Minnesota is adding hundreds of new COVID-19 cases every day, but a recent slowing in the growth rate is one reason health officials think the pandemic may be plateauing.
The decline comes as demand has flattened for hospital and ICU beds. It also coincides with an increased testing capacity that has helped the state better identify cases, said Kris Ehresmann, infectious disease director at the Minnesota Department of Health.
Those factors explain why health officials are beginning to think COVID-19 cases in Minnesota might be leveling off — although they are quick to add caution.
“I do think we may have reached a plateau at this point,” Ehresmann said Saturday. “The reason that we’re all so hedge-y is because this is a new virus. … It may decide to go sideways on us.”
She added: “It means that we can feel more comfortable about the opening up that has happened, but it doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all.”
Twenty-two more people have died of COVID-19 in Minnesota, health officials reported Saturday, bringing the statewide toll to 1,170 people. The new deaths include a Ramsey County resident in the age range of 20 to 29 who is the youngest pandemic victim reported thus far in the state.
Whereas most Minnesotans who have died from COVID-19 have been residents of long-term care or had underlying health conditions, Ehresmann said neither was a factor for the young Ramsey County resident.
On Friday, Gov. Tim Walz announced that restrictions designed to slow the spread of COVID-19 would be reduced again this week, with limited resumption of business for indoor restaurants, swimming pools, movie theaters and fitness clubs. After being closed for two months, those businesses can reopen to serve 25% of their capacities.
Churches, hair salons and indoor bars and restaurants can serve up to 50% of their capacities. The changes begin Wednesday; unrelated groups must stay 6 feet apart.
On Saturday, 473 COVID-19 cases required hospitalization, down from 589 just one week ago. Whereas the state reported 263 patients with COVID-19 in intensive care one week ago, the ICU tally on Saturday was down to 206.
The trend is significant but shouldn’t be misinterpreted, said Dr. Tim Sielaff, chief medical officer at Allina Health System. As the state loosens more restrictions this week designed to control the spread of the disease, Sielaff urged people to continue to practice social distancing, wash hands and stay home when sick to control the spread.
“These numbers are good, not because it’s gone away — they’re good because we’ve been doing the right things,” Sielaff said.
The count for positive test results grew by 521 confirmed cases statewide on Saturday. That’s a relatively small number compared with many recent Saturday reports. In all, 27,501 Minnesotans have tested positive for COVID-19.
A Star Tribune review of state data shows averages over recent seven- and 14-day periods also indicate case counts have been trending downward. Jan Malcolm, the state health commissioner, described similar signs to reporters on Friday.
“It appears that we may be at a plateau in case growth,” Malcolm said, adding: “I’m not in a position to say we definitely know now we’re going to have a plateau, not a peak.”
Case counts might increase over the next two to three weeks, she said, following group protests over the May 25 death of George Floyd while in police custody. It’s also possible that the state could see a sustained decline in cases over the next couple of months, although Malcolm said that’s not her expectation.
Even if there’s a plateau in cases, many Minnesotans likely will be infected over the next few months, she said. And there’s great debate over what will happen in the fall or winter.
“Something changed between April and May — we’re in a more stable situation at the present,” Malcolm said. “I would say it’s more likely than not that we will stay in a situation where we’re going to continue to have a fair degree of COVID in the community for quite some time to come, which is why a sustainable strategy of openings of society coupled with some really vigilant public health measures is what we’ve landed on.”
Public health officials say the reported case count in Minnesota understates the number infected and sickened because testing supplies have been limited. Those limits also explain why hospitals can’t be too sure about predicting ICU volumes based on the apparent plateau in cases, Sielaff said.
“It’s just not quite as actionable as we’d like it to be,” he said.
In the wake of Floyd’s death, anyone who attended a demonstration, vigil or community cleanup should get tested right away if they have COVID-19 symptoms, health officials say. The symptoms range from fever, cough and shortness of breath to muscle ache, headache and new loss of taste or smell.
People without symptoms should wait five to seven days after the event. Some who have followed the advice have been turned away from testing nonetheless due to miscommunication or technical problems, Ehresmann said Saturday.
“There were a few hiccups between the time that people heard about being tested and when it was more readily available,” she said. “So, certainly call back and check back with your provider, because things have changed.”
COVID-19 is a viral respiratory illness caused by a new coronavirus that surfaced late last year. Since the first case was reported in Minnesota on March 6, 3,336 people have been hospitalized.
People at greatest risk include those 65 and older, residents of long-term care facilities, and those with underlying medical conditions, which range from lung disease, serious heart conditions and cancer to severe obesity, diabetes and kidney problems requiring dialysis.
A total of 22,253 Minnesotans who were infected with the novel coronavirus no longer need to be in isolation, up from 21,864 people at Friday’s data release.