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Minnesota officials grateful but worried over virus metrics

MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota health officials said they’re grateful that the spread of the coronavirus appears to have stabilized in recent days, but cautioned Wednesday that case growth and hospitalization levels remain worryingly high.

Meanwhile, Gov. Tim Walz formally called a special session of the Legislature for Monday to pass a relief package for businesses and workers affected by the four week “pause” he ordered last month. Those restrictions included a shutdown of bars and restaurants except for takeout and delivery, gyms and other activities, including high school sports. The governor has not yet said whether he’ll extend any of those restrictions past Dec. 18.

Lawmakers continue to work at negotiating an aid package that could pass both the Democratic-controlled House and the Republican-led Senate. The Democratic governor and legislative leaders from both parties have expressed optimismthat they can reach a deal.

The Minnesota Department of Health reported 4,539 new coronavirus cases Wednesday and 82 new deaths, the state’s third-highest one-day total of the pandemic. Three-fourths of the deaths were patients from outside the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. The new cases raised Minnesota’s total case count to 363,719 and its cumulative death toll to 4,109. The state is on pace to surpass 400,000 cases “within the next week or so,” Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said.

“The really rapid increases in November were stunning, and the fact that we seem to have stabilized a bit in recent days is a really gratifying thing, but we still have to just recognize what a very high level of case growth and activity and hospital activity that we have,’ Malcolm said at a briefing for reporters.

Hospitalizations are slowly declining, but Malcolm said they are still “quite high.” Minnesota had 1,545 people hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Tuesday, with 358 in intensive care units. The state is still over 30 weekly admissions per 100,000 people, and ICU admissions “remain near the highest levels that we have seen throughout the pandemic,” she said.

Minnesota had the country’s forth-worst ranking in new cases per capita over the past two weeks, according to Johns Hopkins University, with 1,360 new cases per 100,000 residents. That measure has been declining recently but it’s still 60% higher than it was a month ago, Malcolm said.

Health officials announced Tuesday that the first of 183,000 Minnesotans who will get the new coronavirus vaccine in the initial wave could get their shots as early as Christmas week. The first doses to go to people designated as Phase 1a, which means health care personnel and long-term care facility residents. About 500,000 Minnesotans fall into that first category. Details about when the general public can get the vaccine have not been determined.

Malcolm and the department’s infectious disease director, Kris Ehresmann, said it’s still not clear two weeks after the Thanksgiving holiday whether the state dodged a feared spike in cases from travel and gatherings. As part of the pause, Walz urged Minnesota residents to stay home and avoid big family get-togethers. Malcolm and Ehresmann said it can take up to four weeks for the effects of holiday weekends to show up in the data.

“We hope and think we’re getting some perhaps early signals that the increase that we might have expected from Thanksgiving, we hope, was moderated by people changing their plans, as difficult as that was,” Malcolm said. He later added, “We’re seeing a fairly stable picture in terms of our cases, albeit at a high rate.”

While it’s too early to know for sure about Thanksgiving, Ehresmann said, “we do feel positive about the impact that the pause has had.”