minnesota linked to those 50 cases tied directly to Sturgis.
The rally drew some 460,000 people from across the country. Most people didn’t take significant precautions against COVID-19 infections. A few people wore masks and some said they were avoiding crowds, but many others packed close together at bars and rock shows.
Experts have urged anyone who went to self-isolate for 14 days, get tested if they don’t feel well and stay home until they get the test results.
Of the Minnesotan who died, Ehresmann did not have specifics on their activities around Sturgis but said others who were at Sturgis and became infected told investigators they were at multiple settings and campgrounds in around the Black Hills town.
“It’s fair to say that pretty much everyone was in a crowded setting,” she added.
Active confirmed cases reach record high
Wednesday’s data showed confirmed COVID-19 cases in Minnesota resuming a steeper climb, with 761 more confirmed cases along with seven additional deaths.
The count of people currently hospitalized (297) stayed roughly stable from Tuesday; 135 people are in intensive care, about average for the past 10 days.
Daily hospitalizations are down significantly from late May but have stayed stubbornly consistent since late July at around 300 patients.
Testing was significantly higher in Wednesday’s Health Department report, rising faster than new cases. The agency said later that the case and testing counts were affected by a clearing of a backlog of some 17,000 tests from past weeks.
Over the past week, Minnesota’s seen its number of active, confirmed cases reach a record high.
Of the 77,085 confirmed cases of the disease in the pandemic to date, about 89 percent of those identified have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.
Among the 1,830 who’ve died, about 73 percent had been living in long-term care or assisted living facilities; nearly all had underlying health problems.
‘Weak spot in our response’
The state’s newest COVID-19 report comes amid worries that students returning to college this week will drive more spread.
People in their 20s make up the age bracket with the state’s largest number of confirmed cases — approaching 18,000 since the pandemic began, including more than 10,000 among ages 20-24.
The University of Minnesota is betting that restricting student movements early will help. On Tuesday, the U rolled out a plan intended to curb the movements of students as they return to campuses in the Twin Cities, Duluth and Rochester.
Will it help keep the virus in check? State officials hope so.
On Monday, Malcolm and other officials sounded the alarm that the state is headed for serious trouble as fall turns to winter unless more Minnesotans start doing the right things, including wearing masks and socially distancing even at meetups with friends and family.
Minnesotans’ behavior in stores, restaurants and other public places isn’t so much the problem now, but “informal gatherings have really proven to be a weak spot in our response to the pandemic,” the commissioner said earlier this week.
“Cases have now begun increasing at a faster rate than our testing,” she added. “We see outbreaks occurring in many settings in our state … a really concerning high level of community transmission.”
Malcolm and Ehresmann conceded that many people, fatigued by six months of hearing about the need to take precautions against the disease, may be tuning out.
“The bottom line is people have to follow them in order for them to work,” Ehresmann said of the public health safety recommendations. “We can provide lots of guidance … but that’s not what will turn this pandemic around.”
State health authorities have been reiterating their concerns about college students joining end-of-summer parties and other gatherings that could feed the spread of COVID-19 and bring it onto campuses this fall.
Officials on Monday also noted a spike in Winona County they attribute to returning college-age people. Winona State University and St. Mary’s University are based in Winona, as is a campus of Minnesota State College Southeast.
While people in their 20s are less likely to feel the worst effects of the disease, experts worry those young adults will spread it to grandparents and other vulnerable populations.
Suburbs, southern MN drive new cases
Regionally, the Twin Cities and suburbs had been driving the counts of newly reported cases. Monday’s data, however, show new cases exploding everywhere except Hennepin and Ramsey counties.
Northern Minnesota cases resumed their climb after jumping in July and then retreating a bit. Beltrami County, home to Bemidji, has seen a steady climb the past few weeks. The county reported 327 cases and one death as of Wednesday.
Meatpacking operations had been hot spots for big outbreaks in southwest, west-central and central Minnesota earlier in the pandemic.
New cases had slowed considerably, although the problem has resurfaced recently in McLeod County (369 cases), where more than 20 employees at a Seneca Foods plant in Glencoe were identified recently in an outbreak.
Le Sueur and Waseca counties are also seeing big, recent case increases. Le Sueur showed 386 cases and two deaths as of Wednesday.
