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Live updates: MDH officials say we can see 'the light at the end of the tunnel' with upcoming vaccines

Here are the latest updates on COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

ST PAUL, Minn. — Tuesday, Dec. 1

  • New cases, testing volume both significantly down Tuesday
  • Officials say we are at the endgame of the pandemic with upcoming vaccines 
  • Experts concerned about possible surge after Thanksgiving travel, gatherings
  • Moderna asking regulators to OK its vaccine

2 p.m.

Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Minnesotans have the ability to lessen the impact of COVID-19 by changing their holiday plans and avoiding gatherings.

MDH Infectious Disease Director Kris Ehresmann said the endgame of COVID-19 comes down to the vaccine. There are safe and effective upcoming vaccines that may be available much sooner than initially thought, Ehresmann said.

There were no cuts to safety measurements while the process of the creation of the vaccine was accelerated. Manufacturers were able to speed the process due to technology advancements in the last 10 years, and also were able to recruit people for phase three trials earlier while maintaining a safe timeline, Ehresmann said.

Pfizer and Moderna have submitted public data to the FDA that suggests a high level of efficacy of their vaccines at 95%. 

What follows is determining priority groups for deciding who gets vaccinated first,  Ehresmann said. The guidelines for vaccines in Minnesota is expected to be released in the coming weeks, Ehresmann said.

"We've been talking about the light at the end of the tunnel. It's there, and it's getting closer all the time." Ehresmann said. "As we prepare for that exit we need to focus on making sure as few Minnesotans as possible get COVID in the coming weeks. We want everyone to be in full health to celebrate with us."

Ehresmann said vaccines will not be available right away for children due to the fact that they are a special group and more research needs to be done for that age group.

11 a.m.

New cases of COVID-19 in Minnesota took a steep drop Tuesday, but so did the number of tests processed in labs across the state. 

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) reports 3,570 additional coronavirus cases in the past day, more than 2,000 fewer than were recorded Monday. But testing volume was significantly down, with 22,757 tests (21,995 PCR, 762 Antigen) completed in private and state labs. A positive PCR test is considered a confirmed COVID-19 case, while a positive Antigen test is considered probable. 

MDH says 22 more Minnesotans died from the virus, bring total fatalities to 3,615 since the pandemic began. Of those deaths 2,430, or 67% of them are linked to long-term care or assisted living settings. State health officials have recently expressed great concern that increased community spread across Minnesota will also increase the number of asymptomatic people bringing the virus into facilities that house especially vulnerable populations. 

MDH says 1,446 general care beds across the state are currently occupied by COVID patients, with just 1.8% of Minnesota's total non-ICU beds available. As of Tuesday coronavirus patients are using 394 ICU beds statewide, a new record, but bed availability is up slightly from Monday. In the Twin Cities metro 29 ICU beds are reported as available, while 68 non-ICU beds are open. 

Hospitalizations due to coronavirus have now reached a total of 17,111, with 3,826 of those patients requiring treatment in the ICU.  

Credit: KARE

State health officials say 279,540 people who at one time tested positive for COVID-19 have recovered to the point they no longer require isolation. 

Young people between ages 20 and 24 continue to account for the largest number of Minnesota's COVID-19 cases, with 34,384 and two deaths, while people between 25 and 29 make up 29,458 cases and four fatalities. Those between 85 and 89 are the largest grouping of the state's coronavirus fatalities, with 671 in just 4,082 diagnosed cases. 

Hennepin County has recorded the most COVID activity in the state with 67,913 cases and 1,121 deaths, followed by Ramsey County 28,517 cases and 507 fatalities. Anoka County reports 22,841 cases and 228 deaths, while Dakota County has 22,657 cases and 192 fatalities. 

Cook County has the least COVID activity with just 78 cases and zero fatalities since the onset of the pandemic. 

Monday, Nov. 30

2 p.m.

Gov. Tim Walz held a news conference Monday afternoon to give an update on COVID-19 after a holiday weekend that health officials fear will prompt a new surge in the virus.

"I want to thank everyone who made that effort to socially distance, to stay with your family," Walz said.

The governor said they knew Thanksgiving would be "a tough weekend and the numbers seem to show that."

The governor reminded Minnesotans that the state saw a new single-day record in deaths over the weekend.

