State public health leaders have sharpened their messages of personal responsibility recently in the COVID-19 pandemic, concerned that Minnesotans are starting to go numb to the risk.
Two announcements Friday hammered that point home.
Health officials said they’d confirmed 15 cases of COVID-19 among Minnesotans who traveled to South Dakota for the massive Sturgis motorcycle rally, and they expect more to come.
And in Northfield, Minn., 17 St. Olaf students were suspended for the fall semester for being at an off-campus party without wearing masks or social distancing. At least one person was infected with COVID-19 and exposed others.
Coronavirus statistics in Minnesota as of Saturday:
68,867 total cases confirmed (746 new), 61,698 off isolation
1,761 deaths (eight new)
316 currently hospitalized; 148 in intensive care
“This is the kind of reckless behavior that will put an end to our in-person semester, and it must stop,” David Anderson, St. Olaf’s president said Friday. “Others in attendance exposed innocent students, like roommates, who are now having to pay a costly price for others’ poor choices.”
His message was directed at students, but it echoed the growing concerns of health leaders generally that Minnesotans are on the wrong path now if they hope to return to life before the virus.
Public health leaders have worried for weeks about Minnesotans carrying COVID-19 back from Sturgis. Among the 15 Minnesota cases confirmed Friday, one person is in the hospital.
More cases are expected to surface in the coming days from the Aug. 7-16 rally, said Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director. She urged anyone who went to self-isolate for 14 days, get tested if they don’t feel well and stay home until they get the test results.
The rally drew some 460,000 people from across the country. Most people didn’t take significant precautions against COVID-19 infections.
Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm had repeatedly expressed concerns that Sturgis would be a petri dish for the disease and that she was disappointed South Dakota had OK’d the rally given that it would attract people from around the country, including places where COVID-19 cases were climbing.
Sturgis, she said as the rally kicked off, will be a “pretty ripe environment for further spread.”
Southern Minnesota cases trending up
Regionally, the Twin Cities and its suburbs have been driving the counts of newly reported cases, although there’s an upswing now in southern Minnesota.
Northern Minnesota cases have been mostly on the rise since early July, although new counts have retreated in recent days. Beltrami County, home to Bemidji, has seen a steady climb the past few weeks. The county reported 291 cases and one death as of Saturday.
Meatpacking operations had been hot spots for big outbreaks in southwest, west-central and central Minnesota earlier in the pandemic.
New cases have slowed considerably in recent weeks, although the problem has resurfaced recently in McLeod County (296 cases), where more than 20 employees at a Seneca Foods plant in Glencoe were identified recently in an outbreak.
Le Sueur and Waseca counties are also seeing big, recent case increases. Le Sueur showed 311 cases and two deaths as of Saturday. Ehresmann said that while there’s been some workplace transmission of the disease, the jumps in those counties is due to community spread.
College concerns grow as fall semester nears
Worries continue about the growth of COVID-19 among younger Minnesotans, including that those infected will inadvertently spread the virus to grandparents and other more vulnerable people.
People in their 20s remain the age group with the highest number of COVID-19 confirmed cases in the pandemic — nearly 16,000. The median age of cases is 36.
State health authorities on Friday urged parents and others to make sure children in their care are up to date in their immunizations.
They reiterated their concern about college students joining end-of-summer parties and other gatherings that could feed the spread of COVID-19 and bring it onto campuses this fall.
Clusters of cases surfaced in late June around college bars, including in Mankato, Minneapolis and St. Cloud. Concerns over similar potential outbreaks are percolating again as the fall semester nears.
University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel announced Friday that she’s proposing that three of the U’s campuses — in the Twin Cities, Rochester and Duluth — begin classes online for at least the first two weeks of school this fall.
Separately on Friday, state officials acknowledged their disappointment at the St. Olaf situation.
“It’s really disappointing to see this kind of behavior just as classes are beginning to start,” said Ehresmann, a St. Olaf graduate.
“I hope that for these students this is an opportunity to learn about the importance of how you make a difference in the community,” she said, “not only what you do in your careers but by the choices that you make.”
Developments from around the state
U of M president proposes online-only start to fall semester
University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel says she’s proposing that undergrads at three U campuses — including the Twin Cities — begin classes online only for at least the first two weeks of school this fall.
