Twenty-one more COVID-19 deaths were reported by Minnesota health authorities on Monday, pushing the state above 4,000 deaths amid signs that the latest pandemic wave is easing.

The Minnesota Department of Health on Monday reported a total of 4,005 deaths from COVID-19, meaning that the state needed less than one month to add another 1,000 fatalities to its pandemic toll. It took three months for Minnesota to go from 1,000 to 2,000 COVID-19 deaths this summer, and nearly two months to go from 2,000 to 3,000 this fall.

The milestone reflects the fall surge in COVID-19 — with 5,296 newly confirmed infections bringing the state's total to 356,152 — that has declined over the past two weeks.

The number of COVID-19 patients filling intensive care beds in Minnesota hospitals has declined from 394 on Nov. 30 to 362 on Dec. 6, according to an update Monday morning of the state's COVID-19 response dashboard.

The positivity rate of diagnostic testing for COVID-19 has declined as well from 15.5% on Nov. 10 to 11.2% as of Nov. 26. The rate is a key measure of the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, because it is independent of the number of tests performed.

Health officials remain concerned that viral transmission over the Thanksgiving holiday could upend the recent progress, and that Minnesota could see a new increase in infections that could tax hospital resources. As of Monday, the state reported that 1,071 of 1,212 immediately available ICU beds (or 88%) in Minnesota are filled with patients who have COVID-19 or unrelated medical issues.

"Right now, our primary effort really is around trying to keep our hospitals functional," said Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP).

Health officials encouraged people to continue to wear masks, practice social distancing, stay home when sick and avoid large gatherings to reduce the chance of viral transmission.

Minnesota is entering the third week of a four-week order by Gov. Tim Walz that closed restaurants, bars, fitness centers and entertainment venues, and limits social gatherings to immediate household members only.

The U's CIDRAP is launching a "Stop Swapping Air" public health campaign with billboards and other promotions to discourage the number of group gatherings and close contacts that have fueled viral transmission.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus is largely spread by droplets projected when coughing, talking or even breathing at others within six feet.

"My biggest concern is if we don't cut back [on group gatherings] we could really slingshot these numbers up higher," said Osterholm, who is part of the COVID-19 advisory group to President-elect Joe Biden.

Risks of severe COVID-19 remain highest among people who are 70 or older — who have made up more than 80% of the state's deaths — or have underlying health problems. The 21 deaths reported Monday include 13 people who lived in private residences and eight who lived in long-term care or assisted-living facilities. All were 55 or older.

Minnesota's total known cases includes 314,138 people who have recovered to the point they are no longer considered risks of infecting others. While young adults are at less risk of severe COVID-19, health officials said they can easily spread the virus to others, and can be infectious a day or two before symptoms emerge.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744