Daily COVID-19 update: At end of grim week, a possible glimmer of hope

Published 12:45 pm Saturday, November 21, 2020

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Minnesota health officials reported another 51 COVID-19 deaths on Saturday, pushing the state’s pandemic death toll past 3,200.

But at the end of a grim week in a difficult month, there was a glimmer of hope: Saturday’s update from the state Health Department marked the first time since Oct. 26 that the rolling weekly average of newly confirmed cases went down.

That number was 7,063 cases a day as of Friday’s update; on Saturday it dropped to 6,715 — with no correlating drop in testing volume.

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It could be evidence that the state has cleared a peak in the outbreak — but it could also just be a momentary blip in the numbers, especially if people go against health experts’ pleas to call off Thanksgiving gatherings.

Here are Minnesota’s current COVID-19 statistics:

  • 3,201 deaths (51 new)
  • 262,952 positive cases (6,265 new); 211,513 off isolation
  • 3.7 million tests, 2.3 million people tested (about 40 percent of the population)
  • 13.6 percent seven-day positive test rate (officials find 5 percent concerning)

Despite the encouraging signs in case numbers, current conditions remain severe across the state. The trend lines for deaths and hospitalizations continue to climb.

More than 1,700 people are in Minnesota hospitals for treatment of COVID-19 with about 20 percent needing intensive care. The number of hospitalizations has more than doubled since Nov. 1. The hospital admissions trend hit a new high Saturday, with the state averaging 261 new COVID-19 patients per day over the prior seven days.

Active, confirmed cases of the disease dropped back below 50,000 on Saturday, after reaching that mark on Friday for the first time in the pandemic. That’s as the state reported that more than 9,000 additional people with COVID-19 had recovered to the point where they no longer need to be isolated.

Local cases

Freeborn County reported 28 new lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases on Saturday and one probable case and has now had 1,307 cumulative cases. Of the total cases, 251 are active cases, and 15 people are hospitalized. Sixty-eight people have been hospitalized at some point during their illness.

The new cases included the following:

• One person between 0 and 4

• Three people between 5 and 9

• Four people between 15 and 19

• Four people in their 20s

• Four people in their 30s

• Two people in their 40s

• Three people in their 50s

• Five people in their 60s

• Two people in their 70s

• One person in their 80s

Faribault County reported seven new cases and has now had 449 total cases; Mower County reported 28 new cases and has had 2,256 total cases: Steele County had 43 new cases and has had 1,590 cases; and Waseca County had 30 cases and has now had 1,254 total cases.

Caseloads climbing across age groups

New cases have been spiking over the past three weeks in all age groups.

People in their 20s still make up the age bracket with the state’s largest number of confirmed cases — more than 53,000 since the pandemic began, including nearly 29,000 among people ages 20 to 24. The rapid increase, however, has tapered off in recent days.

The number of high school-age children confirmed with the disease has also grown, with nearly 21,000 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.

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 are unwittingly spreading it.

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.

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.

The latest figures came on the same day new curbs intended to ease the spike in COVID-19 caseloads, hospitalizations and deaths are set to take hold.

“We’re at a dangerous point in this pandemic,” Walz told Minnesotans Wednesday. “How we act, and how this virus moves, will have huge implications on the number of people who will be hospitalized and, ultimately, those who will lose their lives.”

Walz on Friday said it was a priority for him to get financial aid to bars, restaurants and other businesses that will be shutdown now until Dec. 18 because of his order. So far, there’s been discussion with state lawmakers but no deal yet.

“We need to do something. It won’t be enough, but we need to do something in the short run to provide a bit of a lifeline,” he told reporters. “We can’t wait” for Congress to act.

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.

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 hold true for 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.

‘They don’t want to watch you die at Christmas’

Public health leaders have begged Minnesotans over the past month to take personal responsibility to reduce the disease’s spread by wearing masks in social gathering places, socially distancing and staying home if you don’t feel well.

The uncontrolled spread is being driven now by Minnesotans’ informal gatherings and get-togethers with family and friends where it’s transmitted unknowingly by people who have the virus but do not have symptoms, officials say.

State officials on Monday pleaded with Minnesotans not to gather for Thanksgiving outside their immediate household. They also asked college students to consider not going home for the holiday. (The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday also called on people not to travel over Thanksgiving.)

That advice was a change from the state Health Department’s prior recommendations. The agency last week said it’d be OK for people to have gatherings up to 10 from three households.

The acceleration of the spread, however, forced the state to change its guidance. Left unchecked one model suggests Minnesota could hit 20,000 new cases per day by the start of the new year, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said earlier this week.. That’s nearly three times the current seven-day average.

“Two weeks ago, I thought a 5,000-case day was horrific,” Malcolm said. “Now, that looks like a good day.”

On Thursday, state officials and two hospital system executives warned the surge is putting a heavy strain on care workers.

Current conditions are “very dire,” Dr. Penny Wheeler, CEO of Allina Health, said Thursday. The virus is sidelining health care workers, including 800 at Allina, and the state’s health system is “getting perilously close” to being unable to care for everyone who needs care, she said.

Wheeler begged Minnesotans to wear masks, socially distance and take other measures to reduce COVID-19’s rapid spread. “We have to take a hit for the time being to care for one another.”

Dr. Cindy Firkins Smith, president of Carris Health CentraCare in Willmar, Minn., said the rising numbers of health care workers unable to work due in some way to COVID-19 had put an unprecedented strain on their system.

The west-central Minnesota hospital executive said more than 10 percent of her 12,000 rural Minnesota workforce was out recently because of COVID-19, either having to quarantine because of illness or exposure, or because they have to take care of family members.

“We don’t have anybody to replace them,” she said. “There’s no calling New York. There’s no calling Texas. There’s no calling the Twin Cities. There’s no calling anywhere to get help.”

Care workers, she added, are increasingly frustrated by the unwillingness of Minnesotans to take precautions.

“It’s heartbreaking for health care workers to finish an exhausting workday only to stop at the grocery store and see people not wearing a mask,” she said.

She pleaded with people to follow state guidelines and stay home for Thanksgiving to avoid spreading the virus.

“The people working in the hospital not only don’t get to celebrate with the people they love, they’re going to be watching people die that day,” said Smith. “And they don’t want to watch you die at Christmas. So please don’t (gather). Just this year, please don’t.”