Minnesota's COVID-19 indicators showed a worsening pandemic on Tuesday with continued growth in cases and hospitalizations, including a surge of newly reported infections over the weekend that exceeded the state's capacity for logging cases.
The latest data from the Minnesota Department of Health added 7,173 new cases to the state's pandemic totals and continued a trend of rising daily cases over the past two weeks.
Over the weekend, however, the high volume of new cases meant that staffing wasn't sufficient to review all the data, the Health Department said. The tally reported Tuesday is about 2,500 cases shy of the true count for the 72-hour weekend reporting period.
"That's pretty alarming that they couldn't process all the incoming cases," said Dr. David Boulware, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Minnesota. "I'm becoming more concerned as our hospitalized cases are this high already preinfluenza and, as the weather turns colder, our cases may likely increase just like last year, further straining the limited number of hospital beds in Minnesota."
More unvaccinated people need to get immunized, Boulware said, "as the majority of hospitalizations and deaths are occurring among the unvaccinated group."
Across the Allina Health System on Tuesday, 222 out of 297 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 were unvaccinated — about 75% of the total. Unvaccinated patients accounted for 56 of the 61 patients with COVID-19 in intensive care units, Allina reported, and 53 of the 58 patients on ventilators.
At Bloomington-based HealthPartners, infectious disease specialist Dr. Mark Sannes said, "We've got a lot of people hospitalized right now with COVID-19, and most of those hospitalizations were preventable."
The statewide tally for patients hospitalized with COVID-19 increased to 1,122, which is the highest figure thus far in 2021. The share of tests coming back positive is up to 9.1%, which is another record for 2021 and well beyond the state's 5% "caution" threshold.
At times last year, both measures were worse. The positivity rate exceeded the "high risk" mark of 10% during two periods in 2020. The number of COVID-19 patients in hospital beds still hasn't returned to the all-time pandemic peak of 1,864 on Nov. 29, 2020.
But hospital tallies have been rising steadily, said Pinar Karaca-Mandic, a finance professor who tracks hospital data at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. Numbers in recent days are 10 times higher than they were in mid- to late July, Karaca-Mandic said, when the average was 90 to 100 people hospitalized with COVID-19 per day.
Gov. Tim Walz announced this month the first skilled nursing facility that will receive patients to relieve pressure on hospitals. Benedictine St. Gertrude's in Shakopee is providing transitional care for up to 30 patients, and the Health Department said Tuesday it expects to announce this week another decompression site in Greater Minnesota.
The Health Department reported another 20 deaths connected with COVID-19, including a Ramsey County resident age 45-49. In general, people 65 and older are at greatest risk for serious illness, but younger adults have made up a larger percentage of all deaths during the latest wave.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that COVID-19 deaths peaked in Minnesota in December 2020 with a seven-day average of more than 60 per day before dropping to an average of just one death per day in July. As of Monday, the state's seven-day average for COVID-19 deaths was back up to 24 per day.
The seven-day average for new cases in Minnesota peaked last November at just over 7,000 before dropping to fewer than 100 per day at one point this summer. Cases started picking up again in July with the spread of the more infectious delta variant, growing to about 3,000 new cases per day on Oct. 12, according to the CDC.
Cases were subsiding in Minnesota by the third week in October, but they've rebounded over the past two weeks. CDC data show new case totals have risen from a seven-day average of 1,849 cases on Oct. 24 to 3,036 on Monday.
Slower case growth in mid-October meant COVID-19 models at the Mayo Clinic started pointing to a shrinking demand for hospital beds. Now, the models forecast that the rise in cases and hospitalizations will continue into the near future, said Curtis Storlie, a health sciences researcher at Mayo.
Across the country, COVID-19 cases rose over a two-month period leading up to Labor Day and then started falling steadily — at least until a recent plateau. The summer surge in Minnesota started later than the national surge and, despite the respite from a few weeks ago, keeps growing.
The Midwest has been on a different trajectory than has much of the country because of factors ranging from surge timing and waning immunity to the frequency of indoor/outdoor gatherings, Storlie said via e-mail.
"Minnesota should see a decline, though, and relatively soon; this is not the new normal just for Minnesota," he wrote. "The real question is what happens next after this surge subsides. Right now, things look good for next year, but the main concern would be the emergence of another variant that is adept at re-infecting."
Tuesday's data release covered cases reported over a three-day period spanning 4 a.m. Friday through 4 a.m. Monday.
"We are taking steps to boost staff capacity, but we anticipate this backlog will impact new case data at least through Wednesday, Nov. 10," the Health Department said in a statement.
"The marked increase in case growth is another reminder that the threat of COVID-19 remains very high in Minnesota," the department said. "To bring that threat back down, Minnesotans need to do their part consistently to slow transmission. This means getting vaccinated when eligible, masking when you are in a public indoor setting, staying home when sick and getting tested as appropriate."