More people could be considered a close contact of someone with COVID-19 infection under new guidance released by federal health officials this week.
The change has the potential to affect employees in health care settings, as well as other workplaces and schools.
Anyone with close contact is asked to quarantine for 14 days after an exposure to help control the spread of the new coronavirus, which can be passed on to others even by those who don’t feel any symptoms.
Up until this week, close contact was defined as being within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 consecutive minutes.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now says that exposures over a total of 15 minutes over the course of a 24-hour period could cause virus transmission, while keeping the guidance about a 6-foot distance.
The CDC made the change after researchers found that a Vermont correctional facility employee tested positive after having 22 exposures to infected people for a total of 17 minutes in an eight-hour shift.
Unless the exposed person tests positive, the exposure guidance change does not drive up the total COVID-19 case count. Instead, it serves as a precautionary warning about several brief exposures in a single day.
Minnesota health officials said they are unsure if the new guidance will have a significant impact.
“Operationally we’ve been considering that close exposure time frame in a more cumulative way,” Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said.
Case investigations are not a perfect science, said Dr. Ruth Lynfield, state epidemiologist, including taking into account contagiousness and underlying medical conditions.
“We recognize that there are a lot of people who are involved in assessing exposures,” she said, adding that some contract tracers will need to adapt to the new guidance.
MDH has hired a staffing agency to supply the workers needed to do contact investigations, in addition to its own employees who have been redeployed in the effort.
“We’ve staffed up significantly in this function in order to keep pace with new cases,” Malcolm said.
Cases are growing at an average rate of 9.5%, she said, while testing is up 6.9%. The testing positivity rate is 6.4%.
Minnesota added 1,721 new COVID-19 cases and 13 more deaths to its pandemic totals Friday.
Since the pandemic arrived in the state in March, 129,863 residents have tested positive and 2,314 have died.
Two of the deaths announced Friday were long-term care residents. Although most were age 60 or older, two of the fatalities were in their 50s and one was between 45 and 49 years old.
As COVID-19 continues its spread, public health officials have begun monitoring the annual influenza season.
The flu can be fatal, and like the new coronavirus it typically strikes those with weakened immune systems or underlying health conditions, including chronic kidney disease, hypertension, obesity or heart disease.
There were 1,037 flu-related deaths in Minnesota over the past five seasons, less than half the deaths the state has seen from COVID-19 in eight months.
Flu-related complications can send people to the hospital, and last season there were more than 4,000 admissions. As of last Saturday, Minnesota hospitals had taken in two flu patients.
With the prospect of two respiratory viruses hitting at the same time, health systems and state officials will be watching for capacity problems.
Since Oct. 15, intensive care COVID-19 admissions jumped nearly 30%, with 163 patients needing high-level care.
Still, 28% of the nearly 1,500 ICU beds statewide are available, according to a state website.
Over the past seven days, 484 Minnesotans have been admitted to hospitals for COVID-related complications.
A total of 26,742 test results were reported to the Minnesota Department of Health, a slight decrease from the previous day.
The state has been expanding testing access, setting up “no barriers” testing centers next week in Tyler, Madison, Waconia, Little Falls and Red Wing.
A total of 114,679 people, or 88% of all those who have tested positive, are no longer considered to be infectious.
Most people who are sickened with COVID-19 have mild or no symptoms, but they still can pass the virus along to others.
Minnesota health officials said the state has had 28 cases of children with multisystem inflammatory syndrome, a COVID-19 side effect that can cause organ damage and other medical complications. Most recently, there were five new cases in September and two in October. There have been no Minnesota fatalities.
Two-thirds of the children were considered to be healthy before developing the syndrome, Lynfield said, adding that Black and Hispanic children are disproportionately affected.
Federal health experts have recently discovered that the syndrome can also affect adults, with 27 cases and two deaths nationwide.
“We want people and clinicians to recognize that this is also extremely rare, but when symptoms occur certain individuals should be evaluated,” Lynfield said.