Gov. Tim Walz remained optimistic Wednesday that COVID-19 vaccination progress will allow Minnesota to scale back restrictions on social and business activities, despite a surge in infections and renewed pressure on hospital bed space.
While the 538 COVID-19 hospitalizations on Tuesday was the highest number in Minnesota since late January — and included 138 people who needed intensive care — Walz said this surge might not result in the same increase in deaths that occurred late last year because so many of the most vulnerable people have received vaccine.
"It looks like there shouldn't be that spike in deaths," said Walz, speaking at a vaccination site at the Mall of America in Bloomington to urge restaurant workers to seek shots.
Minnesota ranked 10th worst among states for its rate of new infections, and 12th worst for the rate of new COVID-19 hospital admissions, according to the latest White House COVID-19 Team state report. However, the state only had the 40th highest rate of COVID-19 deaths in the seven-day period ending April 1.
Hospital leaders have reported fewer deaths and better outcomes among the latest cases — with the average age of hospitalized patients dropping from the mid-60s to the mid-50s — but said the sheer numbers are putting pressure on their capacity at a time when they are treating many non-COVID patients as well.
"The metro hospitals are as tight on beds as we were in late fall at our peak," said Dr. John Hick, a Hennepin Healthcare physician who has advised the state on its pandemic response.
While COVID-19 patients make up a lower percentage of hospitalizations compared to fall, "they are definitely the tipping point," he added. "And the case counts are starting to rise rapidly."
Minnesota remains below the peak of 1,864 COVID-19 patients hospitalized on Nov. 29, but is using more beds for other patients than it was last fall when elective surgeries and procedures were delayed.
"People delayed some of their care because of COVID, so across the state we're seeing an increase in hospitalizations for non-COVID reasons," said Dr. Colleen Swank, clinic vice president for Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota.
Walz said the threat of hospitals becoming overwhelmed gave him pause and prevented him from issuing a target date for scaling back restrictions, but he expected that to happen soon because Minnesota's high vaccination rate will prevent people from suffering severe COVID-19 illnesses.
"If our hospitals become overrun, we can't allow that to happen, and I think most folks know we'll take the appropriate steps necessary," he said. "But what's changing the equation is the vaccines."
The state recently permitted fans at concerts and sporting events, including Thursday's Minnesota Twins home opener, and on April 15 will scale back its work-from-home requirement for applicable businesses to a recommendation.
Capacity restrictions remain in place for bars, restaurants and entertainment venues, though, and Walz's emergency order still requires indoor public mask-wearing.
John Puckett, co-owner of Punch Pizza, spoke at the Walz media event about the importance of vaccinations for restaurant workers, and said he hopes that restrictions will be lifted next month if people can continue to take steps that limit viral transmissions.
"Dig in here for six more weeks," he urged. "We're shooting for Memorial Day, governor. We'd like to have restrictions end by Memorial Day if we can get the metrics positive."
Stephanie Shimp, owner of Blue Plate Restaurant Co., said layoffs have been hard on workers and that she is looking forward to getting them back to work in restaurants and hopefully at the Blue Barn at the Minnesota State Fair this summer. Her company recently held an on-site vaccination event for 130 workers.
"We are on the front lines in a different way than our teachers and nurses," she said.
Some of the pandemic metrics are trending negatively, though.
The state on Wednesday reported a 6.3% positivity rate of diagnostic testing — well above the 5% caution threshold — along with 19 more COVID-19 deaths and 2,004 more infections. The state's totals in the pandemic are now 6,908 deaths and 532,658 infections.
Health officials have said Minnesota is in a race between the new, more infectious variants of the virus that are causing renewed spread of COVID-19, and its vaccination efforts.
So far, 42% of eligible people 16 and older in Minnesota — 1,871,867 people — have received at least a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine. That includes nearly 83% of senior citizens — an initial priority group that has suffered 89% of Minnesota's COVID-19 deaths — and 68.5% of K-12 teachers and child-care educators.
Everyone 16 and older is eligible for COVID-19 vaccination in Minnesota through hospital, clinic, pharmacy, local public health and state sites.
Bars and restaurants have been identified as key sites of large outbreaks over the past year that have then fueled the further spread of COVID-19 in communities. Restrictions as a result have been harshest on this industry, which lost 100,000 workers in Minnesota but has gained about half of them back, said Steve Grove, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
"Getting vaccinated and remaining focused on keeping up social distancing and keeping masks in place to beat this virus is really the pathway forward for this industry," he said.
The state received mixed news this week on its ability to maintain its progress and get closer to its goal of vaccinating 80% of eligible Minnesotans. The state's federally controlled supply of first doses of COVID-19 vaccine will drop from 211,800 doses this week to 141,820 doses next week.
However, that total doesn't include a separate supply from the federal government to participating pharmacies — which amounted to 132,620 doses in Minnesota this week. And Minnesota also separately reached an agreement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to vaccinate 100,000 Hennepin and Ramsey County residents starting April 14 at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds.
Hundreds of vaccinations were postponed Wednesday when storm damage prevented the Minnesota Vikings practice facility in Eagan from being used. Walz announced that vaccinations scheduled at that site later this week will instead be moved to U.S. Bank Stadium. Appointments canceled on Wednesday are being rescheduled as well.
Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744