Updated 3:40 p.m.
With the count of new active COVID-19 cases on the upswing and hospital and intensive care beds starting to fill again, state officials on Wednesday pleaded with Minnesotans to do the right things to stop the disease’s spread.
In what’s become a constant refrain, public health authorities implored people to wear masks in indoor public spaces, socially distance, wash their hands and generally stay out of crowds even as they acknowledged that many are numbing to the need to stay vigilant.
At one point, as state infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann urged people to explore alternatives to traditional Halloween celebrations and trick-or-treating to avoid the disease, she conceded: “Man, I feel like the public health buzzkill” before noting, “it’s actually the virus that’s the buzzkill here.”
Hospitalizations climb back to August levels
Ehresmann’s remarks came hours after the Health Department reported the daily count of people in the hospital and the subset needing intensive care — two metrics closely watched by public health authorities — had risen significantly.
Both were trending down in early September but have been pushing back up in recent days. While they remain far lower than their late-May peak, hospitalizations are back up to where they were in August when daily counts averaged more than 300.
Wednesday’s data showed current hospitalizations (303) back up above that threshold, while the count of intensive care patients (148) was the highest it’s been in a month.
Newly confirmed cases are rising not simply because of testing, which remained low in Wednesday’s report. Cases are growing faster than tests, and the positivity rate is rising. The number of active confirmed cases is at 6,608 with a seven-day average of 6,232, near the high of early September.
The state reported another 690 cases Wednesday, bringing the total to 92,100 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Minnesota so far. About 91 percent have recovered to the point they no longer need to be isolated.
Six more deaths reported Wednesday bring Minnesota’s toll in the pandemic to 1,985 people. About 72 percent had been living in long-term care or assisted living facilities, most had prior health problems.
Ehresmann and other health officials are expecting cases to rise further from get-togethers and other informal events during the Labor Day weekend, when people may have let down their guard against COVID-19.
They also have a new set of concerns — state high school sports officials on Monday agreed to stage fall seasons in football and volleyball weeks after saying they would postpone those seasons so as not to spread the disease.
Health leaders know what they’re asking of people is an inconvenience. “But we are in a pandemic and we have to pull together to make it through,” Dr. Ruth Lynfield, the state’s epidemiologist, told reporters Wednesday.
Worries rise around college students, kids
People in their 20s make up the age bracket with the state’s largest number of confirmed cases — topping 21,600 since the pandemic began, including more than 12,500 infections among people ages 20-24.
The numbers help explain why experts remain particularly concerned about young adults as spreaders of the virus.
While less likely to feel the worst effects of the disease and end up hospitalized, experts worry youth and young adults will spread it to grandparents and other vulnerable populations and could also hamper attempts to reopen campuses completely to in-person teaching.
The number of high school-age children confirmed with the disease has also grown, with more than 8,600 total cases among children ages 15 to 19 since the pandemic began.
With many schools in Minnesota attempting to teach in-person, officials say they are especially concerned about the rising numbers of teens becoming infected and how that could affect decisions to keep school buildings open.
Earlier this week, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said her department is receiving more than 60 reports daily of new cases affecting schools, although that doesn’t mean the spread is taking place at the school.
“We’re very concerned about what we’re seeing in the data. Educators have worked very hard to create a safe working plan, but the plan only works if we’re working together,” Ehresmann said Wednesday, adding that “it won’t be too much longer until many schools have difficult decisions to make.”
Lynfield also noted that the state has now recorded 25 cases in mostly young children of multi-system inflammatory syndrome, a condition that has killed some children in other states. In Minnesota, the median age of those cases is 4 years old, and three-fourths of the victims have Black and Latino children. No child here has died from it.
‘Virus doesn’t care where the state line is’
Regionally, southern and central Minnesota and the Twin Cities suburbs have driven much of the increase in new cases while Hennepin and Ramsey counties show some of the slowest case growth in the state.
Hot spots have included southwestern Minnesota, where 75 cases have been traced to a late-August wedding in Lyon County that officials describe now as the state’s largest single social spreader event.
On Wednesday, Ehresmann said investigators have identified 35 cases tied directly to a recent funeral in Martin County, and they expect more. Seventeen other cases are linked to the church where the funeral services were held, including cases among church staff.
Southeastern Minnesota, specifically Winona, has been another hot spot as students return to college at Winona State and other schools. The problem has been compounded by similar outbreaks nearby across the Mississippi River at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse.
The virus doesn’t care where the state line is,” Ehresmann said. “The virus cares about where people are gathering together.”
Developments around the state
Judge seems skeptical of mask mandate challenge
A federal judge gave a skeptical airing Wednesday to a lawsuit challenging Gov. Tim Walz’s mask mandate on several grounds.
U.S. District Court Judge Patrick Schiltz heard arguments in the case attempting to prevent enforcement of the Minnesota requirement that people wear face coverings in public indoor spaces amid the pandemic.
