The increasing spread of COVID-19 was reflected Friday in newly reported infections at the University of Minnesota and another 1,191 cases statewide confirmed by diagnostic testing.
The Minnesota Department of Health reported a total of 94,189 infections with the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and 1,994 deaths from the infectious disease. The nonprofit COVID Exit Strategy website on Friday downgraded Minnesota to its lowest “uncontrolled spread” rating of pandemic progress.
State health officials on Friday reported that 175 infections were linked to the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus Sept. 6-19. A total of 302 infections have been linked to the campus since Aug. 1.
“When we see 100 cases on campus, we are concerned about the elevated activity,” said Kris Ehresmann, state infectious disease director, but the number at the U “isn’t surprising” given the size of the Twin Cities campus.
Among 2,230 infections so far involving college students or staff in Minnesota, only 892 were infectious on campus.
Among the 175 September cases, U spokesman Chuck Tombarge said 56 students or staff reported being on campus while infectious and 38 said they lived in university-owned housing.
“There’s nothing about where the cases are happening that lead us to be concerned about our ability to respond by way of testing, contact tracing, isolating and quarantining,” Tombarge said. “This is certainly within our capacity to manage.”
Health officials warn that while students might be at lower risk of severe COVID-19, they could spread the virus to people who are older or have medical problems.
Minnesota joins Wisconsin, Iowa and the Dakotas with an “uncontrolled spread” rating from COVID Exit Strategy, which was created by a Duke University health policy center and other public health organizations. All five states have new infection rates of more than 150 per million people per day, which is one of the thresholds used to rate their pandemic progress.
Confirmed infections aren’t necessarily a barometer of the severity of the pandemic, given that the majority of positive diagnostic tests involve people with mild or no symptoms, but they do uncover the widespread nature of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the state.
New infections were reported Friday in 78 of Minnesota’s 87 counties. There were 22 new infections reported in Martin County, where health officials are assessing the level of community spread following an outbreak at a funeral.
Gov, Tim Walz has said he is paying particular attention to the positivity rate of diagnostic testing and the rate of infections from unknown community sources in weighing whether to reduce or add social distancing and business restrictions to limit the spread of the virus.
The state COVID-19 dashboard shows the positivity rate remains just below the state’s threshold of 5%, which would indicate substantial infection risks.
“We have been below the caution threshold for 13 days now,” Ehresmann said.
However, the rate of infections from unknown community transmissions has increased to 36%, above the state’s target goal of 30%.
Increased infections have come with increased testing. The state dashboard showed an increase in the rate of diagnostic tests from 181 per week per 10,000 residents on Sept. 1 to a record-high rate of 223 on Sept. 15.
The state launched a “no barrier” campaign of free testing events across the state this month and opened a testing center in Duluth this week that obtains saliva specimens rather than harder-to-collect nasal or throat swabs.
The chicken-egg question is whether an increase in testing is the cause of more confirmed infections or the result of rising viral spread. Critics of Minnesota’s pandemic response have faulted increased testing for finding more undiagnosed infections, including mild cases, and inflating the numbers.
A new federal report from the CDC offered some contradictory evidence, though. An increase in the rate of infections involving young adults in the U.S. this summer preceded growth in testing in that age group.