ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) — Post-Thanksgiving Covid-19 numbers are trickling in and looking bad for the state of Minnesota, which has once again led the nation in new weekly infections and seen its intensive care beds fill up rapidly.
Minnesota’s Department of Health on Tuesday reported 12,445 new cases over the last seven days, bringing the state’s pandemic-long total to 945,445 positive cases, including reinfections. Forty-five new deaths were also reported, bringing the state’s coronavirus death toll to 9,699.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that Minnesota has the highest rate of new infections in the country over the past week, with 562 cases per 100,000 people.
The spike has put pressure on Minnesota’s health care institutions across the board, filling ICU beds to 98% capacity statewide and putting pressure on the state’s short-staffed nursing homes. Democratic Governor Tim Walz announced Monday that 50 members of the Minnesota National Guard would arrive in the cities of New Hope, Onamia and Fergus Falls to support nursing homes there. He also announced a new training program to place 1,000 certified nursing assistants into the state’s strained long-term care facilities by the end of January.
The state has also opened four alternative care sites to provide post-hospitalization care to Covid-19 patients. A new 17-bed site opened Monday in the southeast-metro city of Hastings.
“It’s very important as Minnesota grapples with the continued delta surge and the uncertainties of the new omicron variant that we continue to do everything we can to support our front-line workers,” Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said in a statement.
“We continue to deploy every resource we have available to support our overworked and understaffed doctors, nurses and long-term care staff who have been fighting on the frontlines of this pandemic for nearly two years,” Walz said in the same statement. “While the National Guard response teams and alternative care sites will provide critical temporary relief, our health care providers cannot bear the stress of any unnecessary spread.”
Walz encouraged Minnesotans to get vaccinated, including with booster shots, and wear masks in public indoor spaces.
Most of Minnesota’s new cases were among its unvaccinated population, which represents just under 30% of the state’s population of people 5 years old and older. Representatives of one of the state’s largest hospital systems, M Health Fairview, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that 72% of the 307 Covid-19 patients in their hospitals were unvaccinated.
Vaccinated people still make up a substantial proportion of the total infections in Minnesota. Forty-two percent of infections reported between Oct. 3 and Nov. 6 were among vaccinated people, according to the Star Tribune. The vaccinated, however, are still outnumbered by the unvaccinated in hospitalizations and deaths.
Dr. Rebecca Wurtz, director of the University of Minnesota’s Public Health Administration and Policy program, said that rather than a spike, Minnesotans were “sort of seeing a rolling boil from Thanksgiving.”
She cited the state’s increasingly divided politics as driving continued vaccine hesitance. “It’s true all over the country that the weather’s getting colder, and that people are going indoors, but I think in Minnesota the thing that’s unique is that we’ve got these kind of purple areas.”
Wurtz also pointed out that booster shots were not recommended for the general population until recently and that supplies quickly ran short. “I think there is a strain on the system,” she said.
While the most new cases were reported in Hennepin County, the state’s largest and home to Minneapolis, the Twin Cities metro area’s suburban counties were not far behind. Hennepin County accounts for 1,948 of the new confirmed cases, but comprises just under a quarter of Minnesota’s total population of 5.6 million. Neighboring Ramsey County, half Hennepin’s size and home to the state capital of St. Paul, had 942 cases. Meanwhile, the suburban counties of Dakota, Anoka and Washington had 725, 660 and 452 confirmed cases, respectively, and hundreds of other probable new cases.
Hennepin County was also the site of one of the country's first cases of the new omicron variant, found in a man who traveled to New York for an anime convention in late November. State health officials identified seven other potential omicron cases, but have ruled the variant out for four of those. Gene-sequencing results for three others are pending. The delta variant remains the dominant strain in Minnesota and across the U.S., according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Omicron’s slow progress, Wurtz said, raised her eyebrows. “We’re two weeks out from first hearing about it from South Africa, and eight days out from the first case here in Minnesota," she said. "I would have expected the state to say ‘yep, four cases, 15 cases.”
Still, she added, caution is the best approach until more is known about the spreading variant.
Minnesota’s divided government has also complicated its Covid-19 response in recent months; a special session of legislature was halted by threats from the Republican-led senate to remove Malcolm from her position. Republicans removed two of Walz’ other cabinet members last summer after failing to put an end to Walz’ emergency powers and in the midst of budget negotiations. Walz ended his emergency powers at the end of June and has said that he does not plan to use them again, in part because doing so would trigger a special session of the legislature and enable the Senate to remove Malcolm.
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