The continuing surge in Minnesota's COVID-19 numbers — a record 7,228 cases were reported Thursday — has increasingly anxious health officials scrambling to find a way to slow the coronavirus as Thanksgiving approaches.
Thursday's numbers included 39 deaths — the second-highest one-day total so far. On Wednesday, the state announced a single-day record of 56 COVID-19 deaths. Earlier this week, as testing positivity rates continued to climb, Gov. Tim Walz announced a 10 p.m. closing time for bars and restaurants along with limits on private gatherings to take effect Friday.
State officials are asking all Minnesotans ages 18 to 35 to get tested. "We've expressed our very serious concerns previously about the trends in the data, and today's data starkly show the continuation of those trends," said Kris Ehresmann, infectious disease director for the Minnesota Department of Health. "What the data are telling us is that every Minnesotan needs to take every measure possible to limit the spread of this disease. That means following the governor's executive orders, limiting social gatherings outside your immediate household, wear a mask in public and social distance when you do go out."
To bolster the state's contact tracing capabilities, officials at Minnesota Management and Budget have approached workers at a number of other state agencies seeking 400 to 500 who can possibly "redeploy" as contact tracers.
A record 1,329 COVID-19 patients are filling Minnesota hospital beds — 278 in intensive care and 1,051 in non-ICU hospital beds. Officials said Thursday that COVID patients accounted for 292 new hospital admissions.
In Duluth, beleaguered hospitals are cutting back on non-COVID care.
St. Luke's Hospital announced Thursday that it would temporarily stop scheduling some elective surgeries at its main hospital, which is now operating above normal capacity due to COVID-19. Duluth-based Essentia Health has already reduced nonemergency procedures.
"Regardless of what metric you use, COVID-19 has never been this pervasive in the Northland," said Dr. Jon Pryor, president of Essentia's eastern region of hospitals and clinics. "This virus is spreading rapidly and if we don't act decisively, it threatens to spiral out of control."
This week, the Mayo Clinic said it's begun deferring some elective procedures in Rochester as a surge of COVID-19 patients puts pressure on hospital capacity.
Across all of Mayo's hospitals in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, the situation has been tightest in Eau Claire, Wis., where delays to elective procedures started about two weeks ago.
Yet, even as hospitals gird for more cases to come, their ranks of healthy front-line health care workers may be fading.
A spot survey conducted by the Minnesota Hospital Association on Wednesday found 6,130 hospital patient care staff were not at work — either because they've contracted COVID or are in quarantine.
"That is a significant number of care team members out of service during a time when we are seeing explosive growth in cases and a very concerning increase in hospitalizations," said Dr. Rahul Koranne, president and CEO of the association. "The spread of COVID in our communities is impacting our front-line health care heroes and our ability to care for you. That's why our chief medical officers and chief nursing officers are pleading with Minnesotans to follow the public health recommendations to control the spread."
Overall, 16,856 Minnesota health care workers have tested positive for the infectious disease, according to state data.
Health officials Thursday also reported 48,513 tests were completed. During a meeting with top state officials, Walz said the state's positivity rate has hit 15%.
Of the 39 deaths reported Thursday, 23 were residents of long-term care or assisted-living facilities.
In all, 2,793 people have died of COVID-19 since mid-March; 1,921 of the total having been residents of long-term care and assisted-living facilities.
Since the pandemic began, 201,795 cases have been reported in Minnesota; 159,467 people have recovered from the virus and no longer need isolation, health officials said.
COVID-19 is a viral respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus that began circulating late last year. People at greatest risk from COVID-19 include those 65 and older, residents of long-term care facilities and those with underlying medical conditions.
Health problems that increase COVID-19 risks range from lung disease and serious heart conditions to obesity and diabetes. People undergoing treatment for failing kidneys also run a greater risk, as do those with cancer and other conditions where treatments suppress immune systems.
Most people with COVID-19 don't need to be hospitalized.
The illness usually causes mild or moderate sickness; studies suggest that up to 45% of those infected won't have symptoms.
Koranne was among more than 170 officials with Minnesota's hospitals and health systems on Thursday who issued a joint statement on stopping the spread of COVID-19:
"Hospitals, health systems and health care providers are watching with growing concern as COVID-19 cases quickly increase in Minnesota, fueled by broad community spread in all parts of the state.
"Demand for hospital care is increasing in both medical-surgical and intensive care units, and the percentage of beds occupied by patients with COVID-19 is growing.
"The high level of community transmission means that our health care heroes — including nurses, doctors, therapists, pharmacists, support services, housekeeping, technicians, advanced practice providers and many more — are contracting COVID-19 as they go about their daily lives in our communities. Reducing and preventing community spread is critical to helping keep our health care heroes healthy and able to care for patients."
They urged Minnesotans to continue social distancing, hand-washing and mask-wearing in public.
"As we did at the beginning of this pandemic, we each need to do our part and protect our health care heroes, our family members and our communities," they said.
Staff writers Christopher Snowbeck, Briana Bierschbach and Jeremy Olson contributed to this report.