Health officials warned Thursday that mass protests over police brutality could exacerbate the spread of COVID-19 in Minnesota and trigger a surge in an outbreak that has had a disproportionate impact on minorities.
State Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said it is understandable that people are protesting and speaking out following the death of a black man forcibly restrained by a white police officer, but that doesn't lessen the exposure risks from the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 at a pivotal time in the pandemic.
The state reported a single-day record of 35 deaths on Thursday from COVID-19, raising the death toll to 967.
"People are moved to want to speak and to want to gather in solidarity and in protest, and we certainly honor and respect that right," Malcolm said. "As we know, large gatherings do pose a risk in any epidemic, but certainly where we stand today with the state of COVID-19 spread in our community. Knowing that we have community spread, we just want to again encourage folks who gather to be mindful of the risk."
The 493 lab-confirmed cases that were reported Thursday represented a fifth straight decline in daily counts of new cases, Malcolm said, raising hope that the COVID-19 pandemic that has plateaued in other states is leveling off here as well. On the other hand, the state reported 606 people were hospitalized for COVID-19, including 242 needing intensive care, and officials remain concerned that the pandemic could exhaust the state's bed capacity.
Minnesota is among 20 states — including Wisconsin and North Dakota — now listed on the COVID Exit Strategy website as "trending poorly" due to rising case counts and hospital utilization.
Malcolm said Minnesotans slowed the rate of COVID-19 growth through their adherence to social distancing recommendations — such as staying 6 feet from others in public — and a 51-day stay-at-home order that ended May 18. That delayed the peak of the pandemic, which Minnesota has yet to reach despite the recent plateau in diagnosed cases, Malcolm said.
"We believe we are still climbing the curve," she said.
COVID-19 is caused by a novel coronavirus that has produced confirmed cases in all but remote Lake of the Woods and Cook counties in northern Minnesota.
Minnesota had been gradually scaling back restrictions — with churches being able to offer services for up to 250 people or 25% of their capacities, and restaurants and bars being allowed to resume outdoor dining service beginning Monday.
Protests this week showed scattershot concern for such restrictions, or for social distancing recommendations to wear masks and stay 6 feet apart so as not to spread germs.
At the first protest Tuesday, at E. 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis, people spread out in groups per social distancing recommendations, with many clapping or raising their fists instead of talking. Later that same evening, though, some angry protesters pulled down their masks, shouted, and ran in packs after police SUVs.
Looters shattered glass and stole goods from a Minneapolis Target overnight Wednesday, though some kept their masks on.
The pandemic has been harshest on long-term care residents, who make up 787 of the state's COVID-19 deaths, and on people with underlying health conditions such as diabetes, asthma, and diseases of the heart, lungs, kidneys or immune system. But available racial data suggest it has been hard on Minnesota's black community, too.
Black people have contracted at least 29% of the known COVID-19 cases with listed racial information in Minnesota, despite making up a little more than 6% of the state's population. (The state does not have racial data on more than 5,000 cases, though.) An initial state health analysis of the first 1,104 hospitalized cases of COVID-19 in Minnesota also showed that nearly 25% with known race data were black.
Chronic disease rates are higher in black Minnesotans, which compounds their COVID-19 risks, and Dr. Penny Wheeler of Allina Health said such racial inequities need to be confronted.
"Communities of color are facing multiple devastations with disproportionate financial and health impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to the ongoing trauma of deeply entrenched racial bias," said Wheeler, Allina's chief executive.
Record testing day
The state reported 8,676 COVID-19 diagnostic tests were completed by public and private labs on Wednesday — also a single-day record.
Results continue to show the increasing risk of COVID-19 by age. Among the 1,171 cases involving people in their 80s, 331 were fatal.
Only six deaths have been reported by comparison among 4,580 confirmed cases among Minnesotans in their 30s. Malcolm cautioned that deaths of two people in their 30s and 40s were reported Thursday and did not seem to involve any underlying health conditions.
The death figures bring Minnesota closer to Gov. Tim Walz's prediction of 1,000 deaths by the end of May, but below estimates of 1,400 to 1,700 deaths that came from data modeling by researchers at the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Department of Health.
Those estimates were based on conditions in Minnesota as of late April, when the rate of change in COVID-19 deaths was steeper. Health officials stressed that the modeling is not designed to precisely estimate the impact of the pandemic, but rather to evaluate what social policies and restrictions might be most effective.
The COVID-19 case count in Minnesota now includes 2,549 health care workers — a number that is influenced in part by heightened monitoring and testing in this population.
The state last week reported that 140 of those workers were likely infected due to medium- or high-risk exposures on their jobs — either when they weren't wearing masks or other protections around patients or residents who had COVID-19, or their protective gear broke or was contaminated.
Of that group, 16 required hospital care and one died. Six in 10 of those cases involved workers in long-term care or assisted-living facilities. Roughly 2 in 10 involved workers at medical clinics or hospitals or other acute care facilities.
Staff writer Miguel Otarola contributed to this report.