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Minnesota has lost 15,000 people to COVID-19, a number bigger than the population of Brainerd and a sobering marker in the state's 3½-year struggle with the infectious disease.

The 274 days since the last 1,000 milestone is the longest in the COVID era, reflecting the diminished risk from a coronavirus that has evolved into less virulent forms. It only took 14 days to surge from 4,000 to 5,000 COVID deaths in December 2020, before vaccines were widely available.

Infectious disease experts said the latest number is a new reminder of the need to take precautions, including newly formulated vaccine boosters that better protect against the latest variants. Minnesota's weekly update on Thursday reported exactly 15,000 deaths in which COVID was lab-confirmed, along with another 466 in which COVID was referenced in death certificates but not confirmed.

"All of us know someone who has died from COVID in Minnesota," said Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. "It's our grandpas and our grandmas, our moms and our dads, our brothers and our sisters and ... even our kids. That's what is to be remembered in the 15,000."

More than two Minnesotans are dying every day from COVID right now, an increase from one every four days at one point this summer. The 231 hospitalizations related to COVID on Tuesday also were the highest since early April and an increase from 41 on July 3.

Still, the latest figures bring Minnesota back to spring 2023 levels of COVID, which were low enough to prompt federal health authorities to lift the nation's public health emergency response to the pandemic.

Nancy Passofaro-Nelson and her husband, Bob, found the oldest geocache, called Mingo, as a safe outdoor activity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Passofaro-Nelson’s underlying health conditions put her at risk, and she died when she eventually...
Nancy Passofaro-Nelson and her husband, Bob, found the oldest geocache, called Mingo, as a safe outdoor activity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Passofaro-Nelson’s underlying health conditions put her at risk, and she died when she eventually...

Courtesy Bob Nelson

Nancy Passofaro-Nelson had "laid low" at home in Bloomington for three years of the pandemic because she had painful medical conditions and took medications that wrecked her immune system and prevented her from being vaccinated against COVID-19, said her husband, Bob Nelson. Then the 70-year-old woman met a relative in April who had COVID, though she didn't know it.

"Nancy had no resistance to it," Nelson said. "So she died."

The relative safety of being outdoors made geocaching a popular activity for the couple, who over time found 14,000 hidden treasures. Nelson gave the moniker "Best Girl" to his wife, which caught on in the local geocaching community because she was such a warm person and dogged searcher of some of the hardest-to-find caches in Minnesota.

"She had enormous ability to stick to it until she found it," her husband said.

Geocachers will gather at Whitetail Woods Regional Park Friday night to remember Passofaro-Nelson, who died May 20. A cache has been hidden in Edina in her memory as well, called the "Nancy A Best Girl Tribute."

Age and underlying health conditions have been elevated risk factors since the start of the pandemic. People 65 and older made up 83% of Minnesota's deaths in the entire pandemic but 92% of the 939 COVID deaths so far in 2023.

Osterholm said some have questioned whether deaths associated with other conditions should be called COVID deaths, but there is little question that the infection caused them — like a match sparking a fire in dry timber.

"That's what it is like with COVID," he said. "You can have a lot of underlying conditions. That's not what kills you. It's the match. It's the COVID that does it."

Health officials haven't forecast a wintertime COVID surge akin to 2020 or 2021, but they remain concerned because each new variant brings uncertainty and the possibility of more severe illness. The XBB.1.5 variant was dominant for several months in 2023 when COVID was at its mildest, but a sampling of positive specimens found it in only 9% of cases by late August.

While the latest COVID vaccine boosters were formulated against XBB.1.5, federal authorities authorized them based on data indicating they would work against the newly circulating strains.

Shipments of new boosters have been slow to arrive in Minnesota, and right now demand is greater than supply. A spokesman said the Walgreens pharmacy chain is working with distributors "to ensure stores have the necessary supply to support the demand," and that its app and website are updated with real-time appointment availability.

St. Cloud-based CentraCare has received no vaccine to offer at its clinics yet, but they had some initial supplies to boost immunity in its health care workforce.

Dr. George Morris, who led CentraCare's pandemic response, urged people to seek the recommended vaccinations and stay at home when sick and take COVID tests. Those actions can help themselves and protect others who are vulnerable, he added.

"Let's slow down the pace of this and decrease how many people die," he said.