Saliva tests coming for K-12 teachers, day care staff who want one
Earlier in the pandemic Minnesota officials vowed to make sure any K-12 teacher or day care provider would have access to one free COVID-19 test. On Wednesday, Malcolm said those teachers and staffers would soon be instructions on how to access those tests.
Schools and school staff will be receive instructions this week on how to get unique code to access a saliva test. The code can be used to access a single test through the end of the year, Malcolm said.
She emphasized that teachers and staff are not required to take a test before returning to classrooms or continuing in child care, but urged those eligible to use the option if needed.
“Maybe you’re feeling symptomatic. Maybe you were exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID,” she added.
Debunking a ‘nonsense’ rumor
State officials have become increasingly concerned about unsubstantiated claims and outright false stories on social media. On Wednesday, they felt obligated to respond to one of the more outlandish ones.
Ehresmann said they have been hearing of online rumors “to the effect that children who test positive for COVID have been taken from their family members by child protective services.”
That’s false, she said, noting that misinformation is a “real thing” and that people should carefully consider the sources they rely on for information.
“It’s hard to believe,” she said, “we’re at a point where such nonsense needs to be addressed.”
Correction (Sept. 2): An earlier version of this story mistakenly included graduate apartment housing in the initial restrictions planned by the University of Minnesota. The restrictions only apply to residence halls.
Developments around the state
HealthPartners to take part in Oxford’s COVID-19 vaccine trial
HealthPartners Wednesday announced that it will be enrolling at least 1,500 people in a clinical trial that will determine whether a vaccine developed by Oxford University is effective at preventing COVID-19.
Participants must be 18 years old or older, in good health, and not have had COVID-19 already. Researchers are particularly interested in people who have a high risk of contracting COVID-19, such as health care workers, first responders, and food service, grocery store and meat-packing workers.
They’re also looking for people who have stable health conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure that make them more likely to develop severe forms of COVID-19. They’re also looking for people of color to participate.
The trial is a randomized double-blind study. About two-thirds of enrollees will receive the vaccine, one third will receive a placebo.
Researchers from the HealthPartners Institute will oversee the trial enrollment in partnership with physicians from across the organization’s care system. HealthPartners is the only health system in Minnesota and one of about 100 sites in the United States, Peru and Chile involved in the clinical trial, led by AstraZeneca.
“This research compliments our other efforts to advance COVID-19 testing, treatment and care and is an important part of our mission to improve health and well-being,” said Andrea Walsh, HealthPartners president and CEO.
— Tim Nelson | MPR News
Surly Brewing closing its beer hall indefinitely
Calling it a “gut-wreching decision,” Surly Brewing Co. announced Wednesday that it will close its beer hall in November. The Minneapolis brewery said in a statement on its website that “beer halls are, by definition, gathering places, and gathering places and pandemics don’t mix.”
The company says revenue from the space is down 82 percent from the same period last year.
The closure comes just days after workers at the brew hall voted to unionize. In a post on its Facebook page, the union said the move is illegal and clear retaliation for workers forming a union. Company owners say the plans to close the beer hall were put in place weeks ago.
Surly is credited for helping launch the craft-beer boom in Minnesota. It opened its destination beer hall in 2014.
— Peter Cox | MPR News
Minnesota university life during COVID-19 to include dorm ‘stay-at-home,’ curfews: University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel said in the initial phase, students in university housing will spend the first 10 days on average in a “dorm version of a stay-at-home order,” broken only when they attend class, go to work, eat or exercise. By the end of September, students will have to follow curfews starting at 9 p.m.
For many of Med City’s essential workers, at-home learning begins in limbo: As the city’s public schools reopen under a hybrid model Wednesday. more than 360 school-age children in Rochester, Minn., are still on the district’s waiting list for essential-worker child care, creating an impossible situation for the city’s many parents who can’t work from home.
Minn. Catholic schools begin to open their doors for in-person learning: As many public schools prepare for distance learning, some Catholic schools are starting the school year with in-person instruction. School leaders say they’re seeing a boom in enrollment, and they’re implementing new protocols to help protect its students and staff from the coronavirus.
The growing science on children and COVID-19: As children return to school, we talk with two pediatric medical specialists about what we’re learning about kids and COVID-19.
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.