"When we passed 101 deaths for one day, it's very shocking to the system, and for each of those families who lost someone," Walz said.

Gov. Walz said he and Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) Commissioner Jan Malcolm plan to begin offering deep-dives on the data every Monday as the virus surges.

Walz said that there is always a data lag between new cases, new hospitalizations and new deaths.

"Where are we at in that process?" he said. "If the direction is going from 5% positivity to 15% positivity, obviously that's going the wrong way."

RELATED: Thanksgiving weekend wraps up with busiest air travel day since March

Minnesota is in the midst of a four-week pause on social gatherings, dine-in restaurant service and other restrictions Gov. Walz implemented ahead of Thanksgiving. Despite federal and local official recommendations to stay home over the holiday weekend, on Sunday the U.S. saw its busiest air travel day since the pandemic began.

Commissioner Malcolm called the record 101 deaths announced Friday "startling." Because there was no data reported Thursday, on Thanksgiving, that number reflected the deaths that were recorded on Wednesday.

Malcolm said that it's important to zoom out and look at high-level trends in the data, especially on days like Monday, which showed a relatively low total of 15 deaths.

"It's human nature for all of us to really glom onto that daily data and look for significance in a given day's number, especially when it's progress," Malcolm said. "But we do need to look at each day in the context of trends."

She pointed out that though 2020 seems long, it's been only nine months since the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Minnesota.

"This remains a very new virus," Malcolm said. "And while we've learned a lot, there is still much more to learn."

Malcolm talked through some of the peaks and valleys of the pandemic thus far in Minnesota.

"We went over the 300,000 case mark this past weekend," she said. That only took two weeks after hitting 200,000 cases, and Malcolm said Minnesota is likely to hit 400,000 case in the next couple of weeks. 

Malcolm said that "things that seemed relatively safe even in August, or even in early October" are now much more risky going into December.

The commissioner said that it remains to be seen if Minnesota is coming down from a peak, or if the state and the country are just in a "wave pattern."

While the test positivity rate is increasing, Malcolm said hospitalizations and deaths have also seen a sharp increase.

"More than a third of Minnesota counties have now had case rates of over 100 weekly cases per 100,000 people," Malcolm said. The high-risk threshold for rapid rate of growth is 10 per 100,000.

The number of people admitted to the hospital since mid-October has tripled, Malcolm said, "far overshadowing" what Minnesota saw in May.

"There are many who will need extra care for serious illness and many having long-term health effects," Malcolm said. "If any of us gets COVID and we don't get seriously ill, we can still pass it onto someone who does get seriously sick or even die."

Malcolm said that people not taking the virus seriously because they see themselves as low risk "is a gamble that we and the people we love may end up regretting."

Minnesota hospitals are seeing "real capacity constraints" and a lot of pressure from all the COVID-19 admissions.

"It's becoming more difficult and (they're) needing to move patients farther and farther away from their homes to get the level of care they need," Malcolm said. "Many of them are at or almost at capacity recently."

That capacity problem is not just caused by a lack of available beds, Malcolm clarified, but with a lack of health care workers to staff them. 

Malcolm also warned that the high rates of community spread are beginning to overflow into long-term care facilities.

"We see cases trending up" in all different types of assisted living facilities, Malcolm said. She said assisted living facilities had over 4,000 resident cases as of Nov. 29.

Malcolm said that with the recent growth in cases, Minnesota is likely to continue seeing an increase in deaths in the upcoming weeks.

"This is the worst spot we've been in since March, and that's what the data tells us," she said. "We know that COVID-19 is a major problem all across the country. Even so, the upper Midwest has been hit particularly hard these recent weeks."

Malcolm said that while Minnesota was once doing better than many other states, "unfortunately that's now changed." Minnesota's rate of case growth means it now has more cases per population than New York, Florida, Arizona or Texas.

"We are a hot spot," she said.

Malcolm urged Minnesotans to refrain from gathering for the holidays, knowing that the restrictions will not last forever.

"We now know that there is light at the end of this tunnel," she said. "We know that we can look forward to better days in 2021. But we want to get to that point as quickly, and with as many of our fellow Minnesotans not only alive, but healthy, as we can."

MDH expects any potential impact of Thanksgiving gatherings to be felt on hospitalizations in two to four weeks, Malcolm said.

