Sixty-five more COVID-19 deaths were reported on Friday by Minnesota health authorities, despite encouraging signs that the last pandemic wave is in retreat.

COVID-19 hospitalizations in Minnesota have declined 39% since Nov. 29, and the positivity rate of diagnostic tests dropped below the high-risk threshold of 10% for the first time since Oct. 27, according to the state's pandemic response dashboard.

Minnesota health officials said they believe continued restrictions on group gatherings and bars and restaurants, and the slow rollout of the vaccine, will cause even further declines in COVID-19, an infectious disease caused by a novel coronavirus.

The state reported 4,723 COVID-19 deaths and 391,889 diagnosed infections, when including 2,737 more infections reported on Friday.

A new emergency order by Gov. Tim Walz takes effect Saturday that restricts bars and restaurants to outdoor and takeout service only, but allows fitness clubs and outdoor entertainment venues to reopen in limited capacities, and permits social gatherings indoors of up to 10 people from two households. A prior four-week order limited gatherings to immediate household members only.

Walz faced criticism from Republican lawmakers and the hospitality industry for taking these steps despite clear signs of progress in the pandemic — including in neighboring states that haven't imposed such restrictions. The governor countered that infection rates remain high despite the declines, and that predictions forecast the potential for another wave in February.

"The surge is coming down," he said on Wednesday, "but it was so incredibly high that we're still in that high-risk category."

Friday's reported deaths included three people from Hennepin County in their 40s. More than 80% of COVID-19 deaths involve people 70 and older, and the majority involve people living in long-term care facilities who are at greater risk due to their ages and underlying health conditions.

The pattern of the pandemic after 10 months in the U.S. suggests that death numbers should start to decline in Minnesota soon, following a decline in infections that started in mid-November and a decline in hospitalizations that started at the beginning of December.

Upper Midwest states had the nation's highest infection rates in the fall, but are all showing declines while the pandemic radiates to the rest of the country. New York's new infection rate is now higher than the rate it reported during the first COVID-19 surge this spring.

The first COVID-19 vaccine by Pfizer is being distributed nationally — with initial doses going to health care workers at greatest risk of infection and long-term care residents at greatest risk of severe illness.

Minnesota hospitals were expected to receive 46,800 doses this week. Sanford Health hospitals in Bemidji and Worthington started vaccinations on Thursday while HCMC in Minneapolis and Mayo Clinic in Rochester were scheduled to start them Friday.

The Minnesota Department of Health reported a lower-than-expected estimate of 33,150 doses of the Pfizer vaccine arriving next week. The state still estimates having more than 200,000 doses by year's end when including the Pfizer vaccine and a second one made by Moderna that is expected to receive approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744