Minnesota on Wednesday reported its highest single-day COVID-19 death count since July 2 and its lowest two-day trend since June 30 of new infections with the coronavirus that causes the disease.
Health officials warned that neither conflicting milestone is a positive or negative indicator of the course of the pandemic — now in its sixth month in Minnesota.
“In order to really evaluate meaningful trends, you need many more days’ worth of data,” said Kris Ehresmann, state infectious disease director. “So we continue to celebrate every day with lower case numbers. But in order to really feel good, we would want to see sustained reductions over many days.”
Given the unsettled nature of the pandemic, Gov. Tim Walz signed an executive order Wednesday extending through Sept. 11 his peacetime emergency powers, which he used earlier this year to impose a 51-day statewide shutdown and this summer to require indoor mask-wearing to reduce viral exposure.
“We are still in the midst of this,” Walz said.
Despite criticism from Republican opponents that he has overextended and overused these powers, Walz said most other states have similar orders in place. Some conservative states such as Texas have used them to impose even more restrictions than are in place in Minnesota at the moment. Cancellations of fall football by the Big Ten and the Minnesota State High School League reflect continued risks.
“I wished that the nation would have done things differently in March, April, May and June, July,” the governor added, “so that we can talk about return to normalcy and football. But wishing is not a plan.”
The state has reported a total of 62,303 infections in the pandemic, including 55,855 people who have recovered, but also 1,678 deaths. The toll included 12 COVID-19 deaths reported on Wednesday — the first double-digit total in more than one month.
While health officials said the one-day rise in deaths does not constitute a trend, they have been worried about an increase — because other states that had earlier surges in infection numbers eventually saw a rise in deaths as well.
Nine of the deaths reported Wednesday involved residents of long-term care and assisted-living facilities, which is a particular concern because cases in these facilities have started to rise again in recent weeks. Among all COVID-19 deaths in Minnesota, 75% have involved residents of such facilities.
“Infection numbers have gone up a bit in recent weeks which is a really unfortunate result of the marked increase we’re seeing in community transmission around the state,” state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said. “Workers ... may be picking up the virus from exposure in the community if they are out at social events and the like and then unknowingly bringing that into our long-term care facilities.”
The low number of 332 infections reported on Tuesday wasn’t surprising — because daily numbers on Tuesdays reflect testing over the weekend and have been low throughout the pandemic — but the state only reported 470 on Wednesday. That was substantially lower than the average of more than 700 cases per day that had been seen in early August.
Case numbers have tended to rise and fall each day in Minnesota with increases or decreases in diagnostic testing, but health officials said the recent growth in COVID-19 has to do with the broader spread of the virus as well.
If testing alone was responsible, the rate of tests with positive results would remain constant. But Minnesota’s positivity rate has risen from a low of 3% in June to 5.4% now, Malcolm said earlier this week.
The COVID Exit Strategy website calculates an even higher positivity rate of 6.9% in Minnesota, based on a slightly different method of analyzing cases by the dates they are reported rather than the dates when samples are collected.
The status of the pandemic is variable across the state. Lincoln County in southwestern Minnesota had one of the highest rates of new infections in July, following a campground concert at which the virus spread. Rates have subsequently declined.
Other outdoor events did not produce the outbreaks that had been feared. Free testing clinics found low infection rates among protesters and first-responders on the streets following the May 25 death of George Floyd.
Only one additional infection has been identified so far among the thousands of people who attended a rodeo in Itasca County last month — with minimal adherence to state mask-wearing and social-distancing requirements. That second confirmed case involved someone from Aitkin County.
Suburban Scott County is among those seeing growth in infections. The state has reported 22 COVID-19 deaths in that county, but three-fourths of them have occurred in July and August. And 11% of the county’s more than 1,600 lab-confirmed cases have been reported in the past week.
While the deaths have largely been in elderly nursing home residents, the growth in cases has occurred in part because of more infections among children and teenagers, said Lisa Brodsky, county public health director.
Most children recover, but the increase is troubling because it is coming before the reopening of schools and because some children have suffered lingering breathing or other problems, she said.
“You don’t just either recover or die,” Brodsky said, “there are quite a few things in between. We’re seeing some kids and adults that are getting repeatedly hospitalized — three times over a period of time months from this and are having trouble recovering.”