Schiltz sharply challenged lawyer Erick Kaardal, who brought the case, over his contention that the mandate conflicts with another law making it illegal for people to conceal their identity with a mask or another disguise. The judge said the likelihood that law would come into play in these times.
“To prosecute someone in a pandemic for wearing a mask who is trying to comply with an order and who is trying to protect their health and who is trying to protect the health of their neighbors, you think that would be reasonable?” Schiltz asked Erick Kaardal, who represents the Minnesota Voters Alliance and several individuals.
Kaardal said the two directives need to be reconciled.
“The court represents ordinary people. How would ordinary people interpret this?” Kaardal said. “It looks to me like the state Legislature didn’t want people concealing their identity in public.”
He filed the case on the grounds that the mask rules could have ramifications at polling places, but the legal effort goes far beyond that.
The judge and Kaardal had several tense exchanges during the nearly three-hour hearing. One came as discussion turned to whether the mask mandate violates First Amendment rights related to free expression.
“According to your logic, you’re unpatriotic if you don’t believe everyone should wear a mask everywhere,” Kaardal said to Schiltz.
“I didn’t and would never use the word ‘patriotic’ in an argument. It has nothing to do with the issues before me. That’s a moral judgment that it’s not my job to make,” Schiltz replied.
“I’m saying the logic of your position, Mr. Kaardal, is if there is a criminal law out there that says X is a crime and you have every way possible to express your opposition to that law. What your position is that you also have a First Amendment right to express your opposition by violating that criminal law,” he continued. “I’m saying I’m unaware of any case that so holds.”
Schiltz didn’t rule on any matters in the case but told attorneys, including for the government entities named as defendants, that he was leaning against impeding the mask requirement on constitutional grounds.
The case is one of several pending challenges to executive actions Walz has taken to respond to COVID-19’s spread.
— Brian Bakst | MPR News
Health officials confirm armed group confronted COVID-19 testing team
State officials on Monday confirmed a report that health workers conducting random COVID-19 testing were recently confronted by armed residents in a Minnesota neighborhood.
The Health Department hasn’t said when or where the incident occurred.
The department, though, did report the incident to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, Dan Huff, an assistant health commissioner, told reporters.
The survey team, he said, was confronted by three men, one of them armed. Surveyors “left the situation as soon as they could,” he added.
— MPR News Staff
Virus spread shifts the school guidance map
The evolving COVID-19 pandemic in Minnesota continues to change school reopening recommendations around the state.
The most recent batch of recommendations, released Thursday, cover cases from Aug. 23 to Sept. 5 — a period that happened to see a late-August spike in new COVID-19 cases.
The result? A full 25 counties saw their COVID-19 case counts slip past one of the Health Department’s thresholds, changing their recommendation toward more distance learning for more students.
In the most recent update, six counties are recommended to have all students do full-time distance learning: Blue Earth, Lyon, Stevens, Waseca, Winona and Yellow Medicine counties. All but Waseca County were previously recommended to allow at least some in-person learning.
Not every county got worse. Eleven counties saw their case rates improve compared to last week’s results, and saw their recommendation shift to more in-person learning.
Overall, 24 largely rural counties have a recommendation of in-person for all students.
A formula produced by the Health Department generates the guidance for districts to help decide whether to have in-person learning, distance learning, or a mix, based on the rate of COVID-19 cases in that district’s county over a two-week period.
These recommendations are only considered the starting point for school districts, which make their own learning plans in cooperation with the Health Department.
Minnesota’s yo-yoing COVID-19 case numbers in recent weeks have meant some drastic swings in school districts’ safe learning recommendations, but state health officials say they’re taking the data irregularities into account when working with schools to set learning plans.
Because Minnesota’s calculation uses weeks-old data and calculates cases by the day a person got tested rather than the day the tests were reported, this update is not affected by recent reporting delays caused by the Labor Day weekend.
— David H. Montgomery | MPR News
Free testing planned in several communities
The Minnesota Department of Health is offering free COVID-19 testing in several communities across Minnesota later this week.
You don’t need insurance or identification to get tested; it’s open to anyone, though officials said it’s intended to serve the local community.
Testing takes place Wednesday in Grand Rapids, Wednesday and Thursday in Pine City and Waseca, and Thursday and Friday at Mount Olivet Baptist Church in St. Paul.
Pre-registration is encouraged. Find more information online on the Health Department’s COVID-19 community testing page.
— MPR News Staff
State opens first COVID-19 saliva testing facility in Duluth: Until this week, getting tested for COVID-19 in Minnesota has meant a bit of discomfort — and a long swab to the back of the nose.
Minnesota high school football, volleyball OK’d for fall seasons: The Minnesota State High School League in August decided to postpone those seasons due to COVID-19 but changed course on Monday. Both seasons are expected to start Sept. 28, with an 11-week season for volleyball, and a 10-week season for football.
COVID-19 in Minnesota
Data in these graphs are based on the Minnesota Department of Health’s cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.