The reported pace of coronavirus case growth in Minnesota continued to slow on Saturday, one day after the state saw the lowest positivity rate for SARS-CoV-2 tests on record.
Both are indicators that COVID-19 is slowing significantly as Minnesotans head into the summer months.
"Right now, we're in a good place," said Kris Ehresmann, the Minnesota Department of Health's director for infectious diseases. "We've seen our case numbers decline. We've seen the test positivity rate decrease. We're seeing incremental improvements in vaccination levels. So, all of those things are good."
The Health Department on Saturday reported 302 new coronavirus cases and 16 more deaths linked to COVID-19. The seven-day rolling average for net new cases fell to 187 new infections per day, its lowest level since late April 2020, according to the Star Tribune's coronavirus tracker.
On Friday, the state's official positivity rate — meaning the share of tests coming back positive — fell to just 3%, the lowest reading since Minnesota started reporting the rate in late March 2020.
"That is an incredibly positive sign," said Dr. Andrew Olson, director of COVID hospital medicine at M Health Fairview's University of Minnesota Medical Center. The positivity rate is "a key marker to know how widespread community transmission is."
The statewide rate is subject to a data lag, and there are signs that an even smaller share of tests has been coming back positive in recent days. The positivity rate for tests conducted at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester held below 2% over the past week and dropped to as low as 0.3% on one day, said Matthew Binnicker, director of clinical virology.
The numbers make Binnicker think a surge in coronavirus cases is "very unlikely" this summer through early fall. He worries, though, that if a significant number of Minnesotans remain unvaccinated, cases could rise again with the onset of colder weather in late fall and winter.
"The numbers are headed in the right direction right now, but we can't be lulled into complacency," he said. "This is really the time when we've got to build up our defenses as high as possible."
Data released Saturday show that about 65% of residents age 16 and older have now received at least one dose of vaccine. Although the vaccination pace has been slowing, more than 2.6 million people have now completed a one-dose or two-dose vaccine series.
Gov. Tim Walz appeared Saturday outside Urban League Twin Cities in north Minneapolis to promote vaccination among communities of color. It was an example, he said, of how the state is trying to make it easier for people to get immunized.
The event was hosted by the Urban League along with Attorney General Keith Ellison and NorthPoint Health & Wellness, a nearby clinic. More than 50% of NorthPoint patients are African American and 30% are Latino, said chief executive Stella Whitney-West. Yet those groups account for a disproportionately small share of all vaccine recipients at the clinic — 26% and 20% respectively, she said.
"There's a disparity there," Whitney-West said. "We've already vaccinated over 13,500 folks ... but we've got more work to do."
In the past few weeks, Minnesota has lifted several measures designed to mitigate the spread of SARS-CoV-2, such as a mask mandate and capacity limits on venues. Health officials are watching whether those changes drive an increase in cases.
"My thinking is that because our vaccination levels are higher, and they keep increasing, that that will help to tamp any impact of the opening up," Ehresmann said. "But I just want to acknowledge that ... that could change based on what happened in the last few weeks."
Since Minnesota started detecting virus infections in March 2020, the state has reported 602,428 positive cases, 32,208 hospitalizations and 7,461 deaths. As with cases, hospitalizations for COVID-19 patients have been on the decline since April
There hasn't been a similar decline in deaths. Since early February, the average daily number of deaths in the state from COVID-19 has hovered between five and 12, according to the Star Tribune coronavirus tracker.
The daily death counts are much lower than they were earlier in the pandemic, noted Olson of M Health Fairview. Still, it's likely that people will continue to die of COVID-19 "for quite a while," he said, so long as many residents remain unvaccinated.
Olson said there are still equity concerns, but the success of the vaccination campaign is clear.
"Things are at a place where we can breathe deeply again," Olson said. "This is one of the biggest public health victories our country has seen in a long time."
Christopher Snowbeck • 612-673-4744