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Tuesday, May 28, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Covid cases spike in Minnesota, with no end in sight

Health officials say the delta variant, stagnant vaccination rates and pandemic fatigue are to blame for the state’s sudden rise in cases.

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — Minnesota went from having one of the lowest Covid-19 infection rates in the country to one of the highest in September, leaving hospitals short on beds and public health officials scrambling to tamp down the spread of the virus. 

Minnesota’s Department of Health reported 2,674 new infections and 32 deaths on Thursday, raising the state’s overall Covid-19 totals to 732,001 infections and 8,275 deaths since March 2020. According to a department spokesperson, cases among children under 12 have risen to 3,000 a week. About 1,970 new infections were found in K-12 schools in the week ending Sept. 25, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and 2,525 in the week before that. 

The state’s newly in-person schools were also a center of a series of outbreaks, defined as cases in which five or more students or staff members in the same building were infectious over a two-week period. The health department reported 405 such outbreaks in the last week, up from 232 in the previous week. 

Covid-19 testing positivity rates have also increased to 7.6%, the highest they have been all year. The state saw a similar rate in April, but neither this spike nor that compares to the heights of 2020, when positivity rates climbed above 10% at points.

The recent bump has put Minnesota on par with fellow Midwestern industrial centers Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio in case rates per capita, a disappointment to health officials after a lengthy period in which Minnesota’s case rates were substantially lower than its neighbors. 

“It’s really a constellation of things,” MDH spokesman Doug Schultz said in an interview Friday morning. “Probably starting back in the summer, when we really started to see the delta variant taking over and becoming the predominant strain in Minnesota-- now, 99% of our cases are the delta variant, so we’re seeing a much more transmissible variant of the virus… at the same time, we still have roughly 30% of Minnesotans who are unvaccinated.” 

Schultz also said that “Covid fatigue” and an increase in in-person gatherings helped push cases up. Schools, he said, were among those. He stressed, however, that the vast majority of cases were occurring in communities where vaccination rates are low. 

Serena King teaches psychology at St. Paul’s Hamline University, focusing on the intersections of psychology and public health. She said that pandemic fatigue is in part a matter of how people think about the risks of going out and taking in dinner, drinks or another event in public. 

“Our mindset may have changed, now that we have more vaccinations available to more people, our risk calculation may have changed,” she said. “You have an evening out of people, basically, making choices as to how they wish to live while they’re vaccinated.” 

Other factors, she said, might include how people perceive prior infections with Covid among themselves or those close to them. 

The unvaccinated, she said, are making yet another risk calculation. “To the extent that we can get medical and mental health providers to engage in active listening and support individuals in their health decision journeys, I think that will be a big positive for our community but also communities around the country. Because ultimately it’s best that people are facilitated in a positive way," she said.

Asked whether there was an end in sight, Schultz deferred.

“If the pandemic and virus has taught us one thing, it’s to not make predictions. I don’t think anyone foresaw-- certainly we were aware of the delta variant emerging in other countries, I don’t think anyone foresaw how transmissible it would be and what its impact would be,” he said. “It’s proved more wily than anybody, I think, really anticipated. So I think I’ll leave the predictions.” 

Democratic Governor Tim Walz addressed the crisis in a letter to state legislators on Wednesday, laying out a collection of issues he hoped they would take up to prevent further spread. Minnesota was under a peacetime emergency from March 2020 through July 1, 2021. Walz’ letter laid out 11 issues to address and two policy recommendations he hoped the legislature would tackle in the absence of an emergency. 

Those included allowing increases to the capacities of hospitals and nursing homes, continuing authorized payouts to child care providers when classrooms need to close due to virus exposure, and reducing the in-person contact necessary to access services like personal care assistance oversight and public assistance. 

“While my administration continues to adapt and respond to emerging issues due to the delta variant, the legislature needs to address a number of issues to keep our students and teachers, families, workers, and communities safe,” Walz wrote in the letter. “In the absence of a peacetime emergency, I urge you to move swiftly to reinstate waivers and enact other relief necessary to allow hospitals, nursing homes and childcare centers to respond to the virus more effectively.”

Walz, who is also pushing to raise Minnesota’s largely stagnant 58.5% vaccination rate, put it in blunter terms in a direct address to Minnesota’s Republican legislators: “I get it, you don’t like this plan,” he said. “What is yours? Doing nothing kills people.” 

He also called for a quick resolution to debate over how to disburse $250 million in direct financial support to frontline workers. State Republicans issued a proposal late in September limiting bonus pay to first nurses, long-term care workers, hospice staff, police, fire and emergency medical workers, and corrections officers. Democrats have advocated an expansion of that pool to include workers in high-risk positions at meatpacking plants, in grocery stores, as janitors and providing daycare services. A bipartisan working group was supposed to submit its recommendations by Sept. 6, but hasn’t done so yet. 

“When the Democrats initially made their proposal, they suggested $1,500 per person,” state Representative Anne Neu Brindley, R-North Branch, said at the Sept. 30 announcement of the GOP proposal. “When you divided that out by their eligible pool of workers, we were looking at about $200. That’s a bait-and-switch. We cannot do that to Minnesotans.” 

Democrats have fired back. Working group chair Ryan Winkler, majority leader for the Democratic Farmer Labor Party-led state House, said Saturday that “the sense of urgency needed to reach an agreement I don’t feel is there from the Republicans at this point.”

Categories / Government, Health, Regional

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