Three years after Minnesota’s initial COVID-19 shutdown, impacts persist

Published 5:15 am Monday, March 27, 2023

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By Benjamin Clary and Craig Helmstetter, Minnesota Public Radio News

Three years ago Saturday, Governor Walz issued Minnesota’s initial COVID-19 shelter in place order, telling Minnesotans to stay at home for two weeks. This followed Walz’s initial school closure issued on March 15, 2020, the closure of dine-in service at restaurants on March 16, and Minnesota’s first known COVID-19 related death on March 19 (click here to revisit Minnesota’s COVID-19 timeline).

As of yesterday’s weekly update, the Minnesota Department of Health reports a cumulative total of nearly 1.8 million confirmed COVID-19 cases, nearly 84,000 hospitalizations and over 14,500 COVID-related deaths in the state.

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Impacts of the pandemic, both to commerce and personal health, have certainly tapered in recent months. Still, as of the week ending March 2 (the most recent week with complete data), 50 Minnesotans died with COVID-19 listed as either a primary or contributing cause of death listed on their death certificate.

While this is well below Minnesota’s highest weekly COVID-19 death toll (519 in early December 2020), COVID-19 deaths remain a serious threat, particularly among older adults. The Department of Health’s weekly COVID-19 death rate per 100,000 for those age 65 or older hovered around 4.5 throughout February, compared to 0.2 for those age 50-64, and near zero for all younger age groups.

Another dynamic that has emerged from the pandemic over the past three years are racial and ethnic disparities. Minnesota has not been immune to them. Our latest “Color of Coronavirus” analysis shows that Latino, Asian, Black and especially Indigenous Minnesotans all have significantly higher cumulative COVID-19 death rates than that of white Minnesotans, when death rates are age-adjusted to account for differences between the groups.

Still, the look back on COVID-19 impacts over the past three years should not take away from relatively good news in the state’s recent data, including:

  1. Officially reported COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are down (but so is vaccination uptake).
  2. Wastewater COVID-19 levels in Twin Cities Metro Plant down 61 percent from prior month.
  3. CDC rates 85 of 87 Minnesota counties with low community levels.

Officially reported cases and hospitalizations down, and so is vaccination uptake

Minnesota Department of Health’s weekly data issued yesterday shows a daily average of 373 officially reported cases for the week ending March 16, down by nearly 60 cases per day compared with last week and virtually identical to last year at this time.

A reminder that “officially reported” cases miss a lot of COVID-19 circulation since it does not include those who may be asymptomatic or those who confirm infection through home tests (even including notable epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, who recently confirmed via an at-home test that he had finally contracted COVID-19).

COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to fall as well, with an average of 34 new daily admissions over the past week, including 4 to intensive care units. This is down by 10 admissions from last week’s daily average of 44 hospitalizations.

As noted above, the Department of Health reported 50 COVID-19 related deaths for the week ending March 2. That average of just over 7 deaths per day is up just slightly from last week and remains in the 5-10 range that has persisted since May of 2022.

The state’s Department of Health is also reporting that one-quarter of Minnesotans are up to date with their COVID-19 vaccinations, including any necessary boosters. Just over 8,700 Minnesotans received a shot in the week ending March 18, down from over 10,000 in the prior week and over 16,000 per week throughout January and February.

Wastewater declines significantly across Minnesota over last month

Twin Cities metro update

The total level of virus in Twin Cities wastewater decreased by 30 percent for the week ending March 20 compared to the previous week, according to the latest data from the Metropolitan Council and the University of Minnesota’s Genomic Center. The level of virus entering the Metro Plant is now 61 percent lower than it was a month ago, and it is the lowest we have seen this year.

The XBB subvariant now comprises 93 percent of the viral RNA load entering the Metro wastewater plant.

The COVID load in Twin Cities wastewater is now approaching levels we saw at this time in 2021 and 2022, although it is still above both.

Statewide update

COVID levels in wastewater continued to decrease across the state over the prior month and prior week, according to the latest data out of the University of Minnesota’s Wastewater SARS-CoV2 Surveillance Study.

All the study’s regions experienced substantial declines over the prior month for the period ending on March 8. The North East, South West and South Central regions saw a monthly decrease in wastewater levels over 60 percent. The lowest monthly decrease was in the study’s South East region, with a 37 percent decline over the prior month.

The North East, South West and South Central regions also experienced relatively larger one-week declines. The North East and South West each saw COVID levels in their wastewater drop by 33 percent over the prior week, and the South Central saw a drop of 26 percent. All other regions in the study saw weekly declines below 15 percent.

CDC indicates low community levels for all but two Minnesota counties

Continuing last week’s trend, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) latest Community Levels assessment shows a very green map of Minnesota, indicating widespread low community levels.

Again this week, the CDC rates no counties at a high community level. Only Otter Tail and Grant counties are assigned a medium community level this week, down from five medium-community-level counties last week. The CDC recommends that if you are at elevated risk of COVID-19 infection in these counties or in contact with someone who is, wear a mask and test before contact.

The community levels show the impact of COVID-19 on a given community, based on recent case rates, hospitalization rates and the proportion of occupied in-patient beds by COVID-19 patients. This week, only three counties (Aitkin, Cottonwood and Wilkin) meet the CDC’s case-rate threshold for high community for high transmission of 100 cases per 100,000. By comparison, at the beginning of March there were 37 counties that met this threshold.

Also this week, only Otter Tail and Grant counties have a hospital admission rate for new COVID-19 cases over 10 per 100,000, which is what bumped them into the medium community-level category.

COVID is still circulating, and it is important to remain vigilant, especially if you are at high risk or are in regular contact with those who are. The CDC also measures community transmission levels, which you can find here. Two things to note: one, the CDC has emphasized community levels for risk assessment now that more of the population has developed immunity through vaccination or prior infection; two, transmission levels are determined by case rates and test positivity rates, but the latter are likely inflated now that testing is often done at home and not regularly reported.