"For those who did gather, we would obviously urge people to keep close track of their symptoms and consider getting a test five to seven days after you had that gathering," she said. "People can then isolate and quarantine as needed."

Hospitals keep reinforcing that "really there is no breaking point" in their conversations with MDH about capacity, Malcolm said.

"They will continue to adjust every day, every shift as they need to," she said. "But what it does mean is that care that can be deferred, gets deferred. ... Our systems are working just incredibly hard to make the most of the capacity that they have."

Malcolm said that hospitals will continue to treat the most urgent cases, but that will come at the cost of deferring less urgent care, and moving people farther and farther away from home in order to find that care for them.

Walz said that "anecdotally" it looks like Minnesotans did fairly well staying home for Thanksgiving, while travel numbers nationwide were high.

"I think the guidance around Thanksgiving is going to be very similar around Christmas," he said. In the next four weeks, Walz said, he does not anticipate enough of an improvement in the circumstances for that to change.

Walz said he believes that getting the vaccine distributed will take months, into March and April, even if it starts rolling out by the end of the year.

Gov. Walz addressed a question about allowing cocktails-to-go for struggling bars and restaurants, saying that it's an issue that should be handled by the state legislature instead of an executive order. Walz said he would support them if they came to an agreement on it.

Walz said Minnesota is actively working on a plan for ethical vaccine distribution. Commissioner Malcolm added that the state will have a role in "customizing" the federal guidelines, but there will be a framework coming down from the federal government.

MDH has asked the federal government to make that framework as specific as possible "in the interest of time," Malcolm said.

11 a.m.

Hospitals in the Twin Cities metro are nearly full as health care workers brace for another potential surge of COVID-19 patients stemming from holiday gatherings.

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) reported 5,801 new COVID cases and 15 more deaths from the virus on Monday.

That brings the total number of cases in Minnesota since the pandemic began to 318,763, and the number of fatalities to 3,593.

MDH keeps track of both PCR test results and antigen test results. Of Monday's 5,801 new cases, 5,493 were from PCR tests - considered "confirmed" cases - and 308 were from antigen tests, considered "probable" cases.

As of Sunday, the most recent numbers available, 1,840 hospital beds across Minnesota were in use by COVID-19 patients. Three hundred ninety-two of those were in the ICU. So far 16,791 of Minnesota's total coronavirus cases have been hospitalized, 3,779 of those requiring intensive care.

Public MDH data shows 25 ICU beds and 100 total non-ICU hospital beds currently available in the metro. Although that's more than the three ICU beds available in northwestern Minnesota and the four available in south central Minnesota, it's a much smaller percentage of total beds. In the metro, that means only 3.6% of ICU beds are currently open, and 2.7% of regular hospital beds. More hospital capacity data can be found on the MDH website.

Health officials in Minnesota and nationally have warned of another COVID-19 surge and further strain on the hospital system, after many families and friends were expected to gather for Thanksgiving despite recommendations from federal and state health officials to do otherwise.

Credit: KARE
New COVID-19 cases in Minnesota as of Nov. 30, 2020.

The most common cause of transmission for Minnesota COVID-19 cases is community spread with no known contact with a case, making up 58,433 of the cases. People who had known contact with a case represent 52,221 cases.

Health officials are still working to find the source of transmission for 135,522 cases, a number that has kept growing as the rate of case growth has risen.

Hennepin County has the most cases in the state with 67,336 and 1,116 deaths from the virus, followed by Ramsey County with 28,256 cases and 505 deaths. Anoka and Dakota Counties have recorded 22,583 and 22,414 cases respectively.

Young adults remain the age group with the most coronavirus cases, a fact that led Gov. Tim Walz to target recent restrictions at the places where those people are believed to be gathering. As of Monday, 34,122 cases had been confirmed among people ages 20-24, with only two deaths in that group.

KARE 11’s coverage of the coronavirus is rooted in Facts, not Fear. Visit kare11.com/coronavirus for comprehensive coverage, find out what you need to know about the Midwest specifically, learn more about the symptoms, and see what businesses are open as the state slowly lifts restrictions. Have a question? Text it to us at 763-797-7215. And get the latest coronavirus updates sent right to your inbox every morning. Subscribe to the KARE 11 Sunrise newsletter here. Help local families in need: www.kare11.com/give11

The state of Minnesota has set up a data portal online at mn.gov/covid19.