The announcement on Friday comes in response to news that several colleges and universities around the country have had to cancel or pause their on-campus learning this week because COVID-19 is spreading among their students.
The proposal to mostly delay in-person undergraduate classes also includes Duluth and Rochester.
It would also delay move-in for students who live in on-campus housing.
The university’s board of regents is expected to take up Gabel’s proposal in a special meeting on Monday.
— MPR News staff
School guidance map shifts again
The evolving COVID-19 pandemic in Minnesota continues to change school reopening recommendations around the state.
In the latest batch of calculations released Thursday, 11 counties saw their recommendations change for the worse if school started today, away from in-person learning for all students, while six counties saw improvements.
St. Louis County, for example, had a two-week total of 7.6 new cases per 10,000 residents in last week’s update. In this week’s update, which covers from July 26 to Aug. 8, St. Louis County averaged 11.5 cases per 10,000 residents.
That changed the recommendation for schools there from in-person learning for all students to in-person learning for elementary students and a mix of in-person and distance learning for upper grades.
Officials say the school reopening recommendations from per-capita case figures are intended to be a starting point for decision-making, with the final calls made by school districts in consultation with the Department of Health.
There’s no geographic pattern to where counties are seeing their recommendations go up or down.
For example, among the nine counties in southwest corner of Minnesota, three saw their recommendation change for the worse in this week’s update, four saw improvements, and two stayed the same.
Overall, 51 counties with about 23 percent of the state’s population currently have a recommendation of in-person learning for all students. Another 26 counties with 32 percent of the state’s population are in the category of in-person learning for elementary students and hybrid learning for secondary students.
Nine counties have case levels high enough to suggest hybrid learning for all students in the Health Department’s rubric — but they include Hennepin, Ramsey, Dakota and Scott counties, and altogether cover 45 percent of the state’s population.
Just one county, Red Lake, is recommended to have elementary students do hybrid learning while secondary students do remote learning full time.
No counties currently have so many cases that they’d be recommended to have all students remote, if school started today.
— David Montgomery | MPR News
Need help with rent, mortgage? Here’s how to get it
Starting Monday, Minnesotans can apply for a slice of the $100 million in rent and mortgage assistance from Minnesota Housing.
The money is intended for Minnesotans who are financially struggling from COVID-19 and meet certain income requirements. Applicants can call 211 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.; staff speaking multiple languages will be on hand.
They can also text 211 and type “MNRENT,” or go online to 211unitedway.org. Once the process begins, applicants can track their status online.The $100 million dollars is from the federal CARES act and can help pay housing costs like rent, mortgage, lot fees in manufactured home parks, and utility payments.
While the money is for both homeowners and renters, Minnesota Housing Commissioner Jennifer Ho said she hopes homeowners are exploring all their options.
“We really encourage people who have a mortgage to reach out to their financial institution, and find out if they are eligible to get forbearance because a lot of financial institutions are offering the ability not to pay right away,” Ho said.
— Melissa Townsend | MPR News
As campus cases rise nationwide, U of M president proposes delaying on-campus start: In a note to the campus community Friday, University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel said that she’s proposing that three of the U’s campuses — in the Twin Cities, Rochester and Duluth — begin classes online for at least the first two weeks of school this fall. The university’s Board of Regents will take up her proposals Monday.
Mayo researcher says clinic’s plasma program is promising, despite top health officials’ concerns: The Rochester, Minn.-based clinic has been studying if plasma from people who’ve recovered from the coronavirus can be used to treat people who are suffering from it. A New York Times article reported some health officials believe the evidence for the treatments is not strong enough to qualify it for emergency use authorization by the FDA. Mayo’s Dr. Scott Wright told Morning Edition host Cathy Wurzer that data from the program can be used to support randomized clinic trials, which offer the highest standard of proof.
Behind on rent? A new $100 million housing assistance program may help: Starting Monday, Minnesotans who are behind in their rent or mortgage can apply for housing assistance intended for those struggling financially because of COVID-19. But there will be challenges in getting the money into the hands of people who need it most, so officials want to enlist landlords to help get out the word.
COVID-19 in Minnesota
Data in these graphs are based off Minnesota Department of Health cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.
The coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.