The deadliest week of the COVID-19 pandemic in Minnesota closed Friday with the governor and top health officials predicting the pandemic will get much worse in coming weeks, especially as the holiday season draws near.
“Emotionally, this is getting very hard. We’ve lost 248 Minnesotans [to COVID-19] over the last seven days,” Gov. Tim Walz said on Friday. “We are headed toward a deep, dark winter.”
Surviving the dire days of the outbreak will involve a collective effort of masking up, social distancing, relying on an expanded network of testing sites throughout the state and avoiding social gatherings.
These precautions could help bridge the gap until a vaccine is available, likely in the first quarter of 2021, said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
“If we could hold out until then it would save so many lives and avoid so much suffering,” said Osterholm, who joined Walz and others for a press briefing Friday.
In the meantime, the Minnesota Department of Health reported a record 1,424 COVID-19 hospitalizations on Friday, and an additional 46 people have died from the rapidly spreading virus — the second highest one-day total in Minnesota. The previous single-day record was 56 deaths reported on Wednesday.
All told, 2,839 Minnesotans have died of the virus since spring.
The Health Department also reported 5,552 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday and a total of 207,339 cases since spring.
The trajectory is heading in the wrong direction, Walz noted.
“It took us seven months, about 27 weeks, to reach 100,000 [COVID-19] cases in Minnesota,” the governor said. “It took seven weeks, a little short of two months, to reach 200,000 cases. It will take us less than three weeks to reach 300,000.”
In an effort to stem the coronavirus’ reach, Walz earlier this week announced a 10 p.m. closing time for bars and restaurants and limits on private gatherings — restrictions that began Friday.
Walz said he hasn’t ruled out further mandates, but he didn’t elaborate on what they might be.
“This was never a choice between keeping schools or the economy open or fighting the pandemic,” he said. “You cannot keep the economy open and you cannot get students and educators back into schools if you do not use the science to fight COVID-19.”
Some 3.3 million tests have been completed throughout Minnesota as the state rolls out more testing sites. “It is now easier than ever to get a test,” Walz said.
Health Department officials said people ages 18 to 35 should seek testing right away, regardless of whether they’re exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms.
“I have been involved in too many situations where young, healthy adults come home for whatever celebration and spread the virus only to find several weeks later Grandpa and Grandma, Mom and Dad, Uncle Bill and Aunt Jane are dead,” said Osterholm, a member of President-elect Joe Biden’s coronavirus task force.
It’s best to take a conservative approach during the holidays “if we really want to be serious this year about loving and protecting our families,” he said.
While many who died this week were in their 70s, a person in their 20s with no underlying conditions also succumbed to the virus, Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said.
“There’s so much community spread, the exposures are happening in such widespread ways,” she added. “People are transmitting the virus who don’t know that they’re infectious.”
Of the deaths reported Friday, 33 were in long-term care and assisted-living facilities, 12 were in private residences, and one was in a group home, according to Health Department data.
The record level of COVID-19 hospitalizations reported Friday also concerned state and health officials. Of the 1,424 hospitalizations reported Friday, 293 were in intensive care.
“That is placing an incredibly heavy burden on hospitals and health care workers,” Walz said.
In addition to broadening the availability of testing, the Health Department said on Monday it will expand the way it investigates cases and the contact tracing of those sickened by the virus.
This will involve notifying people with COVID-19 and their close contacts by text that the Health Department will be calling to discuss how they can avoid spreading the disease and offering better outreach to the state’s most vulnerable populations.
Texts will alert people that the call is coming — a way of connecting with those who might otherwise ignore a call from an unfamiliar number, particularly older adults who are often targeted by unscrupulous phone scammers.
“We hope this text notification helps provide some notice and reassurance,” Malcolm said.
And despite the terrible news, Walz and others tried to strike a hopeful note Friday.
“If we’re going to beat this thing, now is the time,” Walz said. “It is time to suck it up and get through this. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”