Sixteen COVID-19 deaths were reported Wednesday by Minnesota health authorities, who urged people to seek flu shots to prevent seasonal influenza from exacerbating a worsening pandemic.
Large social gatherings, Labor Day weekend festivities and college and K-12 school classes and events have contributed to an acceleration in infections with the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, said Kris Ehresmann, state infectious disease director.
The state is now reporting 17 new infections with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 per day per 100,000 people, its highest rate in the pandemic. The state’s COVID-19 death toll is now 2,036.
Ehresmann said people should seek flu shots to protect against influenza but also to prevent another infectious disease from filling up Minnesota hospital beds alongside COVID-19 patients.
“What we don’t know is if we’ll have a situation in which COVID sort of serves as a replacement for influenza in terms of circulation or if they will circulate simultaneously,” she said. “Because we don’t have good information about that, we want to make sure we are as protected as a population as possible.”
The state’s COVID-19 dashboard now lists a rate of 6 people admitted to hospitals with COVID-19 per 100,000 people per week — up from 4.7 a week earlier. The state goal is to keep that rate below 4.
“We’ve seen our inpatient numbers slowly go up,” said Dr. George Morris, incident commander for the COVID-19 response by St. Cloud-based CentraCare. “We were down in the single digits, but toward the end of last week we were higher with our inpatient [COVID-19 numbers] than we were back in May.”
The rise in infections has occurred in connection with a record increase in diagnostic testing activity in Minnesota — raising the question of whether more testing is finding more mild cases that went previously undetected. However, the positivity rate of diagnostic testing has increased from 4.6% a week ago to 5.4% now — indicating that the spread of the infection is accelerating regardless of heightened testing activity.
The Minnesota Department of Health on Wednesday reported 689 new lab-confirmed infections. The state has now reported 99,134 infections overall, including 89,392 in people who have recovered to the point that they are no longer risks for spreading the virus. The number of health care workers who have suffered current or prior infections is now 10,440.
Rising risks to workers and patients is one reason CentraCare on Wednesday implemented a no-visitor policy in its hospitals — with exceptions for certain situations, such as baby deliveries and end-of-life care.
Morris encouraged people to seek flu shots and expressed confidence in the theory that the shots might prompt a healthy immune system response to COVID-19, too. “If we stimulate your immune system,” he said, “that is one of the things we need to help fight off COVID.”
A Mayo Clinic study awaiting publication in a peer-reviewed journal showed earlier this year that certain vaccinations against pneumonia and polio provided extra protection against COVID-19, and that a geriatric version of the flu shot showed a benefit as well in seniors.
The 16 deaths reported Wednesday all involved people 60 and older, and nine involved residents of long-term care or assisted-living facilities. COVID-19 can be harsher in people who are older or have underlying health conditions such as diabetes or heart disease.
Mayo announced flu shot clinics earlier this week in southeast Minnesota, asking people to get vaccinated in part to reduce the likely pressure of a so-called twindemic on hospitals this winter.
“Our ability to handle that peak on top of the volume of patients with COVID-19 in our hospitals right now will be challenging,” said Dr. Sarah Crane, Mayo’s director of primary care in southeast Minnesota.
Minnesota’s flu season was snuffed out in March after COVID-19 social distancing recommendations followed by a statewide shutdown reduced viral transmission. Ehresmann said the new flu season is off to a slow start in the southern hemisphere, possibly due to such restrictions already in place.
COVID-19 growth in Minnesota had been steady but manageable for much of the summer. Ehresmann said the recent rise in infections was expected given the number of outbreaks involving large groups and gatherings. Infection rates have been higher in border states for several weeks as well — with North Dakota showing the highest rate of increase in the nation.
“We said it would take a while to see that increase in COVID activity and we’re seeing that now,” Ehresmann said. “It’s a function of what happened at the beginning of September, but it also is sort of the ongoing ripple effect of the increase in transmission we have been seeing in community settings all summer.”