A single-day record 56 COVID-19 deaths were reported Wednesday in Minnesota, one day after the state set new, earlier bar closing times and put caps on social gatherings to slow the spread of the infectious disease.
Minnesota has now seen a total of 2,754 deaths due to the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
The virus’ accelerating spread is reflected by the increase in the positivity rate of diagnostic testing from 5% a month ago to more than 12%. More than 194,000 infections have been verified through testing, including 4,900 reported Wednesday.
Minnesota’s previous single-day high for deaths was 36, but Gov. Tim Walz said higher counts could become the norm unless the state slows viral transmission.
“If we don’t make these changes and we don’t change our behavior, we will have 10,000 cases [per day], we will have 1,500 people in the hospital and we will be reporting, God forbid, 50 or more deaths a day,” he said.
Walz has ordered a 10 p.m. closing time for bars and restaurants — other than takeout service — that will take effect Friday and a limit on gatherings to no more than 10 people from three households, a limit that will shrink many Thanksgiving feasts. Caps on wedding and funeral receptions will be phased in over the next month.
Minnesota was one of several states to issue advisories or restrictions this week in response to a pandemic that is severe in the Midwest and nationwide.
On Wednesday, New York’s governor announced similar 10 p.m. closing times for bars and restaurants — as well as fitness clubs, which aren’t affected by Minnesota’s order — and caps of 10 people on private social gatherings. Maryland’s new restrictions on bar and restaurant capacity also took effect.
Earlier in the week, Utah’s governor issued a mask mandate and temporary ban on liquor sales in bars and restaurants after 10 p.m. Wisconsin’s governor issued a stay-at-home advisory while Nevada’s governor warned that his new advisory, dubbed “Stay at Home 2.0,” could be followed by sterner restrictions if viral transmission doesn’t decline.
The latest White House Coronavirus Task Force update ranks Minnesota 10th worst for its rate of new infections and lists 76 of 87 counties as “red zones” for viral spread. The states surrounding Minnesota — North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Iowa — have the nation’s worst rates.
The underlying concern is to slow disease spread to keep pressure off Minnesota hospitals, which on Wednesday reported a record 1,299 patients with COVID-19 admitted to inpatient beds. That includes 282 patients in intensive care.
COVID-19 patients make up 25% of the more than 1,100 patients admitted to the state’s 1,457 immediately available ICU beds. That rate has increased from 15% a week ago. The state reports another 408 ICU beds could be readied within 72 hours if needed.
Minnesotans need to wear masks, avoid crowds, practice social distancing and stay home when sick, said Dr. George Morris of St. Cloud-based CentraCare, which reports that one-third of its hospitalized patients have COVID-19.
“That is an astronomical number,” he said.
Mayo Clinic has seen a “huge surge,” with more than 90 COVID-19 patients admitted in Rochester on Tuesday, compared with 20 to 40 patients a few weeks ago, said Dr. Amy Williams, executive dean of the Mayo Clinic practice.
“One of our biggest concerns is having the ability to care for all of our patients,” said Williams, noting that Mayo has seen increased transfers from other regions where hospital beds are filled.
The clinic has decreased non-emergency procedures “by a small percentage here in Rochester,” she added. More are being delayed at Mayo’s hospital in Eau Claire, Wis.
State mitigation strategies haven’t changed for months in Minnesota, where a mask mandate was imposed July 25 for indoor public spaces and certain outdoor occupations.
Health officials believe these strategies worked — tempering Minnesota’s infection growth this summer as rates in neighboring states surged. However, outbreaks in group gatherings slowly spread the virus, along with declines in compliance with mask-wearing and social distancing. The resumption of K-12 and college classes played a role as well.
“Without a national strategy, the virus just keeps moving around the country, and so you can have temporary improvements that don’t last because the virus is out there,” said state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm. The high infection rates in border states had an impact as well, though Minnesota officials were cautious not to put too much blame on neighbors that have not imposed mask mandates or as many restrictions.
“Do I think South Dakota should have done a mask mandate and not had the Sturgis rally? Absolutely,” Walz said. “And I believe the data support me that that helped as a seeder [of virus growth elsewhere]. Is that what caused Minnesota’s problem in itself? No, absolutely not.”
New strategies are targeting Minnesotans ages 18 to 35, who are at low risk of severe COVID-19 but at greater risk of spreading it due to their social mobility.
Walz said young adults can suffer primary infections in bars and social events, and if they are asymptomatic they unwittingly spread the virus to others at greater risk.
“They are at the heart of what is spreading a lot of this,” Walz said, “and it’s not intentional.”
State infection data show that people 29 and younger have made up 37% of known infections, a rate that has held steady this summer and fall, but suffered only five COVID-19 deaths.
People 70 and older make up 9% of known infections but 81% of deaths. Fifty of the deaths reported Wednesday involved people 70 and older and 38 involved residents of long-term care facilities.
Wednesday’s single-day total was likely influenced by the delay in administrative processing of death records that results in more COVID-19 fatalities reported later in the workweek. The daily number nonetheless contributed to a total of 224 deaths in the past seven days, the highest weekly total in the pandemic.
Staff writer Christopher Snowbeck contributed to this report.