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The COVID-19 toll continues to grow in Minnesota as seven more deaths reported on Saturday pushed the total over the last three days to 25 — more than one-third the statewide count of 64 deaths since Minnesota's first loss was reported last month.

All seven of those who died were in their 80s or 90s, the Minnesota Department of Health reported Saturday, and six of the seven lived in congregate-care settings.

Even as deaths increase, public health officials Saturday cited an encouraging trend in the state's coronavirus testing data.

About 4% of all tests have come back positive in Minnesota, compared with positive test rates between 7% and 9% in the neighboring Iowa, South Dakota and Wisconsin, said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. Osterholm says the figures suggest that Minnesotans are having more success with staying physically distant in order to stop the disease from spreading.

The difference has been noted at the Minnesota Department of Health, where officials say it's not a function of Minnesota's testing shortage, since all four states have had comparable capacity.

"The fact that we're below Iowa, Wisconsin and South Dakota, and by a pretty substantial number, is indicative that something different is happening here," Osterholm said. "People really have done the distancing that has really slowed this thing down."

State officials said Saturday the number of known COVID-19 cases in Minnesota increased by 91 for a total of 1,427. A total of 145 people currently are hospitalized, compared with 143 on Friday, according to the Health Department. Patients in ICUs stood at 69, compared with 64 intensive-care patients Friday.

Since the first coronavirus case was reported in Minnesota on March 6, a total of 340 people have now been hospitalized, up from 317 on Friday.

Residents of congregate-care facilities now account for 42 of the deaths in Minnesota, or roughly two-thirds of the statewide total.

"We can never forget that these numbers are in fact beloved family members, friends and neighbors who are mourned," Jan Malcolm, the state health commissioner, said in a Saturday statement. "We express our condolences and our commitment to continuing the work of protecting Minnesotans the best we can."

COVID-19 is a viral respiratory illness caused by a new coronavirus that surfaced late last year.

Many with COVID-19 have mild or moderate illness, the Health Department says, and do not require a clinic visit. Most don't require hospitalization. A lack of testing means confirmed case counts understate how many in the state are sick, but there is still some utility in the numbers, the U's Osterholm said.

The fact that tests in Minnesota are coming back positive at a lower rate than in Iowa, South Dakota and Wisconsin is noteworthy, Osterholm said, because the Twin Cities is the largest metropolitan area in the region. Increased transmission of coronavirus has been associated with larger cities, he said.

At week's end, Iowa had slightly more confirmed cases than Minnesota, Osterholm said, even though Minnesota had completed twice the number of tests.

Last week, Gov. Tim Walz extended a stay-at-home order that's meant to slow the spread of the disease to reserve scarce health care resources. It's too early to retreat from that policy, Osterholm said, since cases are still increasing in the state. Daily totals for newly confirmed cases in Minnesota set records four of the last five days.

While Walz has faced criticism for the decision because of concerns about the economic impact, health care leaders have been supportive even as their organizations also experience financial pains.

"Extending the stay-at-home order was a difficult but necessary step to take to ensure we are in the best position possible to continue to save lives in the weeks to come," Dr. Penny Wheeler, the chief executive of Minneapolis-based Allina Health System, said in a statement to the Star Tribune.

Last week, researchers at the U's Carlson School of Management launched a website for tracking death and hospitalization rates from COVID-19 in different states. On Friday, Minnesota had the second-lowest rate of 23 states that report data on current hospitalizations following North Dakota, said Pinar Karaca-Mandic, a health economist who is one of the website's project leads.

Whereas the rate in Minnesota was 3.4 hospitalizations per 100,000 adults as of Friday, the average across all states was 24 per 100,000 adults, Karaca-Mandic said Saturday. In New York, where hospitals struggle to keep pace with patient surges, the rate was 123.9 per 100,000 adults, according to the COVID-19 Hospitalization Tracking Project.

Sixty-seven Minnesota counties have confirmed COVID-19 cases, with state officials on Saturday confirming the first case in Becker County.

The median age for all cases was 52 as of Saturday. The median age for all those who have died was 88.

As of Saturday, whites accounted for 71% of the state's confirmed cases and 78% of all deaths. Blacks accounted for 8% of all cases and 2% of all deaths. The approximate number of tests completed now stands at 35,404.

Christopher Snowbeck • 612-673-4744